The Democrats got some old-time religion at their state issues convention. But will their prayers for the governor’s office be answered?
BY SETH GITELL
KEY TO Democratic hopes of retaking the governor’s office in 2002 is labor support. Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, rallied the troops at a Saturday-morning event before the opening of the state Democratic Party Issues Convention. " It’s our job to hold candidates accountable to our agenda, " he said. " If they don’t have a good record, Joe, tell them what are we going to do. " To which one vociferous member, presumably Joe, replied: " Kick their asses out! "
In an interview later, Haynes explained his strategy for 2002. First, he’s going to get each candidate to fill out a questionnaire on key issues: " We want them to support our issues to get the support of the labor movement. " Rather than boding ill for Democratic prospects, Haynes argues, forcing the party to take stands that are hostile to major party donors — as in the Schuster nursing-home labor dispute — will move the party left and energize its base. This strategy will propel the 2002 Democratic nominee to victory the way it did for Senators John Kerry (in 1994) and Ted Kennedy (in 1996). " We beat Kerry’s brains in to talk about job training, " Haynes recalled. Further, citing a finding by MassINC that the median income has actually fallen in Massachusetts since the days when Michael Dukakis governed the state, Haynes contended that even suburban voters will be with the Democrats and labor. During his press briefing at the convention, Dukakis made reference to the same statistic.
Haynes called state Democratic Party chairman Phillip Johnston his " hero " and defended Johnston’s decision to press the party to involve itself in the Schuster affair. Any effort to paint the Democrats as " anti-business " will " backfire " on Governor Jane Swift and the Republicans, Haynes predicts: " It will give us a voice. " It’s true that, in the general election, the financial advantage will go to Swift, who is not participating in the Clean Elections system and raising money like gangbusters. Further, she will not have a primary opponent — unlike her Democratic rival, who will have just come through an especially bruising, money-depleting primary — and therefore her war chest will still be intact. But Haynes vows to make up that difference with an intense effort on the part of organized labor. Labor’s campaign will involve phone banking, worker-to-worker canvassing, and, if permitted under campaign-finance law, issue-oriented print, radio, and television advertising. As Haynes says, " It’s my job to inspire workers to realize the difference between Democrats and Republicans. "
SPRINGFIELD — For a minute, it was 1988 all over again. The lights of the convention hall dimmed. The familiar strains of Neil Diamond began wafting through the hall: “Everywhere around the world; they’re comin’ to America.” The speaker took the podium. It was Michael S. Dukakis. “That music brings back great memories,” he told the delegates. Great memories? Given that Dukakis was trounced in the ’88 presidential campaign, only to return to the Commonwealth to oversee a fiscal disaster, that’s pretty self-deluding.
Don’t worry. Dukakis isn’t running for president — or governor — again. The state Democratic Party had invited its elder statesman (who had served as governor from 1975 to ’79 and from 1983 to ’91) to address the state Democratic Issues Convention for a bit of old-time religion. Dukakis, after all, is the last Democrat to have won a governor’s race in Massachusetts, having defeated George Kariotis in 1986. (In fact, only two Democrats have served as governor of Massachusetts since the 1960s — Dukakis and Ed King, and King was a crypto-Republican at that.)
But the strange thing about the recognition given Dukakis, which bordered on unbounded nostalgia, was that five prominent attendees at the convention — Senate president Tom Birmingham, Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Secretary of State William Galvin, Congressman Martin Meehan, former state senator Warren Tolman, and former Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman — all want to be elected governor in 2002. One would think they’d resent anything that might remind voters what Massachusetts was like just before the Republicans took the governor’s office: chaotic and in the midst of fiscal meltdown. But oddly, that was not the case — even after party leaders received a warning from Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh on Friday, the eve of the convention. The relevant question, according to Lehigh, is whether the state Democrats are prepared to “steer the moderate sensible course that’s the best route to electoral success.” This question is even more pressing because, as Lehigh did not say, only 34 percent of Massachusetts registered voters are Democrats, and 51 percent are unenrolled independents. On Saturday, the partygave its answer to Lehigh’s question: “No.”
IF ANYTHING, virtually all the candidates played to the left. Birmingham lamented the plight of those without health insurance, made the case for indexing the minimum wage to inflation, and reiterated his support for a 50-cent increase in cigarette taxes. Tolman, as expected, argued for Clean Elections. O’Brien and Meehan invoked health care. Grossman called for a new “21st Century Teacher Corps,” an incentive program to get college students to commit to working in a public school for five years in exchange for free tuition. Meehan was the only candidate who didn’t tack to the left. He made his usual case for campaign-finance reform, but he also rejected choices between “government and business, or between workers and employers” — which left the crowd cold.
All this catering to party progressives has one simple explanation: to get on the ballot in the Democratic primary next year, candidates need the support of 15 percent of the state delegates. Without that 15 percent, candidates go home — no matter how attractive they might be in a statewide showdown against a Republican. That’s what happened to Michael Capuano, then the mayor of Somerville, when he vied for the nomination for secretary of state in 1994: he never made it out of the convention. There are, as Galvin puts it, “two different campaigns”: one for the delegates, another for the public. Galvin should know. He never had to face the cash-rich Capuano in the primary, and he ended up winning that 1994 secretary of state’s race.
Phil Johnston, the chairman of the state Democratic Party and Dukakis’s former secretary of human services, knows how to give the Democratic activists what they want. Even before the convention started, Johnston pushed for a state-party measure opposing Liberty Mutual Insurance Company’s plans to convert itself from a mutual firm, where policy holders have ownership rights, to a stock company, where they don’t. When the party voted for a resolution calling for a moratorium on such conversions, Johnston sent out a press release trumpeting, “The Democratic Party stands up for economic justice in Massachusetts.” Earlier last month, Johnston intervened in a struggle between labor and a pair of Democratic donors, Jerry and Elaine Schuster: he wrote to party-committee members asking them to consider pushing the Schusters to settle favorably with the union at a Wilbraham nursing home owned by Jerry Schuster. As for the party platform itself, it represented a shot across the bow to Representative John Rogers of Norwood and his Protection of Marriage Act: “We oppose efforts that would ban the provision of any benefits to gay and lesbian families that are now granted exclusively to married couples under Massachusetts law.” The platform also called for “full funding from general revenues of the Clean Elections System.”
Of course, not all these actions fall into the same category. The last two are primarily defensive moves in response to a couple of the most odious actions on the part of legislative leaders in recent memory. Rogers’s so-called marriage-protection bill is actually aimed at denying gay and lesbian couples the protections associated with marriage. The Clean Elections statement comes as state Democrats try to dig out of the mess created by House Speaker Tom Finneran, who put through a ridiculous provision for voluntary funding of the reform system passed by two-thirds of the voters in 1998.
It is the party’s forays into the other areas that could create trouble. Privately, some Democratic leaders say Johnston’s activism could distract the party from its goal of retaking the governor’s office. Nobody is saying that the substance of these efforts is wrong. The point is that, by diluting party energy, they could harm efforts to chart strategy and tactics. “The most important thing the Democratic Party can do is raise money for the general election,” says one leading state Democrat. Asked whether fundraising is made easier by the party’s battle with the Schusters, the Democrat says bluntly “No. It isn’t.” (In fact, the Schusters have decided not to give any more money to the state party.) The message is: work on winning the governor’s race, and issues such as worker rights and Liberty Mutual can be dealt with later.
IN SEPARATE interviews, neither Grossman nor O’Brien — who both appeal to moderates but have strong liberal credentials — would address the state party’s ideological positioning (although Grossman did come out in favor of the party’s position on Liberty Mutual). But neither could keep from uttering the phrase “fiscal discipline” a number of times when asked about the party’s predicament in a general election.
“My message is one of fiscal discipline,” said O’Brien, who uncovered an almost $9 million embezzlement scheme on the part of aides to her Treasury predecessor, Joe Malone, and blew the whistle on former governor Paul Cellucci for covering up Big Dig cost overruns. “One of the things we have to do as a party is appeal to those unenrolled independent voters. I think one of the first ways we can do that is to demonstrate we’re not going to squander the resources that we have.”
Grossman, who runs his family’s printing and graphic-design company MassEnvelopePlus, said: “The swing voters in the 2002 general election are the 52 percent of unenrolled voters who are going to insist on a candidate whose values are progressive, but whose commitment to fiscal discipline is unassailable.”
For his part, Johnston says it’s “absurd” to think that his initiatives might discourage unenrolled voters. “We’re very pro-business and we’re very pro-economic growth,” he says, noting that local Internet entrepreneur Chris Gabrieli will spearhead an effort to reach out to business leaders, high-tech workers, and young entrepreneurs.
Further, Johnston says he did not seek out the Schuster issue: labor called on him to deal with it. And he reports scores of telephone calls supporting his action. He says — and it’s hard to argue with him — that under Clean Elections, donors like the Schusters would no longer be able to pressure the party.
By energizing the party’s base, Johnston is hoping to pull off what Gore did nationwide in 2000: win the popular vote for the Democrats (see “Labor Rules,” left). “It’s very important that labor be energized,” he says, adding that labor, along with “activist women” and “minorities,” forms the backbone of Democratic support. Yet his strategy does not neglect unenrolled voters. These so-called independents, he believes, will return to the Democrats because the party will not appear to be in the pocket of big contributors — unlike the GOP.
If he’s right, the Democrats can cobble together a progressive coalition similar to the one Gore forged in 2000 — one that won a sizable majority in Massachusetts. But it’s a dangerous gamble. At a time when Swift has raised her poll numbers by lurching toward the center, the Democratic momentum appears to be going in the wrong direction.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: June 7-14, 2001