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BOSTONIANS OF THE YEAR

The Influential

From health insurance overhauls to gay-adoption politics, Peter Meade inserted himself into the year's biggest debates - and got results.


(Illustration by Johanna Goodman)

So you had a busy year. Started a new job, had A BABY, bought a house, maybe discovered a few stem-cell lines. Even so, you’d be hard-pressed to match the to-do list of one roundish, bespectacled Dorchester native and former WBZ radio talk-show host. Pick some of this year’s thorniest issues, and Peter Meade was in the middle of them. A groundbreaking health insurance plan – check. Catholic Charities of Boston abandoning adoption work to avoid working with gay parents – check. Cardinal Sean O’Malley reviewing local parish closings – check. Progress, though tortuously slow, along what’s supposed to be the city’s jewel of the future, the Rose Kennedy Greenway – check. Even when 2,000 Boston-area Jews gathered in Brookline to show their solidarity with Israel, there was Meade, Catholic activist and first-generation Irish-American, leading a "We support Israel" chant. All of this, and he still fulfilled his job as executive vice president of corporate affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, a job that creates its share of enemies – especially when the insurer predicts a double-digit rate hike in 2007.

Meade’s deep civic roots trace back to the 1970s, when Mayor Kevin White threw the 29-year-old into the job of public safety coordinator of Boston Public Schools in the midst of the city’s busing crisis. The experience helped earn Meade the label of trouble-shooter, a label he carried better than ever in 2006. Yet, if you were to walk down any street in Boston and ask strangers who Peter Meade is, you’d probably get blank stares. Jack Connors? Yes, know him. Jack Welch? Of course. Gloria Larson? Sure. Peter Meade? Who? "I’ve been a radio host," the 60-year-old Meade says. "I don’t crave the spotlight now."

But there are moments when it finds him anyway. Meade was one of six children raised Catholic by a jail-guard father and homemaking mother. So what’s a good Catholic to do when the same church that made him the man he is decides to do something that goes against everything he believes in? Lead a revolt. When Catholic Charities announced last spring that after 103 years of placing children with adoptive parents that it would abandon the business altogether rather than continue to place children with gay parents and go against the Vatican’s teaching, Meade resigned his board position at the organization; several other board members followed. "It was very difficult," Meade now says of the decision. "And also very clear to me. Part of the difficulty was the admiration I have for Cardinal Sean." But, he says, he couldn’t ignore the gay parents who had already adopted children through Catholic Charities. "I couldn’t look them in the eye."

That was Peter Meade, Catholic and community leader. What he did for healthcare in the state was Peter Meade, power broker. After state legislators came tantalizingly close to approving a health insurance plan to cover uninsured residents – only to see the deal nearly die – Meade and Connors, the board chairman of Partners HealthCare, joined forces with a small group of business leaders in March. They devised a strategy in which businesses with 11 or more employees and no healthcare coverage would have to pay a $295 levy per full-time worker. Voila: law. Though he downplays his role, quoting others before him – "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan" – he acknowledges it was fulfilling to be in the middle of such an important act that now has others states asking: How’d you do that? Maybe if every state had a Peter Meade, a lot more would get done.

Doug Most is the editor of the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at dmost@globe.com.

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