Tormenting Teddy

By BOSTON PHOENIX STAFF  |  August 26, 2009

From Talk Radio to the Campaign Trail
By Maureen Dezell

Janet Jeghelian met the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port 33 years ago, when she worked for two years as Ambassador Joseph Kennedy's physical therapist, helping the family patriarch recover from a stroke.

She "mourned like a family member" when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

And today she's challenging Ted Kennedy for the Senate seat she helped him win, in 1962, by teaching him Armenian folk dances to help lighten his step along the campaign trail.

Hoping that her gender and her 15-year stint as a local talk-radio host will appeal to voters, Jeghelian is running as a fiscal conservative and social moderate who's in the race because "the same people in Washington have been looking at one another for too long and have run out of ideas."

She maintains she'll stand out in the primary race: a pro-choice Republican woman with good name recognition and a squeaky clean personal reputation, she sees her best-known opponents, Mitt Romney and John Lakian, as exemplars of the wealthy Republican status quo.

In November, she hopes to appeal to "Weld Republicans" and to independent and Democratic women who've voted for Kennedy in the past because they found his conservative Republican challengers so politically unpalatable.

And perhaps she will.

An early poll conducted for her campaign shows that Massachusetts voters are less than enthralled with Kennedy. And few observers deny Jeghelian's political profile looks intriguing on paper. (Her candidacy has already been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and Business Week.)

Jeghelian, 59, is articulate and hard-working. On the airwaves and in person, she comes across as a warm, empathic woman who listens thoughtfully and responds carefully. She presents conservative positions without behaving like a political pit bull; she can disagree without snarling or resorting to personal attack.

Like many female candidates, though, Jeghelian has no broad financial base. (Her campaign manager, Gene Hartigan, predicts she will have raised between $70,000 and $100,000 by the end of this month.) She is a recently registered Republican, and her formal political experience consists of serving two terms as a Westwood selectman. She's never run in a district, much less a statewide, race. And her grasp of local, national, and international issues is tenuous.

Impecuniousness, inexperience, and political naïveté have never stopped Massachusetts Republican candidates before, of course. But Jeghelian faces an additional problem: the politics of her own party.

The Massachusetts GOP is dominated by several fractious networks, including anti-government businessmen; right-wing bigots; and suburbanites, who make up the grassroots wing (or, more accurately, the putting-green wing) of the party. (Despite his recent ascendance, Governor Bill Weld – whose so-called social liberalism extends to gay rights and reproductive rights, but not to the problems of poverty – is an anomaly.)

One need look no further than the 1990 Massachusetts Republican convention – whose endorsement Weld lost to conservative Steve Pierce – for evidence of what socially moderate or liberal party members are up against.

According to a Phoenix report on that gathering, a group of delegates shouted "baby killers" as Weld and his designated running mate, Paul Cellucci, entered the convention hall. Conservative US Representative New Gingrich (R-Georgia) regaled the crowd with off-color condom-and-cucumber jokes. And conventioneers handed out condoms stamped with the Weld-Cellucci logo to poke fun at Weld's tepid support for distributing condoms in secondary schools.

The crowd beneath the Massachusetts Republican Party's big tent may have changed somewhat following Weld's victory and George Bush's 1992 defeat. But it isn't likely to have evolved into the kind of group that would welcome, much less rally behind, a mild-mannered, pro-choice, middle-age woman who only officially joined the party's ranks last fall.

Republican Language

Janet Jeghelian talks like a Republican.

Her interviews and stump speeches demonstrate a deep mistrust of "big government" and a penchant for basing public policy on apocrypha and anecdote that's redolent of Ronald Reagan and of outraged talk-show callers.

Jeghelian maintains, for example, that Kennedy is "in trouble" because of what she calls his wholesale embrace of Clinton's "big disaster" of a health-care plan.

The day after Hillary Rodham Clinton met with local health-care leaders at the World Trade Center, the Jeghelian for Senate Committee dropped $4000 on 60 seconds of radio air-time to denounce the Clinton plan.

"Will we get better health care we can afford or more wasteful government bureaucracy?" the candidate asked in the spot. "What will this plan cost us? How badly will it hurt small businesses and jobs?"

Clearly, Jeghelian is counting on appealing to small-business, insurance, and medical-establishment interests, by attacking the Clinton plan and Kennedy's support for it.

It's not a bad strategy.

But her assessment of the nation's health-care debacle, the process that led to the crafting of the Clinton legislation, and the politics of health-care reform is so superficial that she's likely to be blown away in the first round of a debate on the topic with anyone who knows anything about it. And Ted Kennedy, for one, knows a lot about it.

In Jeghelian's opinion, for example, the fact that 39 million people lack insurance and that health-care costs are eating up 15 percent of the gross domestic product doesn't warrant "jumping into the problem with our eyes closed" – which is what she maintains the Clinton health-reform task force and Congress have done.

"The real problem," she says, "is what health care costs."

By way of example, she cites anecdotal evidence – "our finance person, who was in the hospital and was charged for 175 aspirin for one day."

She attacks medical-malpractice litigation, a favorite Republican scapegoat that's a relatively insignificant contributing factor – between $20 billion and $30 billion a year, according to the highest estimates – in the country's $1 trillion annual health-care bill.

"The first thing we've got to do is to try to get costs under control," she opines, echoing every government agency, corporation, or insurer that's tried unsuccessfully to do so in the past several years. Once that's been accomplished, she says, "We can come up with something universal, affordable, simple, and cost-reducing."

Without increasing taxes or the size of government, of course.

In radio, Jeghelian made her mark as a fiscal conservative and a call to reduce "waste," "empire-building," and "bureaucracy" in government is key to her campaign.

Like many an opinionmaster, though, she's far better at ticking off problems that ought to be dealt with than at coming up with solutions.

She firmly believes, for example, in putting more people in prison. She wants more people off the welfare rolls.

But when asked how she squares her desire to reduce the deficit with the need to build more prisons to house criminals or provide day care for welfare-recipients-turned-working-mothers, she acknowledges, "That's a tough call."

Jeghelian uses phrases like "tough question" and "tough call" frequently. Her response to many specific questions about policy and politics is "We're looking into that" or "We're going to come up with a position on that."

On one hand, her candor about not being up to speed on everything can be refreshing. On the other, it's an unsettling admission of superficiality coming from a candidate with hopes of unseating an entrenched incumbent senator.

In her off-the-cuff remarks, Jeghelian also demonstrates glibness about the labyrinthine nature of the political process. Talking about gun control, some of the hardest legislation to get through Congress, for instance, she says, "My real concern with the Brady bill is that its seven-day cooling-off period will in time become two years."

Watertown Roots

One of three children, Janet Tevekelian spent the first six years of her life in Watertown, before she moved with her family to Newton. The Trevekelians lived in an apartment above Tip-Top Cleaner, a business her Armenian-immigrant father started and owned.

Jeghelian went to public schools, and at one point hoped to become a doctor. "My father discouraged me," she recalls. "He said if I became a doctor I would never marry. And that if I did marry, I wouldn't marry an Armenian."

She went to Boston University to study biology, but wound up graduating with a business degree. From there, she went on to BU'S Sargent College, from which she graduated with a certificate in physical therapy in 1956.

Jeghelian found her first professional job at the Bellevue Medical Center Institute of Physical Medicine, at New York University, where she worked for three years, taking advantage of NYU's employee tuition-remission policy to get a master's degree in physical-therapy education.

She came back to Boston in 1960 and married Haig Jeghelian, who spent most of his professional career in sales and the promotion of new products at Gillette; he's now retired. The couple settled in Westwood (where they still live); Janet went into private practice, and started teaching physical therapy at BU.

Jeghelian served as legislative chairwoman of the American Physical Therapy Association and as lobbyist for the Massachusetts chapter of the professional group – a position that gave her her first exposure to the political machinations of the State House.

After she and her husband adopted their third child (Robin is now 29, Armand is 28, and Tina, 25), she stopped teaching and lobbying to stay at home.

In 1972, she ran for Westwood selectman, winning by two votes. The first woman to sit on the town board, she served as its chairwoman for two years before stepping down at the end of her second term, in 1978.

At that point, Jeghelian planned to to back to work in physical therapy. But a colleague of her husband's suggested she take advantage of what some had told her could be a great radio voice.

Jeghelian talked to a producer at WBZ, who encouraged her to try to break in at a small station. As it happened, her former state senator, Jack Quinlan, was launching a small radio station, WJMQ, in Norfolk.

Before long, Jeghelian was on board as the start-up station's public affairs director. Two years later, she went to WBZ as a talk-show host.

Between 1982 and 1993, Jeghelian co-hosted WRKO's daily morning-drive show. She wsa the conservative bantering with liberal men – first Tony Pepper, then, for six years, Ted O'Brien, and, most recently, Mike Cuthbert. When station management and Cuthbert parted ways, Atlantic Broadcasting, which owns 'RKO and WHDH, moved Jeghelian to 'HDH, where she stayed until she decided to run for office last year.

Thoughtful, independent-minded, well-spoken, and pleasant, Jeghelian has long been both a respected and popular radio commentator.

"What separates her form the rest of talk-show people is that she's very sincere in what she says," says Peter Orlando, executive producer at WHDH.

"Of all the people I've ever worked with on radio, she's the best to work with. She lets people talk. She gives good input. She brings people together," Orlando says.

"She gets enormous loyalty," he adds. "Before she moved here from 'RKO, she took a vacation. And we got an incredibly number of calls from a cross-section of people asking where she was and when she was coming back."

The Right Time

Jeghelian's public credibility and appeal attracted the attention of Democratic political operatives, who encouraged her to run for office in the past. (A Democrat during her young adulthood, she was a registered independent during her radio career, from 1978 until last year.)

"I was asked to run for state representative or senator, but it was never the right time," she say. "The children were the wrong ages.

"But after 15 years of hearing people complain about their taxes and fears about running and about Washington, I though it might be time. When I heard Andy Card wasn't going to run, I decided I would."

Jeghelian thinks she can win the 15 percent of the delegates she needs at the May Republican convention in order to be listed on the September primary ballot. Beyond that, she isn't spending much time thinking about her primary opponents.

"We're gunning for Ted," she says.

Jeghelian says she believes "there are a lot of people who identify with a candidate with a moderate position on social issues who's a fiscal conservative."

She's also convinced more and more votes want to elect women. "No one can speak for a woman like a woman," she contends. "No man has experienced sexual harassment or hit the glass ceiling.

"Women bring a unique perspective to politics," she continues. "We need women's perspective on welfare reform, family, and family issues. More women have got to get into the public arena so we can get welfare reform and family reform – get people to start assuming responsibility they gave up beginning with the enactment under LBJ of AFDC."

Jeghelian is confident of her grasp of voters' real problems and concerns.

"I know these issues," she says. "I've talked them."

Her organization, headed by Hartigan, is convinced talk will take her to the top.

Others are less certain.

The people Jeghelian and her key supporters consider her natural constituency in the Republican primary – suburban moderates and women independents – may not be there when she needs their vote.

At a tea for Jeghelian held in an enormous, elegantly appointed home in Wenham early this month, a group of selectman and town activists listened enthusiastically to the candidate and her campaign manager. Here, said Hartigan, is a Republican to run against Ted who won't be an embarrassment.

The diminutive, dark-haired candidate, dressed in a well-cut black suit set off by a white sweater, pearl necklace, earrings and pin, charmed what her handlers called this "grassroots" audience with her suburban stylishness and sound bite-like responses to their softball questions about drugs and crime. ("We've got to start encouraging individual responsibility.")

This is the kind of crowd Jeghelian is hoping will bankroll her campaign.

But these well-off suburban moderates were concerned. How, one asked, will people react to the fact Jeghelian is "portrayed over and over again in the media as a talk-show host?"

Too toney to say so, what they wanted to know was: who of their kind could be persuaded to give money to a radio gabber?

Jeghelian is likely to run into similar resistance from supporters she's targeted among young independent and Democratic women. Yes, they may have voted for Will Weld over John Silber. But not too many of them listen to talk radio. Nor are the independents likely to turn out in droves to pull the lever for Janet in the September Republican primary.

And even if Jeghelian beats the odds by raising big money and pulling off an upset in September, the question remains: how many liberal and Democratic women will vote against a man with Kennedy's record on women's rights, on reproductive rights, on abortion rights, and on health-care issues?

And how many others will vote to replace the peculiar, personally compromised, but enormously powerful senior senator from Massachusetts with a sincere, squeaky-clean political neophyte whose main claim to political fame is "talking the issues" for 15 years?

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