[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
March 16 - 23, 2000


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

MYSTERY MAN: though well known to Democratic activists, Steve Grossman has little name recognition among voters at large. That could all change in the near future.

"Who is Steve Grossman?"

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.

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 fundraisers."

  • 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."

    -- SG
  • 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.

    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 present.

    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 $1.5 million.

    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 1822. "

    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 all.

    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 restrictions.

    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 are off.

    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 -- Tom Birmingham.

    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 Hill.

    Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.