THE IRONY of the intensified focus on the economy is that the downturn has robbed both candidates of some of their best attributes. It’s true that the billions of dollars in pension-fund losses — which occurred through no fault of her own — have tarnished O’Brien’s ability to trumpet her achievements at the Treasury (helping to ferret out Big Dig cost overruns by refusing to sign off on bonds; cleaning up the office after an embezzling scandal tarnished the tenure of her predecessor, Joe Malone; bringing order to the lottery). But Romney has been hurt because in the wake of the Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom corporate scandals, the public takes a dim view of chief executives these days. Indeed, O’Brien played to that sentiment Sunday when she reacted to a new Romney ad that links some of the state pension-fund losses with her husband. "But, while she was Treasurer, her husband was a lobbyist working for Big Dig contractors and even for Enron," the ad says, going on to remind voters of "the $23 million we lost when O’Brien’s people invested in Enron stock — after the government said Enron was under investigation."
"The problem with Enron has nothing to do with my husband," O’Brien countered at a press conference outside her Whitman home. "It has everything to do with corrupt and greedy CEOs who put their own interests" ahead of their duty to shareholders. So if the economy has transformed O’Brien into merely another unsuccessful money manager, it has likewise made Romney into just another greedy business executive.
That was certainly the message of O’Brien’s major press event on Monday. Speaking in the bunker-like basement of 181 South Street, O’Brien launched a critique of Romney’s role at Damon Corp., a health-care company purchased by Bain and then sold for a profit. The company was subsequently sanctioned by the federal government for defrauding Medicare. With her most loyal and trusted aides by her side — First Deputy Treasurer Michael Travaglini, Treasury spokesman Jon Tapper, campaign strategist Dwight Robson, and campaign spokesman Adrian Durban — O’Brien said: "For months, Mitt Romney has not been telling the truth.... There’s a mess in corporate America, and its name is Mitt Romney." She spoke in front of a poster board titled "Did Tricky Mitt Take Corrective Action When He ‘Uncovered’ Medicare Fraud?" Countering Romney’s assertion that he had tried to fix the problems as soon as he learned of them, O’Brien charged that Romney had not fired the responsible corporate officers, reported the fraud to the government, informed shareholders of the mess, or corrected the books. (In a statement, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom failed to answer O’Brien’s specific charges, saying only that the candidate told "management to take corrective action" and, in turn, questioned O’Brien’s work for the failed Community Care Systems company.)
All of which brings us back to the central obsession of both campaigns: those independent voters. The Democrats in general and the O’Brien campaign in particular are convinced that independent voters in Massachusetts are social moderates who prefer candidates they perceive as liberal to those they perceive as conservative. Not that Democratic strategists can offer any evidence for this belief. Indeed, the O’Brien campaign didn’t even have any polling data suggesting that focus on gay issues would help them with undecided voters. Asked point-blank if empirical evidence prompted O’Brien’s press conference last week, Robson declined to comment.
Still, O’Brien loyalists say, the focus on gay issues simply plays to the perception that voters don’t trust — or believe — Romney on either social issues or his claim that he will reduce the state’s $1.5 billion budget shortfall without cutting key services. Forcing Romney into a box on social issues, such as gay marriage, draws out responses from the candidate that seem disingenuous, O’Brien supporters say. Romney maintains, for example, that he supports domestic-partnership benefits. Does Romney really expect us to believe he is willing to implement a new government program — domestic-partnership benefits for the partners of gay and lesbian municipal employees, of all things — in this austere financial climate?
It’s hard to say what the state’s independent voters are going to do on November 5. Remember that in the fiscally difficult year of 1990, the most important differences between the Republican Weld and the Democrat Silber were on social issues, and the moderate won. That would seem to bode well for O’Brien. Unless state voters see Romney as anything but a Silber, who, after all, was so intemperate that his outbursts earned the nickname "Silber Shockers."
If O’Brien ultimately wins, exit polling will provide some guidance on why voters did what they did. But the margin of victory will tell us something, too. If it’s close, the win will likely be chalked up to her efficient get-out-the-vote operation. If it’s not, it will seem that her decision to push social issues in tandem with economic ones was a winner.
If she loses, though, expect the postmortems to point to something nobody is supposed to care about — that she ignored the poll data. Still, the candidate must face reality. For the last 12 years, as every student of state politics knows, the Massachusetts gubernatorial election has been won and lost by the independent-suburban professionals who live between Route 128 and I-495. With many of them now out of work, they may be looking for the candidate who best tends to their economic interests. Believing she knew better than the consultants may turn out to be O’Brien’s fatal flaw.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com