WHAT IS THE matter with the Democrats running for Massachusetts governor in 2002?
In New York, former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo is already emerging as the Democrat to beat in next year’s primary. In Maryland, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is doing the same. But here in Massachusetts, a Democratic state in its 11th year of Republican rule, no Democrat has broken from the pack — surprising, since the recent absence of the corner office’s current occupant, Jane Swift, would seem to have offered gubernatorial aspirants a rare opportunity to show off.
"They all missed an opportunity to show what kinds of governors they’d be when Swift was on maternity leave," says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. "No one made any headway. There was a vacuum and nobody filled it."
Now that US Representative Marty Meehan of Lowell has announced that he isn’t running, five Democrats are either declared or probable candidates: State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Secretary of State William Galvin, former state senator Warren Tolman, Senate president Tom Birmingham, and former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman. But none has moved to exploit the opening left by Meehan’s decision. Meehan had been the front-runner, for lack of a better word, in a July UMass poll, which showed him with 20 percent of the vote; O’Brien had 14 percent, Birmingham had seven percent, Grossman had six percent, Galvin had five percent, and Tolman had three percent (41 percent were undecided).
Maybe summer is causing their sluggishness. Maybe it’s the distraction of the special election to replace Joe Moakley in Congress. Or maybe it’s just that the candidates are still focused on the preliminary tasks — raising money, building a statewide organization, and lining up the support of prospective Democratic delegates to the May 31–June 1 state nominating convention at the Worcester Centrum, where each candidate needs to win 15 percent of delegates to get on the primary ballot. O’Brien, Galvin, and Tolman also need to find out whether the Clean Elections Law will be funded, because if so, they may run under its dictates. But none of this means the candidates can’t start thinking about raising their profiles. We’ve taken the liberty of suggesting how they might do it.
With Meehan gone, O’Brien moves to the front of the pack — although in Massachusetts that’s a dangerous place to be. (Witness the media firestorms that burned Max Kennedy and State Senator Stephen Lynch when they were dubbed the front-runners in the race to replace Moakley.) But she’s still got just 14 percent of the vote. O’Brien’s challenge, then, is to broaden her appeal without attracting attacks. Her team’s best bet may be to persuade the Boston Globe’s Living/Arts section to write a big feature story on how the treasurer, mother of a toddler daughter, has managed to balance career and parenthood without requiring staffers to baby-sit — one of Swift’s major faux pas as lieutenant governor. Her staffers could also get her and the baby on Channel 5’s Chronicle.
Even if she makes herself look warm and fuzzy, however, it’s dangerous to head the state’s finance office at a time when the economy is turning downward. O’Brien won political points by blowing the whistle on the Big Dig cost overruns, but she needs to keep reminding voters that she refused to go along with the rest of the Beacon Hill gang as the project needed ever more money. Meanwhile, O’Brien already hosts large-scale "Money Conferences for Women" aimed at educating women on financial issues and investing. She could broaden this message to talk to voters about how everyone can weather bad financial times.
O’Brien also needs to neutralize potential criticism on two other fronts. First, she must take every opportunity to remind people that the upcoming trial of Richard Arrighi — charged in connection with a scheme to embezzle $9.5 million from the Treasury — involves crimes that took place during the watch of her predecessor, Republican Joe Malone, not hers. She must also act to stop critics from painting her as a Beacon Hill hack. Her father is a politically connected member of the Governor’s Council — as everyone in Massachusetts was reminded when he blasted Swift for conducting a council meeting by speakerphone during the late stages of her pregnancy — and her husband, Emmet Hayes, is a lobbyist and former state representative. Again, a soft feature in the Globe or on television might be the best way to avert this charge: potential problems are best handled pre-emptively.