The former ambassador to Denmark has some ideas for Massachusetts

That's why Rufus Gifford is running for Congress.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford is running for Congress in Massachusetts
Former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford is running for Congress in Massachusetts. –Courtesy of the Gifford campaign

There are a lot of candidates hoping to be the Democratic nominee in the open race for Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District seat this year. Rufus Gifford thinks he is uniquely qualified.

Gifford declared his candidacy to succeed Rep. Niki Tsongas last November and, like many Democrats across the country, cited the election of President Donald Trump as the reason he decided to “step up.” But unlike other candidates, he says his candidacy is based on the experiences and lessons he learned during the more than three years he served as the United States’ ambassador to Denmark.

For the majority of President Barack Obama’s second term, Gifford was America’s “rock star” diplomat in the small Scandinavian country, where he enjoyed widespread publicity and was even the subject of a 10-episode Netflix documentary series. Following Trump’s inauguration, the former Obama campaign aide moved back home and now lives with his husband in Concord.

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Gifford grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea and says he has a long history of family roots in 3rd District towns like Andover, Chelmsford, and Concord. The 43-year-old says that, on the surface, Denmark and his home state feel very similar.

“It’s very Yankee in some ways,” Gifford said in an interview, of Danish society. “Not very flashy, somewhat conservative financially, very rules-based.”

The physical climate and geography are also similar, he said. However, there’s “an enormous difference” between Scandinavian and American society Gifford would like to change: Trust in government.

“That sounds like a really broad thing to say, but it impacts all of the other issues,” he said. “This is why they pay high taxes, because they trust government to invest their money wisely. They trust government to take care of them, to have their backs from cradle to grave, whereas as we trust government considerably less. It’s why our taxes are much lower, because we want to make our own decisions.”

The relative efficacy of those divergent approaches is up for debate.

Gifford isn’t campaigning for a full-on Nordic welfare state in Massachusetts, much less the United States. What works in a small, very homogenous country of 5.7 million people doesn’t always translate across oceans. That said, there are some things he experienced in Denmark that, if elected, he would like to replicate at home.

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It begins with rebuilding public trust — in government, other institutions, people — which is a concept Gifford says he is “obsessed with” and originally wanted to frame his campaign around. Now, that emphasis on rebuilding trust is a backdrop for the rest of his platform and the more concrete proposals, shaped by his time in Denmark, he has for the future of Massachusetts.

Restoring the region’s manufacturing industry

“When I was ambassador, I woke up every morning and stared at offshore wind turbines,” he said. “The concept of offshore wind [was] a day-to-day part of the Danish reality-slash-economy. They were 40 percent renewable on an average year, and increasing, which is remarkable.”

Gifford thinks offshore wind could be a reality in Massachusetts, too, with big benefits for the district he hopes to represent. As ambassador, he hosted two Massachusetts delegations in Denmark to sell local lawmakers on the idea and, in turn, brought Danish businesses to Boston to get them to invest in local businesses. Gifford says the meeting helped facilitate the Danish company-backed Bay State Wind bid for the proposed wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard.

The United States currently only has one offshore wind farm: a five turbine project off Block Island. The proposed Martha’s Vineyard project would be multitudes bigger. The problem is that the turbines have high transportation costs. In Gifford’s green jobs plan, which his campaign released Tuesday, he envisions the manufacturing industry returning home to the 3rd District in the form of high-paying jobs producing clean energy products, such as those wind turbines.

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“The third district has a proud manufacturing history; affordable industrial and commercial real estate; existing human capital; easy access to Boston; and a strong network of community colleges and four-year institutions,” he said in a press release. “These factors make us a natural fit for new and expanding clean energy companies, especially those seeking to fill high-skill manufacturing jobs.”

Gifford being sworn in by former Secretary of State John Kerry. —Courtesy of the Gifford campaign

Gifford says he supports tax incentives at the federal and local levels for companies that invest in renewable energy, as well as the expansion of apprenticeships and job training (and retraining) to educate future workers for those advanced manufacturing jobs. Not only is the green-energy economy strong in places like Denmark, he says it’s also something on which environmentalists, labor unions, and the business community — three groups often at odds with each other — can find consensus.

“These are the kinds of initiatives that we can agree on politically, that we can work across the aisle,” he said. “There’s real success that you can see in parts of the world, like Scandinavia. We should be doing more of it.”

According to Gifford, it could start with those wind turbines.

“We don’t turn on a dime in the United States, but I think if we do this right and we start manufacturing these things, we’re talking years not decades,” he said.

‘It’s something that is kind of uniquely American’

Beyond renewable energy, there are plenty other aspects of Danish and Scandinavian civic society that Gifford admires. While he believes his former boss’ signature policy, the Affordable Care Act, was a “great achievement,” Gifford would like to see the country build upon that toward the style of health care system that is near-synonymous with Scandinavian government.

“I’m an advocate of single-payer,” he said. “I will always be.”

That said, Gifford acknowledges the path to implementing such an overhaul at the federal level is “tough,” given all the micro-economies and vested interests in the health care industry, in addition to citizens’ attitudes toward government.

“When we’re talking expanding services in an enormous way, we need to think about it differently as Americans, because we are not Scandinavians as far as that level of trust in government,” he said, adding that he thinks Massachusetts should try to lead on a single-payer or Medicare-for-All style health care system at the state level.

Gifford also thinks its tragically hilarious to compare higher education in Denmark, where undergraduate students can get paid to attend any university in Europe, and the United States, where graduates are increasingly burdened by debt. And he says the state of his country’s poorly graded infrastructure “feels un-American.” After experiencing how Scandinavian cities are constructed, Gifford says he wants to see more urban investment in “community-based architecture and green space.”

“We’re not going to be Copenhagen overnight,” he said. “We’re not going to have bike lanes everywhere. But I think we can do a little bit better and I think we can move in that direction.”

Denmark also of course has flaws, and Gifford says part of his old job was helping them replicate the things at which the United States does well.

“We still are a melting pot, and that’s something we should be proud of,” Gifford said.

For example, in spite of Trump’s recent moves to restrict immigration, he says the country is still the “best example of successful immigration policy in the history of the world,” which is something that “even progressive Scandinavia” hasn’t accomplished.

“They can’t get their head around different populations from different countries coming in, not speaking their language, not eating their food, not participating in their customs,” he said. “The answer is never to kick everybody out, and the answer is probably not to let everybody in. But it’s somewhere in between. For your country to be a magnet for people around the world, it’s something to be celebrated, and the Europeans were never very good at that.”

Another thing — which he says is sometimes overstated, but still holds true — is a unique culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking in the United States.

“Americans are very much a ‘tell me no and I’ll try twice as hard’ kind of country, and that’s awesome,” he said.

Part of that ethos perhaps implicitly explains his own decision to run for Congress.

“It’s something that is kind of uniquely American,” he said, “and it’s a wonderful value — not being afraid to fail and putting yourself out there and taking risks.”