Citing his leadership capabilities as former chief of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the Obama administration, Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick today vowed to make improved investments in education, transportation, health care and poverty alleviation his top agenda items if elected to the “Corner Office” later this year.

“Those investments would really pay off to create the kind of communities we all want to be in, live in and pass on to our kids,” said Berwick, a Newton resident and one of five declared Democratic candidates in the governor’s race, during a wide-ranging roundtable discussion at the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service at Suffolk University Law School. “Those are central to my thinking.”

Berwick, a physician and Heinz Foundation Award recipient who co-founded the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, was the first speaker in a nine-part Rappaport Roundtable series, which runs until March.

Health care

While acknowledging that Massachusetts is the best place in the world for high-end health care, Berwick said that high costs have made it necessary to rebuild the state’s health care environment through initiatives including a “single-payer” system.

“I want to take a serious look at that in the state, because it may be a way for us to be a pioneer with respect to really revolutionizing the way we give care and the way we need to go,” Berwick said, adding he did not support the rationing of health care. “I'm proud that we have made health care a human right; now we have to make it effective for us and our communities. These are big, big challenges but we can do it in the state. We can get it done.”

Berwick said greater efforts is needed to promote regional equity throughout the state and boost employment opportunities for local communities, including working closely with labor union leaders, reducing health care costs, making the regulatory climate more respectful and opening dialogues with business communities.

Casino concerns

Yet Berwick lashed out at the concept of boosting Massachusetts economic growth through casino gaming, stressing that small businesses would be hurt the most by casinos. Berwick said that his experience with patients demonstrated the reality of gambling addiction and that casinos would create a “whole new burden” of mental health issues.

“It’s not what I want to say to my kids or my grandchildren, that this is the way to grow,” he said, adding the state’s Gaming Commission would “have a governor with them absolutely every step of the way to make sure this bill is as clean as it possibly could” be if a referendum to reverse the law doesn't pass.

Education

Berwick added that the state’s “keystone” investment would be in education and that the groundwork for this would lie in restoring respect for teachers.

Clean energy & climate change

In the wake of Gov. Deval Patrick unveiling a $50 million climate-change preparation plan, Berwick said that he would appoint a “czar” of climate adaptation to better equip Massachusetts in climate preparedness, especially in the wake of storms like Hurricane Sandy. Berwick also threw his support behind Patrick’s clean-energy initiatives, including the Global Warming Solutions Act and off-shore wind development.

Clean energy “is the new biotechnology opportunity for the state,” he said.

Criminal justice

Asked how he would address issues affecting the state’s criminal justice system, Berwick said people who are incarcerated or at risk for being incarcerated should be given additional chances to re-enter society as productive contributing citizens.

“We need to look very hard at giving people alternatives for correction than the prison system,” he said. “It'll pay off in safe communities, lower recidivism rates and a sense of better justice and equity.”

Having served as a physician for more than three decades, Berwick said that he would be a strong defender of mental health services as governor and would push to address the growing issue of substance abuse.

While Berwick said he supported the availability of medical marijuana in the state and would “decriminalize” marijuana if elected, he was hesitant to throw his support behind full legislation of the drug.

Governor as manager

Berwick said he grew up in a town – Moorus, Connecticut – where everybody helped one another, and this experience guides his manner of leadership.

“My management style is to find the best people you can and support them totally,” he said. “It is really, really important, especially in times of growing inequity in society, for the public to look at its government and its leadership and see the same profile of faces and lifestyle and ethnicity they know they have. You will see that in my administration.”

Berwick, who said that he is meeting with “as many reps and senators as I possibly can” said he would approach the governor’s office ”with humility but also with confidence” if elected.

“I say this state can be a beacon,” he said, “A beacon for the country and for ourselves about the solution to tough problems.”

The Rappaport Roundtable series is made possible with the support of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.