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Meet the new boss? (continued)

Related links

Democracy for America

Formerly Dean for America, the Burlington, Vermont–based organization was reconstituted in March 2004 and now seeks to elect socially progressive, fiscally moderate candidates at all levels of government.

Democracy for America Boston

The Boston DFA meet-up has the potential to become a force in city politics, but a host of questions remain.

Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts

Left-leaning, statewide Democratic organization that grew out of Robert Reich’s 2002 Democratic gubernatorial campaign.

IT ALL SOUNDS very impressive. But one nagging question remains:

So what?

Consider the strange case of the DFA Boston meet-up. The group’s Web site, dfa.meetup.com/79/, boasts a membership of "2,482 Supporters of Democracy." Though not huge, this bloc is certainly big enough to be influential. In 2003, for example, 1000 more votes would have vaulted at-large challenger Patricia White onto the council at the expense of incumbent Steve Murphy, who would have lost his seat. Similarly, 1700 more votes would have allowed Felix Arroyo to edge his fellow at-large incumbent, Michael Flaherty, as the council’s top vote-getter — which, in turn, would have boosted Arroyo’s political aspirations and dealt Flaherty’s a serious blow.

The problem is, it’s not clear that DFA Boston is anywhere near that substantial. At the most recent meet-up, for example, about 35 people showed up; the candidates and their handlers constituted one-third to one-half of this total. At the meeting’s end, when Johnson urged interested parties to stick around and help hammer out a protocol for endorsements, only six people stayed in the room.

The discrepancy between DFA Boston’s declared membership and active participation — at least at the most recent meeting — suggests that the potential financial rewards of DFA support should be treated with skepticism as well. In the next few weeks, the organization’s national leadership — based in Burlington, Vermont, and headed by Jim Dean, who took the reins when his brother was named Democratic National Committee chairman — will be soliciting endorsement suggestions from local DFA chapters. Then, after sorting through recommendations from across the country, the DFA higher-ups will throw their organizational weight behind the candidates they deem most promising.

Suppose that Sam Yoon, the first Asian-American to seek elected office in Boston, ends up in this elite group. Later this summer, DFA members from around the country (who number, according to a DFA spokesperson, in the "hundreds of thousands") would receive e-mails touting Yoon’s candidacy and urging recipients to support him financially. If 10,000 former Dean backers were to shell out $20 a head for Yoon, his campaign would get a massive infusion of cash — always a good thing for any candidate, but especially welcome this year, as the cost of running for city council reaches new heights (see "Bank on It," News and Features, April 15).

It’s a nice idea, but it but it doesn’t always work. Last year, for example, Monica Palacios-Boyce ran for the open state representative seat in the First Hampden District. Despite landing a spot in the inaugural Dean Dozen, Palacios-Boyce was crushed by her Republican opponent, Todd Smola, by a two-to-one margin. Among Palacios-Boyce’s weaknesses: not enough cash. "[Being on the Dean Dozen] raised her, like, nothing," says one political observer. "That’s what killed her — she was never able to get off the ground because she was never able to raise money. Groups like DFA want to be powerful players, but they need to decide what they’re going to bring to the table."

In addition to turning their potential electoral and fundraising prowess into reality, the leaders of groups like DFA Boston — most of whom cut their political teeth in Dean’s presidential campaign — will need to come to terms with the concrete realities of city politics, where grudges can fester for years and slights (both real and imagined) are felt with extra acuteness. During his discussion of DFA’s potential, for example, Brad Johnson likened Tom Menino’s refusal to debate Maura Hennigan — and the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s fondness for closed-door meetings with certain Boston city councilors — to Tom DeLay’s morass of legal problems. "Any person in a position of power, especially if they’ve been around for a long time, will do things like this," Johnson said. It might not be a bad comparison. But as Johnson and his colleagues try to recast themselves as urban power brokers, this type of candor — however refreshing — may incur the wrath of the very people they hope to influence.

Finally, a number of other key questions remain unanswered. For example: will DFA Boston — which remains overwhelmingly white — be able to make meaningful connections with Boston’s communities of color? Or this: how much will DFA be hurt by the departure of Dean, who could have been just the charismatic figure to lead a genuine national insurgency, but opted instead to become a consummate party insider?

Six months from now, the question of whether the progressive foray into urban politics is a meaningful part of a bigger story — or, conversely, an ill-advised misadventure that should never have been attempted — will be easier to answer. In the interim, it’s a safe bet that candidates running in Boston’s city elections will continue giving Johnson and his DFA compatriots the benefit of the doubt. As one political observer puts it: "Everyone is courting these folks because they might have a big impact. But we don’t really know yet."

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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