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Shannon O’Brien needs to shore up her relationship with minority voters. Plus, the media consortium must go.

IN AN ISSUE frenzy unique to political campaigns, the topic of involvement in communities of color — or the lack thereof — by leading gubernatorial candidates State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien and Republican businessman Mitt Romney has dominated the governor’s race this past week. State Senator Dianne Wilkerson kicked off the mania with an op-ed in the Boston Globe last Wednesday, in which she warned O’Brien of a "potentially fatal blow" to her campaign if she didn’t reach out to the minority voters who voted in the Democratic primary — but not for her. "Recent history would suggest that unless there is a dramatic shift between now and Nov. 5, communities of color will not be moved to vote for O’Brien in the final election," Wilkerson wrote.

Reverend Steven Thomas of the Asah Family Life Enrichment Center, who has done some community activism to address violence (particularly after the devastating murder of 10-year-old Trina Persad, who was shot this summer while playing at the Jermaine Goffigan Park), ratcheted up the rhetoric over the weekend when he announced that he might encourage black voters to stay home on Election Day if O’Brien didn’t stop taking minority voters for granted.

The Globe published a report Tuesday noting that neither campaign employs a person of color in a top-level position. This is deplorable. "A pox on all their houses," says Boston city councilor Chuck Turner of Roxbury. "The reality is that they just don’t see us as part of the process."

To equate O’Brien with Romney on this score is self-defeating, however. As the Globe reported, the Romney/Kerry Healy campaign has 39 paid staffers, two of whom are members of minority groups. The O’Brien/Chris Gabrieli campaign has 29 paid staffers, four of whom are minorities. Put another way, the percentage of minorities on O’Brien’s paid staff is 14, which nearly mirrors that of the state (15 percent), while the best that can be said about Romney’s measly five percent is that at least he’s got a better record than that of the Augusta National Golf Club.

For a while now — not just since Wilkerson penned her op-ed — the O’Brien/Gabrieli campaign has been talking about ending predatory lending practices by banks and building more affordable housing, two issues that hit communities of color particularly hard. The candidates have also pledged to eliminate racial disparities in health care by 2010. Where’s the Romney campaign on all this? Citing the civil-rights record of Mitt’s father, George, (puh-lease) and salivating over the opportunities created when a key Democratic base beats up the party’s gubernatorial nominee.

The difference between Romney and O’Brien on issues of race is, as the cliché goes, the difference between night and day. Yet Kenneth D. Johnson, executive director of Dorchester’s Ella J. Baker House, echoes Wilkerson’s warning: "I think the black vote this year will be pivotal ... if black folks elect to stay home, that will have consequences." Would one of the state Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies really organize itself in the coming weeks to ensure O’Brien’s defeat? What’s really going on here? A clue can be found in Wilkerson’s op-ed column: during her tenure as state treasurer, "O’Brien failed to deposit one cent in the Boston Bank of Commerce, the largest black-owned bank in the country, which is headquartered in Boston."

What Wilkerson is talking about is good old-fashioned patronage. Or, as Johnson puts it, promising "goodies." It’s become fashionable to deplore this aspect of politics. But let’s face it, patronage is what greases the wheels of democracy — especially here in Massachusetts. When Democrats take care of their traditionally ethnic campaign workers — the Irish and the Italians — with program grants, community investment, and yes, jobs, it’s called smart politics. But when they do the same with black supporters, it’s called affirmative action. Say what you will about the process of patronage, but as long as it’s how the crucial business of getting out the vote gets done, it’s disingenuous to question Boston’s black leaders for complaining about O’Brien’s campaign.

Questioning how the issue was raised, though, is fair game. Threatening O’Brien’s candidacy in such a public fashion, as Thomas did, was a very bad idea. "I’m not sure airing that publicly at that particular moment was the best thing to do," Johnson says of Thomas’s threat to urge black voters to stay home on November 5. "It’s not clear to me in particular that Shannon O’Brien was given an opportunity in private to talk about the issues and thus had no opportunity to craft a response to meet the concerns."

That O’Brien hadn’t taken care of this base before Wilkerson’s column was published, though, says something about her campaign. It’s not a business-as-usual Democratic run for office. O’Brien is making a blatant appeal to independents and suburban voters — those most interested in reforming state government. In doing so, she’s going to alienate more groups than just the Democrats’ black base. Expect to hear rumblings from labor any day now.

The last Democrat elected governor faced the same problem. Michael Dukakis had huge appeal to suburban-independent voters. He has some simple advice for O’Brien: continue to emphasize her ideas over Romney’s. "You need to ask what kinds of things are you proposing, and what do they mean for minorities? The kinds of things she’s talking about in health care, housing, and education, if you compare them with Romney’s proposals, there’s no comparison." And "once you get elected ... you do everything to make sure your administration looks like the Commonwealth."

It’s what Dukakis did. Back in the 1980s, his deputy chief counsel was a young black woman. Her name? Dianne Wilkerson.

It’s absurd to think that Massachusetts’s "black and brown Democrats," as Wilkerson put it, are going to follow Thomas’s ill-thought-out advice and stay home. To do so would hand victory to Romney, and that would be foolish. Everyone knows that — even Mitt Romney.

All that said, it’s important to talk about the issues. But it’s important now to move on — and elect the person whose core policies will serve the Commonwealth and its communities of color best.

THIS WEEK marked the second debate between O’Brien and Romney and the second time Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian candidate Carla Howell have been excluded from the stage. There is simply no reason to exclude Stein and Howell, despite Middlesex Superior Court judge Linda Giles’s ruling Tuesday that the consortium could invite — and exclude — whomever it wants (see "Open Up the Debates," Today’s Jolt, October 1, on Both women are, by any measure, legitimate candidates for governor. The Green Party’s Ralph Nader won six percent of the statewide vote during the 2000 presidential election, easily topping the three percent needed for major-party status. And Howell won 12 percent of the vote the same year during her run against Senator Ted Kennedy.

It’s time to rethink the usefulness of the media consortium, which formed in 1994, in part, to force Kennedy to debate Romney during their bitter Senate battle. Eight years ago, the consortium performed a valuable public service. Today, it’s inadvertently playing the role of kingmaker by keeping out two candidates with genuine appeal to the wide swath of voters seeking reform in this year’s gubernatorial election.

To be sure, Stein and Howell are long-shot candidates. But the Greens and the Libertarians played by the rules and won their ballot spots fair and square. For the consortium to deny them a place on the debating platform is to engage in the kind of exclusionary Beacon Hill bossism that the media so decry. Politics — and by extension government and democracy — should be something more than a sporting contest. It’s about the fair play of ideas. These two maverick parties are chock full of ideas — good and bad. To marginalize their candidacies is to pass up a chance to energize an intellectually anemic governor’s race. The mainstream and largely corporate-controlled media have once again shortchanged the public.

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Issue Date: October 3 - 10, 2002
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