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[talking politics]

So You Want To Be The Governor? (continued)

Bad news for the Birmingham campaign: the latest heavyweight bout between Evander Holyfield and Chelsea’s John Ruiz has been postponed.

But if the Senate president won’t be able to milk his fellow Chelsean’s boxing prowess as he did at the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in March (see "Acting like a Champ," TJI, March 23) and the state issues convention in June (see "Convention Capers," TJI, June 8), he is wise to begin bringing his message to the public in upcoming "Talk to Tom" events. No candidate stands in a more perilous position, because he must constantly battle the person widely recognized as the most powerful in the state: House Speaker Tom Finneran. If Birmingham chooses to struggle with Finneran from now until the Democratic primary on issues such as redistricting and Clean Elections, people will associate him with Beacon Hill ugliness like the 1999 budget debacle, which doesn’t help anyone get elected to statewide office. If, on the other hand, Birmingham simply goes along with Finneran, then he’ll negate any rationale for his campaign. If Birmingham can’t stand up to Finneran now, what makes anyone think he’ll be able to as governor? the anti-Birmingham faction will ask.

Somebody in the Birmingham camp seems aware of that problem. That’s what probably prompted Frank Phillips of the Globe to report in July that Birmingham planned to run television ads to criticize Finneran. Birmingham promptly denied the existence of such a plan, the Globe stood by the story, and the truth is known only to Phillips and his source. But this was obviously a trial balloon from someone trying to help Birmingham, whose attempt backfired. Ads of this kind would only bring back bad memories of the budget fight.

Birmingham would do better to run television ads trumpeting the state senate’s legislative successes — the popular senior pharmacy program and education reform. Show Birmingham with seniors, with suburban moms happy about their children’s education. He needs to sell the concrete legislative achievements that are his biggest strength. None of the other prospective gubernatorial candidates has a legislative record comparable to that of Birmingham, who can take credit for almost everything passed by the Senate. So he needs to stress that.

But he also has to worry about critics’ charges that his plan to fund the Clean Elections Law would give him an unfair advantage (see "The Senator’s Dilemma," News and Features, March 23). Birmingham’s plan would delay the start of the Clean Elections system until 90 days after the budget passes. In theory, Birmingham could spend the money he’s already raised until that time, then opt into the system and use public money. This is a valid criticism. He has to bite the bullet and push for the funding of the measure as voted on by the public in 1998.

Grossman needs to start using some of his money to make an impression on the public. He’s already spent plenty — $750,000, according to a June Globe story — but so far he’s been using it to build a statewide political operation, not his image.

To be fair, the MassEnvelopePlus executive has almost the same amount of support as Birmingham, who’s been in the public eye for a decade. But there’s nothing wrong with spending money on television advertising — and he’d be the first of the prospective candidates to do so. The right kind of ads could transform Grossman’s Achilles’ heel, lack of experience in elective office, into a positive: as the only private-sector candidate, he could use his successful business background to distinguish himself in the face of a slipping economy, and he’d position himself as the anti-hack in a field of hacks. A good model would be the 1992 Senate campaign of Russell Feingold, who turned his underdog status to his advantage when ad men filmed him attempting to visit the homes of his political opponents and suggested that he had been "endorsed by Elvis." Grossman could even tap Feingold’s ad man, Steve Eichenbaum, to help produce the pieces. (This type of ad campaign would also work for Tolman, who could pop up in unexpected places à la Michael Moore in Roger & Me, asking Finneran and Birmingham about their Clean Elections plans.)

Says Grossman: "I’m not going to rule out any strategy that will enhance my ability to achieve the credibility of a candidate whose values and ideas are increasingly relevant to the people of this state."

Galvin has positioned himself as a health-care reformer and good-government watchdog, but his "Prince of Darkness" image has always threatened to make it hard for voters to warm up to him. Finneran, a putative ally, seemed to sum up the prevailing view on Tuesday when he remarked to the Globe that Galvin is "not the most charming guest at the cocktail party." One Beacon Hill insider’s advice: Galvin "should smile more."

Though the secretary of state successfully navigated Swift’s absence from Beacon Hill without any Alexander Haig–style "I’m in charge here" blunders, he should have exploited the unique power vacuum as a chance to put his chilly image to rest. Galvin could have presided over award ceremonies for young people and honored carefully chosen nonprofit groups for their good work. The events could have been videotaped for use in future TV ads, and press releases could have been circulated to trumpet Galvin’s "softer side." He also would be wise to appear in public more with his wife and daughter.

But he’s still no teddy bear, as voters were reminded when he leapt to criticize his rival O’Brien this week after some 7000 lottery tickets went missing. "I think they need to restore some confidence in the game," he told the Herald. Galvin is likely to use his powers with the media to knock Birmingham and the others down a peg as well, but if he wants to attract any voters who turn away from his competitors, personalizing himself will be all the more important.

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Issue Date: August 2-9, 2001

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