The Boston Phoenix January 4-11, 2001


The domino theory

Next year will bring a rarity in Massachusetts politics: lots of job openings

by Seth Gitell

In Massachusetts, There's only one thing scarcer than a profitable dot-com company: a political opening.

The Commonwealth is that rare geographic entity where there are more pols than positions. Political jobs in Western states, such as Nevada and Arizona, are relatively easy to come by; anyone who's been around for longer than five years is an old-timer, and the political talent pool isn't deep. That's how someone like House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, whose highest previous professional achievement had been founding an extermination company, made it to Washington. Things don't work like that around here. Exhibit A: the 1998 race to replace Joe Kennedy in the Eighth Congressional District, when politicians from across the area scampered to get in.

For every constitutional Massachusetts office, there are a half-dozen ambitious state legislators looking at it with hungry eyes. Julius Caesar only had to worry about two disloyal colleagues -- Cassius and Brutus. In Massachusetts, there'd be 10 of them. For every legislative leadership spot, there are just as many aspirants hoping their number will be called. But while ambition is high, turnover is slow: the Bay State's major political players have been in place for years. Governor Paul Cellucci may be going into only his third year as governor, but he became lieutenant governor more than a decade ago. Secretary of State William Galvin has held office since 1995. Thomas Birmingham has presided over the state senate since the departure of William M. Bulger in 1996. House Speaker Thomas Finneran has held his job since 1996. And Thomas Menino has been mayor of Boston since the dawn of the Clinton era.

This fossilized political scene has kept the state locked into a pro-Dukakis/anti-Dukakis dichotomy that's stymied political growth. It's helped stunt the state Republican Party (although, to be sure, it doesn't take much to keep it down in this liberal state). And it's also slowed the pace of progress for women in the Commonwealth -- fewer job opening means fewer opportunities for talented women in the lower ranks to move up.

But 2001 will see more political positions open up in Massachusetts than liquidation opportunities for bankruptcy lawyers. Combine the coming election cycle with the 1998 Clean Elections Law, which provides public money to candidates who agree to certain spending and contribution limits, and a statewide sea change could be coming. As incredible as it may seem that President-elect George W. Bush would want Cellucci in his administration after the governor's performance to date, it's probably true. (It seems more plausible now that Bush's low standards have become evident in picks like Donald Rumsfeld for secretary of defense.) At any rate, Cellucci's job is likely to open up in the next year. And even before Cellucci seemed to be headed for Washington, Bay State pols were lining up to run against him. Expect the floodgates to open once Bush nominates him for ... something.

After Cellucci there's Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift. Under ordinary circumstances, Swift would be considered a lock for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. But her tenure in office has been anything but ordinary. She's faced an ethics investigation, and her poll numbers are in the basement. Small chance that she'll run with that kind of baggage -- not to mention a toddler and infant twins.

That leaves the state's top two positions open. Birmingham is running for governor, which will require him to leave the state senate. Other constitutional officeholders, such as Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, may toss their hats into the ring for governor, which in turn will spark a hot race for their jobs. Ambitious pols will also be watching to see whether US Senator John Kerry runs again in 2002. Right now it's looking as if Kerry will stay to build a base for a 2004 presidential run, but if he doesn't, the first to start gunning for his seat will be US Representative Martin Meehan of Lowell -- who is weighing a run for governor as well.

"Massachusetts has always been subject to the domino theory," says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. "It's a state where people stay in office longer than other places. You rarely have the kind of positions opening up that we're going to see in the next couple of years."

MASSACHUSETTS POLITICOS discuss job openings the way Hollywood agents talk up new roles. But until now, everybody's been talking about the 2002 governor's race without giving much thought to its implications for the job-shuffling scene. In part, that may be because two people who have declared their candidacies -- Steve Grossman and Warren Tolman -- don't help the turnover problem. Both are gainfully employed in the private sector, Grossman as the head of MassEnvelopePlus and Tolman as a lawyer. The same goes for Joe Kennedy, who gave up his House seat -- and, ostensibly, politics -- two years ago after the death of his brother Michael. But many of the other people whose names have cropped up already hold elective office and would have to step down in order to run. Birmingham, O'Brien, Galvin, Attorney General Tom Reilly -- all would have to give up their bit of juice to launch a statewide race.

Birmingham, who has been busily raising money, is an all-but-certain candidate. O'Brien is hanging back, knowing that her status as the only woman in the race would give her a leg up in a Democratic primary. Galvin is in a different position: it's not impossible (though it does have the ring of an NFL wild-card playoff bid) that he could become governor without being elected. (Galvin's math: Cellucci joins the Bush administration, and Swift, already embattled, resigns.) Finally, there's Reilly -- a highly disciplined, though unsnazzy, politician. He's not quite ready to run for governor, however, and will probably wait.

If any of these four goes ahead with a run, that sets off a mini-explosion. If all four run, that's a megaton explosion. The first place the bomb would hit is the state senate. There is no shortage of potential replacements for Birmingham, but no clear successor. Majority Leader Linda Melconian of Springfield would be a candidate, as would Majority Whip Robert Travaglini of East Boston. And Senator Mark Montigny, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is said to covet the job as well. O'Brien's position at the treasury would also attract many aspirants: the treasurer, after all, controls jobs and money. And the secretary of state's job will also be attractive, especially at a time when voting reform is in the air. Finally, should Reilly run for governor, a host of ambitious state legislators and district attorneys will vie for his position.

BUT THERE'S more at stake in the coming year than political job-hopping. The potential for upheaval could transform both the structure of state politics and the personalities involved in it. And that's because the cast of characters preparing to run for governor represents a new way of thinking in statewide politics.

Lou DiNatale, a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute at UMass Boston, calls the next election cycle "the end of the Dukakis and anti-Dukakis era." That era began when Michael Dukakis first won election, as a liberal reformer, in 1974. Ed King, a conservative Democrat, defeated Dukakis in 1978, but Dukakis retook the governor's office in 1982 and held it until 1990, when William Weld and Cellucci -- running as the anti-Dukakises -- took over. Although it's possible that Cellucci will run again in 2002, it's not likely. That means the candidates from both parties will fight over new ground.

This new dynamic has implications for candidates like Birmingham and Grossman, both of whom have certain similarities to Dukakis. Birmingham, a labor lawyer and classic liberal, will have appeal to the Route 128/I-495 belt. He will continue to stress education reform, though he may allow for some softening of MCAS standards. But as much as he may fit the Dukakis profile, he'll strive to add newer, pragmatic packaging to stay in step with the times. As for Grossman, he's even more in the mold of the early Dukakis. A devoted Democrat and the former head of the state and national Democratic Parties, he's an outsider who has inherited some of Dukakis's fundraising base and is close to Dukakis-era operatives like Michael Whouley. But Grossman will sell his experience running a business and the lessons he's learned from President Clinton's "third way" politics. Neither candidate can afford to be labeled a Dukakoid.

As state politics emerges from the shadow of Dukakis, it could also become less dominated by men. It's been a paradox of Massachusetts politics that such a liberal state has so few high-profile female politicians. In her book Running Against the Wind: The Struggle of Women in Massachusetts Politics (Northeastern University Press, 2000), Betty Taymor calls it "an embarrassment." But in 2001, opportunity could come knocking. If, for example, Reilly runs for governor, at least two of the leading candidates for his position will be women -- Middlesex County DA Martha Coakley, who recently made statewide and national television following the Wakefield tragedy, and State Senator Cheryl Jacques, a tough-on-crime sponsor of gun-control legislation. Elizabeth Scheibel, the popular Hampshire County district attorney, could also join the race. Even if the AG position fails to open up, a well-financed female candidate from the Route 128 suburbs could make a great Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Jacques seems to fit the bill, but the spot could go to a number of comers.

The mystery element in all this is the Clean Elections Law. Tolman so far is the only gubernatorial candidate to commit to a clean-elections policy. But the implications of the law could be even greater on the local level. "Here's the Democratic nightmare: 160 Republican candidates, all funded by Clean Elections, all with a platform to cut your taxes," says DiNatale. For the first time ever, the typically hapless, financially strapped Republican state candidates will have access to as much as $24,000 for a state-representative campaign. As long as candidates can meet the minimum requirement of raising 200 contributions of at least $5 from registered voters within the district, they can cash in. The way the Republicans see things, they could run candidates in all the House and Senate races. Although they probably wouldn't win all or even many of these contests, they would put pressure on the Democrats.

Whatever happens, Massachusetts is changing. Although we dodged a bullet with this year's census figures (the state kept its 10 congressional seats, while New York and Pennsylvania each lost two), the new figures show more voters in the Route 128/I- 495 belt and more on the South Shore and points farther south. That means there could be some interesting state redistricting. But the change is even broader than that. For example, although you still see plenty of Irish names in play for political office, these candidates no longer run as Irish. For those who run on an old urban base, such as State Senator Stephen Lynch, the neighborhood ties are more of a hindrance than a help to statewide ambition.

For years now, pundits have been yammering about the New Boston and the New Massachusetts. They've continued to do this even as the same political actors have remained on stage -- with no hook to clear them off. That's because in Bay State politics, leaders have a way of clinging to office even when their bases have disappeared. Then, finally, they vanish in a flash -- the way City Councilor Albert "Dapper" O'Neil did in 1999. We used to think that Jimmy Kelly would head the Boston City Council forever. That changed in a snap when councilors voted for Charles Yancey on New Year's Day. We don't know who will go the way of Dapper this year, or what Kelly's demotion signals for the future. But change is in the air. Things could look very different after the dominoes fall.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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