“I don’t have an accent,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a thick Boston dialect before I could get the entire question off my tongue.
She spells out carbon, “c-a-a-h-b-o-n,” and tells me it’s listed in the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary with the same definition as the entry with the correct spelling of the chemical element.
I was asking what a collection of Washington D.C. bureaucrats thinks about having a Bostonian at the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
If anything, it’s her loyalty to local sports teams that makes her more of a Washington outsider than how she pronounces – or doesn’t – the letter ‘R.’
“Is anyone born in Boston not a sports fan?” she asks me rhetorically.
In March 2013, Gina McCarthy was nominated by President Barack Obama, a noted Chicago White Sox fan, to lead the EPA. Her nomination was confirmed by the Senate, 59-40, and since then her and her agency have endeavored to take on massive environmental issues including greenhouse gas emissions reduction, cleaner drinking water nationwide and improved air quality regulation.
“The president has told me that I just have the wrong color,” said McCarthy. “It shouldn’t be Red Sox it should be White Sox.”
McCarthy’s cemented place among the Fenway Faithful is seated deeply in her New England roots.
Born in Boston, McCarthy resided with her family in the Savin Hill neighborhood of Dorchester before her father moved them to suburban Canton.
It was here that her affinity for the outdoors and natural preservation was born.
“Nobody was indoors,” she said. “Outdoors was where we lived. We ran amok outside, climbed every tree in the Town of Canton. When I come home now I spent about two minutes inside then go out running.”
She intended to join the workforce in an environmental engineering and public health capacity, earning Bachelor of Arts in Social Anthropology from UMass Boston. She then went on to Tufts University where she pursued a joint Master of Science in Environmental Health Engineering and Planning and Policy.
Upon graduation she worked in community health but it was a public health officer in her hometown of Canton that turned her on to work with a stronger environmental focus.
“I ended up getting very active in those issues and being asked to work for the state,” she said.
To say that she merely worked for the state is a modest understatement. In fact, she advised five governors of our Commonwealth before being tapped by President Obama for a gig as the Assistant Administrator of the EPA in 2009. Since then, she’s taken a bipartisan approach to work at the EPA (having worked for former Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and now Obama) and combines an unabashed demeanor and work ethic that plays well on both sides of the aisle and garners near universal respect.
Despite leading the nearly 16,000-person-strong EPA and undertaking initiatives across the country, McCarthy always keeps an eye toward Boston.
On the weekends she returns home to enjoy (or rather, cram) all of the outdoor activities in the area that she can. By doing this, she not only fulfills her own love of the outdoors but she’s also able to stay up to date on issues on the local level.
In Boston, for example, the city put on a design competition to solicit ideas for how to adapt to and live with rising sea levels – not combat them. Adaptability is an issue that Boston quickly came to the forefront of, and she hopes it’ll inform positive change at the national level.
“I certainly have not lost interest in the city moving forward and we continue to have meetings on the waterfront and adaptation issues,” said McCarthy. “I’m not just encouraged by it, but i think we’re imitating it.”
Rising sea levels is an issue that rings personal for McCarthy. Perhaps more than most Bostonians, she’s absolutely willing and able to cool off from the summer heat by taking a dip or two in both the Charles River and Boston Harbor. These two bodies of water are historically disgusting, the former home of waste runoff and breeding bacteria, but in recent years have been cleaned to the point of being among the most pristine urban rivers and harbors in the entire world.
“Absolutely I swim there,” she said without hesitation, adding that “the Charles is just a remarkable thing. It’s not only remarkable but it’s pretty inspirational. It gives me a reason to think we can tackle these problems.”
When she’s not paddling around the Charles or the Harbor, McCarthy enjoys exploring the Emerald Necklace around Jamaica Plain where she now resides, visiting the Rose Kennedy Greenway which “every weekend I see something new that makes me want to come back,” and visiting the Blue Hills Reservation just south of Boston where she estimates to “have spent probably half of my outdoor life.”
But when she’s not spending time with Mother Nature, she enjoys rooting for her beloved Red Sox and New England Patriots. Secretary of State John Kerry, she said, is one of her Boston sports allies in D.C. with whom she sometimes partners up with to engage in friendly wagers with the opposition among others.
“When the Patriots were playing the Seahawks there was some friendly betting between myself, [Secretary of the Interior] Sally Jewell and [Secretary of Energy] Ernie Moniz,” said McCarthy.
Jewell grew up in Washington and lives in Seattle. Moniz hails from Fall River and was MIT’s physics department head in the 1990s.
“Sally owed us a big meal. We gloated all the way.”
As it turns out, McCarthy has quite the palate for the Irish stout and is constantly on the lookout for the best in the city.
“I love Guinness,” said McCarthy. “McGann’s is the best Guinness I’ve ever had in my life. If I want to get the best Guinness, that’s where I go. The second best place, I stay in Jamaica Plain.”
As a Guinness enthusiast myself, I had to ask the administrator what makes for a good Guinness. Is it the bartender? Maybe it varies from batch to batch?
“I’ve asked a million people this and some think it’s the temperature and the pour,” she explained. “I think the equipment too. I don’t know the answer, I just know that I can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one and that’s really awesome. I’ve done a lot of taste testing to keep my palate up.”
If you ever need a tasting buddy, Administrator McCarthy, you know who to call.