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Meet the new boss?
The left-wing conspiracy tries its hand at urban politics

TWO YEARS AGO, a nationwide army of disgruntled lefties and idealistic twentysomethings united to make former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy the most intriguing political insurgency in recent memory. Dean — now safely ensconced as chair of the Democratic National Committee — has since become part of the establishment, but his army lives on. And it has a new goal: winning grassroots races around the nation and building a movement that will give tired, unimaginative, and conventional candidates — and the special interests they cater to — something to think about.

Here in Massachusetts, Democracy for America (DFA) — which Dean created from his sprawling presidential machine, Dean for America, after the Democratic nomination was out of reach — is just one current in a newly emboldened progressive movement. That movement includes the statewide Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts (PDM) and local groups like Progressive Democrats of Somerville (PDS) and Progressive Democrats of Cambridge (PDC), all of which had their genesis in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial campaign of former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich. In Boston, city-council hopefuls are treating DFA as a key ally in the run-up to this year’s municipal elections. In Cambridge and Somerville, outsider candidates looking to take on the status quo are actually issuing from the ranks of PDC and PDS. To quote the Buffalo Springfield, there’s something happening here. But are the foot soldiers who drove the Dean and Reich insurgencies ready to reshape urban politics?

THE POLITICAL potential of the DFA Boston meet-up (known, as all such gatherings are, by the meetup.com Web site that makes them possible) was on full display on the evening of May 4. At 6 p.m., a bevy of Boston City Council candidates — Kevin McCrea, Matt O’Malley, Joe Ready, and Sam Yoon, all of whom are running at large, and Gibran Rivera, who’s challenging incumbent John Tobin for the right to represent West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain — arrived at the United South End Settlements’ Harriet Tubman House to make their cases. Mitch Kates, the campaign manager for at-large incumbent and mayoral challenger Maura Hennigan, kept quiet but watched the proceedings intently; so did Mel Poindexter, a Democratic State Committee member who supports Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Deval Patrick. For two hours on that Wednesday night, the small, sterile room where the DFA Boston meet-up took place was one of Boston’s political hot spots.

Not bad for an organization that didn’t even exist two years ago. Still, the collective eagerness to curry favor with DFA raises an awkward question: were the candidates who trekked to the South End wasting their time? The individuals and organizations that have acted as power brokers in Boston’s political history — from Martin Lomasney, the ward boss dubbed the "Mayor Maker" in the early-20th century, to the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 26 today — were courted by candidates because their influence was incontrovertible. At this point, the same can’t be said of DFA, either locally or nationally. Which, come to think of it, is probably why no council incumbents have visited the DFA Boston meet-up yet.

Consider DFA’s track record in the 14 months since its inception. When Howard Dean announced the formation of the group, he cited defeating George W. Bush and ousting congressional Republicans as two top short-term priorities. Of course, Bush was re-elected, and Republican control of Congress is stronger than ever. Neither outcome is DFA’s fault — and yet, even if one considers the bigger picture, the group’s success rate seems rather modest. According to DFA spokesperson Noreen Nielsen, just 33 of the 102 "Dean Dozen" candidates (top-tier prospects who usually, but not always, were endorsed in groups of 12) actually won their elections. All told, DFA has given contributions to 748 candidates, 634 of whom were not running for federal office; of these non-federal candidates, 319 were victorious. Not a horrible track record by any means — but considering Dean’s high profile, and the $1 million DFA has spent on its favored candidates so far, also not dazzling.

One major caveat: it’s hard to say how meaningful these numbers really are. Since the Dean faithful’s overweening passion was dumping Bush, the DFA faithful may well devote more time and energy to lower-level races this fall than they did in 2004. If so, the upcoming election cycle could be a very good one for candidates blessed with the DFA imprimatur. On the other hand, it could be that the ’04 campaign — with its hard-fought primary and emotionally fraught general election — created a collective intensity in the DFA ranks that will be difficult, if not impossible, to recapture. "It’s very hard for some organizations who have a wider base than local politics to engender local interest," warns Howard Leibowitz, a progressive Democrat and former intergovernmental-affairs chief for Boston mayor Tom Menino. "If people joined DFA because they were concerned about Iraq, or if they were concerned about other issues, it may be hard to get them to show up at a meeting about Boston City Council candidates."

If Leibowitz is the voice of experience, Brad Johnson is the voice of innocence. Johnson, a 28-year-old former high-tech geek who toiled for Howard Dean in Iowa and New Hampshire, has been the titular head of DFA Boston for the last six months. During a recent interview with the Phoenix, Johnson argued that DFA has, at the very least, the potential to transform the fabric of Boston politics. "There hasn’t been a very healthy participatory-politics scene in Boston," Johnson said. "You definitely, on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, have degrees of activism and such. But if you look at the official political structure of the Democratic Party, Boston might be the only city in Massachusetts which doesn’t have a city committee that meets. So that’s one less political horse that the power brokers in Boston need to deal with." As Johnson sees it, DFA can help fill that void — by disseminating information on council candidates, say, or pressuring Menino to debate Hennigan between now and Election Day, or merely fostering what he terms a "sense of connectedness." (As this last phrase suggests, DFA — like the Dean campaign before it — seems, at times, to be driven as much by a technocratic fascination with process as by a commitment to a particular ideology.)

Justified or not, Johnson’s optimism jibes with the steadily mounting confidence of Boston-area progressive activists. The 2004 legislative elections weren’t just an embarrassment for Mitt Romney (see "Human, All Too Human," News and Features, December 24, 2004). They also featured noteworthy wins by several progressive Democrats, including Carl Sciortino. Inspired by incumbent Vincent Ciampa’s opposition to gay marriage, Sciortino — a founding member of Progressive Democrats of Somerville — ousted Ciampa twice, first in the Democratic primary and then in the general (Ciampa waged a sticker campaign to retain his post), and now represents Somerville and Medford in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

More recently, in this spring’s special elections, Linda Dorcena Forry won the 12th Suffolk seat vacated by former House Speaker Tom Finneran after getting endorsements, and on-the-ground assistance with phone-banking and door-knocking, from virtually every major progressive political organization in Greater Boston. (The roster of groups laboring for Dorcena Forry included PDM, Neighbor to Neighbor, and the Commonwealth Coalition, as well as the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and the Freedom To Marry Coalition.) In the race for the open 18th Suffolk seat, meanwhile, first-time candidate Tim Schofield nearly won the Democratic primary after landing Reich’s endorsement and getting help from many of the same groups that supported Dorcena Forry. In the end, Schofield fell short. But the progressives who backed him took solace in the fact that the eventual victor, Michael Moran, won by staking out an emphatically progressive identity of his own (see "Great Golden’s Ghost!", News and Features, February 25). A few years ago, with the Green Party’s local and national profile on the rise, it seemed that left-leaning Democrats might leave the party in droves. Now, however, these same Democrats are increasingly convinced that they can change the party from within.

Nothing breeds confidence like success — and this year, the new progressive infrastructure is trying its hand at municipal elections in Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge. Two city-council aspirants in Cambridge, Jesse Gordon and Sam Seidel, are Progressive Democrats of Cambridge veterans and are explicitly running as PDC candidates. Across the border in Somerville, Rebekah Gewirtz and Marty Martinez, both Progressive Democrats of Somerville stalwarts, are running under the PDS banner. No members of DFA Boston are actually running for office this year. But it’s clear that the city-council candidates who visited the Tubman House last week all covet DFA’s support. So does Hennigan, who’s facing an uphill climb in her quest to unseat Menino. And even Menino reportedly plans to reach out to DFA in the near future, to help shore up his support among Boston’s progressives.

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Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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