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Robert Reich’s guerrilla campaign
The candidate is running circles around his opponents by relying on young volunteers, taking huge risks, and speaking directly to the people

"Concentrate all our strength to make a frontal attack and an attack on one or both of his flanks, with the aim of wiping out one part and routing another so that our army can swiftly move its troops to smash other enemy forces. Strive to avoid battles of attrition in which we lose more than we gain or only break even. In this way, although inferior as a whole (in terms of numbers), we shall be absolutely superior in every part and every specific campaign, and this ensures victory in the campaign. As time goes on, we shall become superior as a whole and eventually wipe out all the enemy."

— Mao Tse-Tung on guerrilla warfare, and an apt description of Robert Reich’s campaign strategy.

HE HAS ONLY a fraction of the money and resources of his opponents. He travels light with a small coterie of devoted paid staff. He relies on an army of college-aged volunteers to barrage reporters with phone calls and staff campaign events. He thinks on the fly and addresses issues without the benefit of polls. He goes where his opponents don’t go. This is the insurgent gubernatorial campaign of former secretary of labor Robert Reich.

With seven weeks until the Democratic primary, Reich and his low-cost political campaign (he has only $200,000 in his campaign account) are turning conventional campaign wisdom on its head. Against the odds, Reich is still very much in the race for governor, polling strongly with voters. A July 14 Boston Herald poll that matched each of the four Democrats head-to-head against GOP gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney had Treasurer Shannon O’Brien winning 33 percent of the vote and Reich 31 percent — far above Senate president Tom Birmingham and former state senator Warren Tolman, who each garnered 24 percent. When former Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman dropped out of the gubernatorial race two weeks ago, a poll conducted by the Grossman campaign showed Reich and O’Brien within 12 points of each other — with Birmingham another 10 points behind. And a July 1 Channel 7 Suffolk University poll found O’Brien and Reich tied at 24 percent. Only a poll conducted by Birmingham’s campaign showed the Senate president in second place behind O’Brien, with 19 percent to her 31 percent. Even there, Reich was a close third with 15 percent. It's a pretty consistently impressive showing for Reich, and these results reflect a carefully selected sample of Democratic diehards with few, if any, independents included in the samples.

More impressively, Reich is driving the issues in the race, perhaps because of his unconventional approach. This surprising degree of control stands in stark contrast with the campaigns of Senate president Tom Birmingham, with its fetish for touting institutional endorsements, and Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who favors a hyper-cautious approach. "You can be fast, you can be quick, you can be agile, you can have a guerrilla movement," says Reich. "You just can’t do that in a big glossy campaign where taking risks is a sin. The bigger the campaign, the more traditional the campaign, the more risk-averse the campaign is."

REICH HAS CERTAINLY engaged in quite a bit of risk-taking in his campaign. Reich and Tolman were the only candidates to call on Cardinal Law to resign in the wake of the pedophilia scandals surrounding the Roman Catholic Church. Surprising all the other candidates and his staff, Reich came out last month in favor of gay marriage. And in the beginning of July, just one day before President Bush’s speech on corporate reform, Reich delivered a fiery speech on the same issue, sharply criticizing Bush’s handling of the corporate scandals engulfing Enron, Global Crossing, and WorldCom. In his speech, Reich noted that the tax plan "championed by the administration would have given Enron a retroactive tax break of $254 million, although Enron paid no taxes in four of the last five years." Reich’s speech was so timely and relevant to the concerns of voters that it prompted O’Brien and Romney to make their own speeches on the same subject.

Each of these examples show a candidate favoring his gut over polling data — although, to be sure, polls are rare at the cash-poor Reich campaign. Where Cardinal Law was concerned, Reich first said he wanted to stay out of the matter, citing the First Amendment. But in the meantime, when the series of allegations surrounding Law and the Reverend Paul Shanley — more sordid than ever — came out, Reich sensed that the ground had shifted. When it came to gay marriage, Reich made general statements early in the campaign relaying his conviction that gays and lesbians ought to be treated the same way as straight couples. But after going on the campaign trail and listening to the plight of gay couples — and talking with Corey Johnson, a former high-school football player, who served as marshal of the Gay Pride event, and attendee Mark O’Brien, who approached Reich during the event, the candidate decided to endorse gay marriage. Finally, as the overwhelming series of corporate scandals enveloped first Enron, then Tyco, then Worldcom, Reich decided the time was right to make a statement on corporate responsibility — an issue that as former head of the Labor Department, which oversees pension funds, was a natural for him.

Yet each new position carried considerable risk. With the church statement, Reich put himself in the precarious position of being a Jew criticizing the local representative of the Pope in a heavily Catholic state. By coming out in favor of gay marriage, Reich opened himself up to the danger that more-conservative independent voters might view him as too far to the left to be governor. And, by playing the anti-corporate card, Reich, with his credentials as an economic liberal, risked being characterized as too anti-business to govern the state in a fiscal downturn — a significant concern in a governor’s race in which the Democratic candidate in the general election will have to draw votes in the business-friendly suburbs against a strong Republican opponent.

"I think this is one of Bob’s virtues," says Reich’s campaign manager, Mark Longabaugh, of the candidate’s willingness to sound off on issues, such as gay marriage, without consultation with his staff. "To him, this was not an issue of political calculation. It was not something he would pick up the phone and call his campaign about." Longabaugh says he did not learn about Reich’s new position on gay marriage for a day and a half. The broader public did not learn about the news until Bay Windows, a gay weekly, reported it as part of an interview with the candidate.

"I do a lot of things that may or not be helpful to the campaign," says Reich. "I do what I believe in. I say what I believe."

As part of this open approach, his campaign posts his schedule on its Web site well in advance — a rarity in the political world. This form of disclosure, for example, helped tip off his opponents that he was planning a major speech on corporate responsibility. As a result, Tolman gave a speech on the same topic the day before Reich; Romney and O’Brien, the same day. Longabaugh says the benefit of generating discussion in the race is worth the risk. "The truth is that both Romney and O’Brien reacted to us and ended up holding press conferences that were defensive," says Longabaugh. Operatives from opposing campaigns frequently crash Reich’s events and audio tape or videotape them. Longabaugh says all that’s worth the risk. "We’re not running some Rose Garden strategy where we want to pile up millions of dollars and not expose the candidate to the public."

But Reich’s on-the-fly style can get the campaign into trouble. Last Thursday, he traveled to the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester and delivered a strong speech on fighting crime. Things started out well enough. Like his statements on the cardinal, gay marriage, and corporate responsibility, Reich’s speech on crime came out of his sense that the gubernatorial candidates were abdicating responsibility on a vital political issue. Aside from Birmingham’s comment criticizing an effort on Beacon Hill to loosen gun-control laws, the candidates for governor have been all too quiet on the worsening urban-crime problem; none, for example, attended the funeral of Trina Persad, a 10-year-old girl slain in gang crossfire. Following a meeting with the Reverend Eugene Rivers at Baker House in Dorchester, Reich decided he had an obligation to speak out. Speaking to a largely African-American audience of less than a hundred people, Reich delivered an effective speech. He discarded a written text distributed to reporters — complete with quotations from Robert F. Kennedy — and spoke clearly and to the point. At the beginning of his talk, he asked the crowd "Can I have an Amen?" in a straightforward tone (different from the church antics of Mitt Romney several weeks ago in a similar setting; see "Bush III," News and Features, July 5). Later, when Reich made a statement in favor of faith-based groups, Rivers shouted "Amen" several times, overwhelming Reich’s flow. This time Reich remained silent and stared at Rivers straight-faced — an antic that drew laughs. It was, all-in-all, a well-received performance.

But Reich included, within his proposal, a call to give people previously convicted of a felony caught carrying guns a two-year minimum sentence — when state law currently calls for three years in prison. In politics as in war, details matter and this bout of campaign sloppiness obscured a positive story. The Boston Globe pounced on the error with a story headlined REICH’S PROPOSAL FOR GUN CRACKDOWN GOES AWRY; PLAN WOULD EASE CURRENT LAW. Confronted with the mistake, Longabaugh said the goal of Reich’s proposal was to toughen the sentence for felons who carry guns. "I don’t think some small technical error disrupts the thrust of that at all."

The truth of the matter was that the error overshadowed an event that otherwise reflected many of Reich’s strengths: his willingness to speak out on important issues, his ease with deviating from a prepared text, his skill as a speaker. Several leading African-American ministers were present, and, despite his flub, Rivers greeted the candidate warmly after the speech was over. Reich performed ably. The Dorchester Reporter covered the event and was expected — at the time of the Phoenix's deadline — to run a straightforward dispatch on Reich’s speech. In the long-run, the crime misstep may not be viewed as badly as it was the day following the speech.

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Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2002
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