IN JANUARY, out of the blue, O’Brien announced venture capitalist and millionaire Chris Gabrieli as her lieutenant-governor running mate. The move was immediately seen as O’Brien’s attempt to close the money gap between her and Birmingham and, ultimately, her Republican foe (then believed to be Swift). Gabrieli, after all, had put more than $5 million of his own money into his 1998 congressional campaign. If he was prepared to contribute so much back then, wouldn’t he spend almost as much now to help the Democrats retake the governor’s office?
Not everyone in the campaign agreed with the decision to invite Gabrieli onto a joint ticket with O’Brien. Some felt he had pressured his way onto the team. Others felt that his presence would be an organizational drain. (O’Brien will have to devote vital resources to making sure Gabrieli receives the support of 15 percent of the delegates at the state convention in June in order to get him on the September primary ballot.) That Gabrieli has yet to finance television ads to get O’Brien’s message out has magnified some of the tension. For his part, Gabrieli says he’s not convinced of the efficacy of early television advertising — a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the campaign. "I don’t think people are that interested right now," he says. "I don’t believe the window for communicating with voters is that easy."
It’s something of an odd partnership. That much was clear when O’Brien and Gabrieli toured the MedSource plant, in West Newton, prior to announcing their economic plan. Josh Tolkoff, a Gabrieli pal, led the candidates around the medical-instrument-manufacturing facility. When O’Brien asked about an odd piece of medical equipment, Gabrieli himself volunteered a lengthy explanation of its function.
Later, both O’Brien and Gabrieli introduced their economic plan, a road map for providing tax incentives — mostly tax credits —to attract companies to do business in Massachusetts and stimulate the local economy. After a brief introduction from O'Brien, Gabrieli spoke at length. His address, while heavy on economic theory, outlined the centrist policies of the O’Brien campaign — policies designed to appeal to the 51 percent of state voters who are unenrolled. "The Republicans have offered a laissez-faire approach," Gabrieli declared, before launching into a peroration on the ideas of Nobel Prize–winning MIT economics professor Robert Solow, who argues that government ought to actively encourage private investment (although not through tax cuts) which, in turn, leads to economic growth. He concluded his remarks by pointing to O’Brien and saying, "We need a CEO of this state ... this is the CEO who knows how to turn those ideas to the benefit of the Commonwealth." In stark contrast with Gabrieli, O’Brien avoided any discussion of economic theory, telling her listeners that she felt "comfortable [talking about the] short-term steps" the Commonwealth needs to take to get out of the current budget predicament.
Asked whether Gabrieli might have been a little too high-profile at the economic-development event, O’Brien notes that she’ll allow all her policy experts to speak at length when it comes to their individual areas of expertise. Brandeis professor and former state representative John McDonough, a health-care expert, for example, will likely take center stage when O’Brien introduces her health-care initiative, she points out. Praising Gabrieli as "really smart," O’Brien says, "I want the people around me to be smarter than me.... If Chris talks a little longer than me, I have a fabulously healthy ego. As long as we’re getting something done, I’m not unhappy about that." Gabrieli, in turn, praises O’Brien for understanding what teamwork is all about. "It doesn’t mean that everyone else on the team does all the work and you get all the fun stuff," he says. True. But in an environment where press opportunities are relatively limited, granting so much time to a team member may detract from the overall message that O’Brien should be governor. And in a campaign where the ultimate opponent is the take-charge Romney, creating the image of a gubernatorial candidate who plays second fiddle too often may redound to her detriment.
Beyond that, the contrast between the MedSource event and Saturday’s talk to female Democratic activists seems to indicate that O’Brien is running several different campaigns at once. To illustrate the benefits of O’Brien and Gabrieli’s economic thinking, handlers at the MedSource event arranged for O’Brien to meet an immigrant worker who had advanced at the company through worker training. The worker was male. Why not have her meet a woman as well? Given that some within her campaign believe that Democratic and independent women will spur her to victory in September and November, why not keep the gender theme consistent with each event? Meanwhile, Saturday’s event could have used more economic discussion. Linda Guttmann of Arlington, the proprietor of Body & Soul Massage, who attended the Waltham talk, was left wondering about O’Brien’s economic plans. Guttmann noted that her massage practice has suffered due to the downturn in the economy. "I just wanted to hear her say more about the economy," she says.
Although O’Brien did articulate the essence of her economic plan on Saturday, it was short on details: "My message is that I’m a fiscal watchdog, who’ll have the right priorities, who’s going to invest in schools and make sure we get better health care," she said. The Waltham and West Newton events made it clear: more unity between her campaign themes is needed.
GIVEN O’BRIEN’S financial predicament, she will undoubtedly rely upon the help of third-party fundraising groups, such as EMILY’s List. It may be tempting to work full-throttle with the group, which helps pro-choice Democratic women candidates; but O’Brien should exercise caution. State Senator Cheryl Jacques of Needham relied heavily on the group for fundraising and advice during her recent campaign for the Ninth Congressional District, a race eventually won by former state senator Stephen Lynch. Jacques’s campaign ads focused largely on the issue of abortion — to the exclusion of introducing her to voters. For Jacques, EMILY’s List was a liability, not an advantage.
Asked whether EMILY’s List might have the same effect on her campaign, O’Brien says there’s nothing she can do about it. Officially, third-party interest groups cannot consult with candidates about expenditures on the candidate’s behalf. "I have no control over what they do," she says. Unofficially, a candidate can tell a group to stay out of the race. O’Brien refuses to do that. "I don’t think I have to send that message to EMILY’s List," she says. "I think they saw what happened in Cheryl Jacques’ race." When asked about a more recent congressional primary in Chicago, where EMILY’s List ran ads against pro-choice Democrat Rahm Emanuel (for favoring the North American Free Trade Agreement, of all things), O’Brien simply vows to avoid negative campaigning.
But Jacques, in some ways, does not make for an apt comparison with O’Brien. Given its candidate’s insider appeal and conservative strategy, O’Brien’s campaign in some ways resembles Lynch’s, which was also conservatively run. But Lynch — knowing he would win big in South Boston — could get away with a somewhat cautious campaign. He knew that as long as he did everything he was supposed to do, he could defeat his Democratic opponents. His Republican opponent, State Senator Jo Ann Sprague of Norwood, was not particularly fearsome.
For O’Brien, however, simply winning the nomination won’t be enough. Ultimately, she will have to beat Mitt Romney in a statewide election. If she doesn’t begin to take her whole campaign to the next level, she won’t be up to the challenge.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com