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[talking politics]

Divide and be conquered (continued)

SO WHAT happens next? Democratic insiders see the 1980 congressional race to replace US Representative Robert Drinan as a template. In that year, Pope John Paul II called on Drinan, a Catholic priest, to resign from Congress because the Church opposed official political involvement among members of the priesthood. Four Democrats decided to run for Drinan’s seat: then–state representatives Barney Frank, who had to carpetbag into the race from Back Bay (he moved to Brookline in order to run), and David Mofenson of Newton; Arthur Clark, who was then the socially conservative mayor of Waltham; and Robert Shaffer, another conservative Democrat. (Frank persuaded another liberal mulling a run, John Kerry, to sit out.)

Conservatives convinced Shaffer, who was known mostly for his stance against abortion, to drop out and throw his five percent support to Clark. But liberals remained divided. Frank, who had a solid reputation from his days on Beacon Hill, launched his campaign first and raised the most money, and he enjoyed the bulk of liberal support. Mofenson had the backing of Representative John Businger of Brookline and the House leadership. In the weeks leading up to the election, polls showed Clark — who, as the Phoenix reported at the time, had called abortion "blood on our conscience" — leading both Frank and Mofenson. Liberals, including Frank’s supporters, called on Mofenson to drop out. When Mofenson failed to show up at a scheduled debate, the public knew that he had abandoned his run. Frank subsequently defeated Clark.

"We were saying, ‘David, it’s either going to be Frank or Clark, what do you want?’" Frank recalls. Frank, who is neutral in the race for the Ninth, says he sees progressive support going to whichever candidate emerges as the "stronger advocate."

Reached in his office in Newton, Mofenson declined to comment on his decision not to run for Congress two decades ago. But he paid a higher price for his choice than the current candidates would if they followed his example. Mofenson was forced to give up his seat in the Massachusetts House in order to run; when he left the race, he left elective politics for good. Because the seat in the Ninth will be filled through a special election, neither Jacques nor Joyce has to leave the state senate.

Other differences between the two situations, though, make it less likely that one of the liberals will drop out this time. In the 1980 race, Frank cut into the same Newton-Brookline liberal base that Mofenson thought belonged to him. By contrast, the current race boasts four serious candidates who can each point to distinct geographic support. And Mofenson faced his decision just two years after Michael Dukakis lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to conservative Ed King — a loss attributed, in part, to a challenge on the left from Cambridge city councilor Barbara Ackermann. ("Barbara’s candidacy hurt," Dukakis says today. "I was getting whacked by King on the right and Ackermann on the left. The rest was history.") The lessons of that race were still fresh.

Both Jacques and Joyce are ferocious political animals who won’t easily be persuaded to give up the race for a cause bigger than themselves. Besides, both have every incentive to stay in. Even if Jacques loses, she will have increased her visibility with voters (provided she doesn’t embarrass herself by coming in last). That will help in 2002 if she decides to get back into the lieutenant governor’s race. If Joyce loses, provided he doesn’t embarrass himself, he’ll be in a good position to challenge Lynch again in 2002. He will have built a solid network, and with a gubernatorial nomination at stake in the 2002 primary, high voter turnout can be expected throughout the district, diluting Lynch’s conservative South Boston support.

The election is only six weeks away — and, presumably, it’s not until Labor Day (five weeks away) that voters will start paying attention. In the meantime, Lynch is looking strong. Progressives would like to see a movement coalesce around an anti-Lynch candidate, the way anti-Flynn sentiment swung to Mike Capuano late in the Eighth District race three years ago. The only question is whether the lessons of 1980 will help fit this race into the mold of 1998. Which of the two candidates will be Mofenson, and which will be Frank?

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]


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Issue Date: July 26- August 2, 2001

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