Is Grossman our next governor?
The former DNC bigwig has been crisscrossing the state to meet political
activists. Some say he's laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run.
by Seth Gitell
"Who is Steve Grossman?"
though well known to Democratic activists, Steve Grossman has little name recognition among
voters at large. That could all change in the near future.
The scene is Capitol Hill; the speaker is an
interviewer approaching people on the street. "Never heard of him," says one
man. "Shouldn't I know him?" responds another. "Name sounds familiar,"
says a third. "Sounds like a property developer."
It's the opening sequence of a video produced by the Democratic National
Committee (DNC) as a joke when Grossman resigned as head of the party last
year. What was intended as a laugh, however, might become reality next year if
Grossman, a long-time party activist and fundraiser who heads the Somerville
printing and graphic-design business MassEnvelopePlus, decides to run for
governor of Massachusetts in 2002. Surely one of his biggest barriers to the
office will be name recognition. Although he's well known among Democratic
activists and insiders, most voters will ask the same question as the nameless
man in the DNC video: who is Steve Grossman?
Grossman has said he's considered running for governor since stepping down from
the DNC post but won't make a decision until after the November elections. His
wife, however, is more direct. "After years of working for other people and not
asking for anything back," Barbara Grossman says, "he would like the
opportunity to be a political player himself and move this state forward into
the 21st century."
In recent months, Grossman has met with political activists in Fall River and
New Bedford, visited North Adams and Chicopee in the western part of the state,
and trekked to Lawrence and Lowell in the north. The Boston Globe
reported that when William Bulger bumped into Grossman at the Four Seasons last
week, the former Senate president greeted Grossman as "Governor." Grossman
attended political events on successive nights two weeks ago -- first a young
Democrats' event in support of Al Gore and then a Latino rally in Cambridge
against George W. Bush. Grossman, the only prospective gubernatorial candidate
to attend the Latino rally, schmoozed with community activists from Jamaica
Plain, Cambridge, and Chelsea. Says State Representative Jarrett Barrios, who
organized the rally: "Steve Grossman seems to be everywhere."
If the praise heaped on Grossman in the DNC video is any indication of his
skills as a politician, he'll be a tough opponent for other Democrats
contemplating the governor's race, including Senate president Tom Birmingham
and House Speaker Tom Finneran. In the video, President Bill Clinton,
Vice-President Al Gore, US Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, Boston mayor
Thomas Menino, and US Representative Joe Moakley have nothing but good things
to say about Grossman. Clinton delivers the highest accolades: "As a prolific
fundraiser and a major driving force behind the restoration of our party, his
tireless leadership and self-sacrificing devotion have inspired all of us
Democrats to work even harder toward our common goals."
Not everyone is so enthusiastic, of course. To critics such as Lou DiNatale,
the director of state and local policy at UMass Boston's McCormack Institute,
Grossman is a fundraiser, a rich Newton businessman, a vanity candidate, a
dilettante. "Grossman is the functional equivalent of a Democratic Steve
Forbes," DiNatale says. "He inherited a company from his family. His
credentials are simply those of being a fundraiser."
But a closer look at Grossman reveals a long-time activist committed to the
ideals of grassroots politics -- a family commitment that goes all the way back
to his grandfather.
That grandfather, Max, came to East Boston from Bessarabia, Russia, in 1900,
when he was three years old. By the time he was 20, Max had founded the
Massachusetts Envelope Company, which, among other things, sold envelopes to
political campaigns. As a young teenager, he worked on the mayoral campaign of
John F. Kennedy's grandfather, John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. He later
allied himself with Boston mayor James Michael Curley, who in return appointed
Grossman to be the city's penal commissioner. Steve's father, Edgar,
accompanied Max to the 1948 Democratic convention and became a political
activist in his own right. Much of this Grossman-family lore is recounted in
Relentless Liberal (Vantage Press), a 1996 memoir by Jerome Grossman, an
uncle of Steve. It's also broadly sketched out in the DNC video.
On the record
Steve Grossman wins high marks from the
Massachusetts delegation. Here's what some state pols have to say about the
potential gubernatorial candidate.
Senator Ted Kennedy (in a prepared statement): "Steve's leadership, ability,
dedication, and skillful work for the Massachusetts Democratic Party and the
Democratic National Committee have contributed immensely to the success of our
party and its ideals for all Americans."
Representative Joe Moakley: "He's a very serious candidate. He's been all
over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He's been in the ward rooms, the
selectmen's rooms. He's been touring all over the state for years selling the
Democrats. This guy's been in the pits. He's been in the trenches. He didn't
just drop out of the sky and decide to run. This fellow's been a worker."
Representative Ed Markey: "The hardest thing to do in politics is to work day
in and day out to advance the goals of a political agenda. Steve has
articulately advanced the agenda of the Democratic party by articulately
working at that task throughout the last decade."
Representative Barney Frank: "He's very able. He has a good political sense,
the right set of values. He was a very effective spokesman for the party. He is
much more thoughtful about public-policy issues than most people who are just
Representative James McGovern: "He's passionate, articulate, and dedicated to
Democratic principles. He also understands the importance of bringing young
people into the Democratic party."
Steve Grossman was born in Newton on February 17, 1946. He attended high school
at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he hung a Kennedy banner outside his window
when his father volunteered to work on JFK's presidential run. His next stop
was Princeton, where he started a business in course-review guides that earned
him money and a spot at Harvard Business School just after graduation.
It was after business school, in 1970, that Grossman had a "political epiphany"
about the power of grassroots activism. The occasion was a caucus at
Concord-Carlisle High School, where Grossman's uncle Jerome, co-founder of a
statewide peace organization called MassPAX, planned to nominate Father Robert
Drinan, an anti-war cleric, to challenge Representative Philip Philbin, a
pro-Vietnam hawk. A lantern-jawed Vietnam War hero named John Kerry threatened
to throw a wrench into those plans. But Jerome Grossman took Kerry aside and
urged him to back away, saying the progressive wing of the Democratic Party
would remember his decision. Kerry did so, and Drinan went on to serve in
Congress for a decade.
The war had personal as well as political consequences for Grossman. At Harvard
he signed an anti-war petition, despite the warnings of career-conscious
classmates who said it would harm his chances to get a job. Later, he
accelerated his business-school program and joined the US Army Reserves, which
fulfilled his military obligations. That's where he met Edward Markey, a young
man from Malden. "We were always talking about politics," Markey remembers.
When Markey announced that he was running for a congressional seat in 1976,
Grossman called to offer his family's support.
In 1974, after a stint at Goldman Sachs, Grossman rejoined the family business.
As the decade went on, he involved himself in a number of philanthropic and
communal activities -- the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the
Anti-Defamation League, the Museum of Fine Arts, the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Through this work, he developed a local and national
network of VIPs upon which he would later draw. His involvement in Boston's
CJP, for example, launched his relationship with Michael and Kitty Dukakis, who
in 1985 invited Steve and Barbara Grossman to co-host a fundraising dinner at
the State House for the US Holocaust Museum.
It was through Dukakis that Grossman got involved in national party
politics. He was among those who planned the Massachusetts governor's
nascent presidential effort in 1987, and after Dukakis's defeat he embraced Ron
Brown as the head of the Democratic Party -- at a time when other American Jews
were wary of Brown's ties to the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Once Brown became a
party chairman, he invited Grossman to join the Democratic National Committee
-- a post that gave him a position in the state party as well.
Grossman has faced two important tests in his career in politics: salvaging the
Massachusetts Democratic Party from the mess it fell into after William Weld
defeated John Silber for the governorship in 1990, and steering the DNC back to
health after the 1996 Democratic fundraising scandals.
By December 1990, the state party was deeply in debt, and Grossman decided to
seek the chairmanship to help get the local Democrats back on their feet. He
campaigned around the periphery of the state, promising to pay attention to the
places that Boston neglected -- an unusual strategy for someone whose
background lay more in fundraising than in statewide political activity. And
once he'd won the post, Grossman made good on his word. "He was the first one
to institute town meetings," recalls Chicopee's Debra Kozikowski, a vice-chair
of the Democratic State Committee and a Democratic National Committeewoman.
"Before that, the party meetings were always in Framingham or Boston." And
MarDee Xifaras, a New Bedford attorney and long-time national and state
committee member, was impressed by his unique mix of personal qualities. "He
had energy, ideas, a plan, and an unquestioned personal commitment," she says.
"For me, that became the essence of Steve Grossman. He was absolutely willing
to respect the work that average people do on the local level."
Grossman's first challenge arose in 1991. A special election had to be held in
the First District to replace Representative Silvio Conte, a Republican who had
died in office after a long congressional career. A Democrat had not won in
that district for more than 100 years. Grossman targeted the race, spoke to
each Democrat running in the primary, and got them all to promise that they
would endorse the winner for the general election. When John Olver emerged as
the party's nominee, Kozikowski says, "they all kept to their word. They all
went to Holyoke City Hall and endorsed John Olver wholeheartedly."
"I really owe him. He did a wonderful job," Olver now says, recalling
Grossman's role in his victory over the Republican. One of Grossman's
most significant contributions to his campaign, Olver says, was that key
grassroots activists were there on Election Day to get out the vote: "We had a
far better group of people on the ground."
During the campaigns of 1992, Grossman acted as a one-man Democratic truth
squad, trailing Governor Weld and his fellow Republicans as they traversed
Massachusetts campaigning for GOP candidates. And after Paul Tsongas dropped
out of the presidential race, Grossman threw his support to Bill Clinton, whom
he had met when he briefed Clinton on Mideast policy before a speech that the
then-governor of Arkansas made to AIPAC in 1989. By the time Clinton was
inaugurated, Grossman was chairman of AIPAC, and his ties to the president
would serve him well in that capacity. When Grossman met with Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem the very day the news broke that the Israelis and
the Palestinians had secretly been negotiating in Oslo, Rabin told Grossman the
peace deal could not move forward unless he had the support of the American
Jewish community. Toward that end, Grossman worked with President Clinton to
sell the deal and deliver American backing.
By 1997, Grossman had left AIPAC and was preparing to take a break from
communal work, but his involvement in party affairs was about to intensify. The
fundraising scandals surrounding the DNC were coming to a head. The party found
itself $20 million in debt, and donors were reluctant to contribute more
money. At this dark moment, Michael Whouley recommended Grossman to
Vice-President Gore for the chairmanship.
Whouley, who was Clinton's national field director in 1992 and is now credited
with helping get Gore's campaign for the presidential nomination on track, had
gotten to know Grossman during the early days of Grossman's involvement with
the party. The whiz-kid political operative, already recognized as a genius of
grassroots organizing for his work on the Dukakis campaign (see "Taking Sides,"
News and Features, November 12, 1999), helped Grossman and Leonard Zakim, then
the executive director of the New England region of the Anti-Defamation League,
when they wanted to block an anti-Israel plank on the state party platform in
1989. The friendship between Whouley and Grossman has continued into the
At Whouley's suggestion, Gore invited Grossman to the White House. Grossman got
the job. Immediately he and the DNC's other top leader, former Colorado
governor Roy Romer, went to work fixing the party. "We helped clean it up,"
Romer says. "Our attitude was first you have to admit it, then you correct it,
then you make sure it never happens again." Grossman created a compliance
department at the DNC. "We needed ironclad procedures and commitments so we
could look people in the eye and say we have fixed the problems," he says.
Once those procedures were in place, Grossman went to work on the party's debt
situation. "We needed to find creative ideas for raising money," says Fran Katz
Watson, Grossman's national finance director at the DNC. "Steve is one of the
most creative people I've ever met." One plan he devised, for example, was to
have a fundraising weekend organized around the musical Ragtime, based
on the E.L. Doctorow novel. Grossman thought the themes of the piece --
immigrants and African-Americans confronting pre-World War I bigotry --
would resonate for the Democratic audience. He was right: the event raised
By September 1998, Grossman was riding high on these successes. But some
questioned his judgment when, just before the impeachment, with outrage against
the president at its height, Grossman praised Clinton for his "moral
leadership." (Today, Grossman chalks up his enthusiastic remarks to "irrational
exuberance.") At the time, conservative columnist Robert Novak thought Grossman
had made a mistake: "Steve Grossman delivered a Bill Clinton tribute that
surely will cause unintentional, untold troubles for his party's candidates
over the next six weeks." As it turns out, though, Novak and other critics were
wrong. Grossman had positioned his party in exactly the right way. Money went
to those races where it made a difference, and the results were stunning. Chuck
Schumer defeated Alfonse D'Amato in New York. Gray Davis won the governorship
in California. As President Clinton noted in the DNC tribute tape, "This was
the first time a president's party has picked up seats in his sixth year since
Today, even Republicans don't blame Grossman for the DNC's fundraising woes,
though some may find his party cheerleading excessive. Even the most ardent
Republicans acknowledge that Grossman's defense of Clinton will probably help
his future in generally liberal Massachusetts, if the subject comes up at
Now Grossman seems to be preparing for that future. And if that means a run for
governor, he has support lined up. Debra Kozikowski has brought Grossman to
meet key political activists in Chicopee and other western towns. MarDee
Xifaras has taken him to meet the mayors of New Bedford and Fall River, as well
as political activists there. "Steve's a big-picture guy with the ability to
think big," she says. And Grossman's friend Alan Solomont, a former DNC
treasurer, also says he would support a candidacy.
Of course, many political observers are surely saying in private what the
McCormack Institute's Lou DiNatale is one of the few to say in public: "He's a
single-digit candidate. Even spending as much money as he wants, he's going to
remain a single-digit candidate." He's nothing but a money candidate, DiNatale
suggests. Yet members of the state's House and Senate delegations say Grossman
has earned his political chops. Although these politicians aren't ready to
endorse any potential candidate in the still-distant race, they are willing to
give Grossman his due (see "On the Record," page 16).
Even Representative Martin Meehan, who may run for governor himself in 2002,
does not dismiss Grossman. "Steve has a set of core beliefs, and they're
Democratic beliefs," Meehan says. "He believes passionately in those
principles. He traveled across the state talking to people about them. I think
he'd be a terrific candidate."
If Grossman does decide to run, a key question will be whether he opts to
follow the voluntary strictures laid out by the state's Clean Elections Law,
which goes into effect in 2002 and would prevent him from using his own
considerable money to finance his race. Grossman seems ambivalent about that
issue. "I was a supporter of the Clean Elections Law," he says. "I believe that
campaign-finance reform is a critical ingredient in overcoming the cynicism
that so many of our citizens have felt, but I'm also concerned by the
implementation of clean elections. I've got to wait patiently by to see what
the Senate president, the House Speaker, and the governor do." In other words,
if Birmingham, Finneran, and Cellucci don't put enough budget money into the
election fund, Grossman won't hamstring his campaign with the law's
Not so coincidentally, all three of those men could be candidates in the 2002
race -- along with Secretary of State William Galvin and former US secretary of
labor Robert Reich. Birmingham is considered the early favorite, but that
doesn't mean much yet. If Joe Kennedy gets into the race, for example, all bets
Asked about Joe Kennedy's plans, his brother Max Kennedy, who is also Ted
Kennedy's campaign manager, says: "You've got to ask him." The Grossmans and
the Kennedys have a history of working together, he says, noting that he's
tried to persuade Steve Grossman's son to work on Ted Kennedy's campaign: "Then
we could have the fourth generation of the Grossmans working with the
Kennedys." The idea of a Grossman candidacy in its own right is a different
ball game, of course. "I love Steve," he says, pausing. "He hasn't told me he's
running. Has he told you?"
If Grossman does run, his success will hinge in part on labor support, and
that's an uncertain prospect. Labor likes the fact that Grossman has for years
run a good union shop with high wages, and the national AFL-CIO's political
director, Steve Rosenthal, has nice things to say about him. Local AFL-CIO head
Robert Haynes, who recently co-authored a Boston Globe op-ed with
Grossman opposing Paul Cellucci's income-tax-rollback plan, praises him as
well. Yet Haynes is not prepared to go with Grossman. If the election were held
today, labor leaders would most likely line up behind the person they know --
One intriguing idea is to pair Grossman, the "Newton businessman," with State
Senator Stephen Lynch, a solid, blue-collar Irish-American from South Boston.
One thing that makes them plausible allies is that Grossman and Lynch share a
loyalty to Al Gore and have been key players in his campaign.
Lynch acknowledges that party insiders have "approached" him with the idea of
running for lieutenant governor, and he calls Grossman "a formidable
candidate." "He's a remarkable man, a good Democrat," Lynch says. "He has been
somebody concerned with labor and working conditions. In his own business, he's
been an exemplary employer." But Lynch adds that he himself is "very close"
with Birmingham. "I don't think that's a realistic possibility, me running for
lieutenant governor," Lynch concludes.
Thinking about running mates may be getting way ahead of the game, especially
considering that some deride Grossman as an outsider to the world of Beacon
Hill politics. But others note that the past few elected governors --with the
exception of Cellucci (and look how that has turned out) -- were all outsiders:
Michael Dukakis, Ed King, William Weld. Further, these observers note, Dukakis
won in 1974 with the exact same coalition that Grossman is trying to put
together -- young grassroots activists, voters from the forgotten periphery of
the state, and reformers seeking change.
Says Dukakis: "If you're not a State House insider, you have to do what I did.
You've got to start early, and you've got to go to the grassroots."
Spend any time with Grossman and it's obvious that he's starting early: working
the young Gore supporters' event, meeting the Latino activists in Cambridge.
This is a man who's willing to work his way into office. If his track record is
any guide, he's got a shot: in each position he's held, he's performed above
expectations through effort and tenacity. And if you want to know if that shot
is a promising one, just watch whether Michael Whouley joins his team. Anyone
who could transform Al Gore from a joke into a campaigning machine can help
take someone with ambition, doggedness, money, and vision all the way to Beacon
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.