Bowing out gracefully
BY SETH GITELL
Moments before taking the podium at the Parker House on July 12 to announce his withdrawal from the race for governor, former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman took a minute to greet a few members of the press who had been covering his campaign. Scot Lehigh and Frank Phillips of the Boston Globe and I happened to be sitting in the first two rows of the audience, and he greeted each of us by name and looked us in the eye. Then he got behind a lectern, flanked by his wife, Barbara, and son Ben. " In the words of the great songwriter Kenny Rogers — you all know that song ‘The Gambler’ — ‘you got to know when to hold ’em, and you got to know when to fold ’em.’ And because we did not think we had a legitimate chance of winning this five-way primary, I’ve decided to withdraw from the race, " he said. It was a classy end to a mostly classy campaign.
There’s been plenty of pontificating about Grossman’s dropping out and what it means — much of it wrong. Many analysts erroneously bought into the story line that his demise was helped along by the entry into the race of former secretary of labor Robert Reich. I helped advance that idea myself in a story I wrote before Reich announced his candidacy (see " Grossman vs. Reich, " News and Features, January 11). After all, both are Jewish, both had ties to former president Bill Clinton, and both tried to position themselves as outsiders. Reich’s decision to run, many believe, sucked the air out of Grossman’s candidacy.
" I think Bob Reich’s entry into the race had significant impact on our ability to be competitive, " Grossman said last Friday, after announcing his withdrawal. But while it’s true that Reich’s candidacy dealt his campaign a blow in early February, when the former US labor secretary won caucuses in heavily Jewish Newton and Brookline, Grossman had recovered from this upset by the state Democratic convention in May.
In many ways, Grossman had everything a successful politician needs. The head of MassEnvelopePlus, he had money, top-notch consultants, and an untiring willingness to work long hours. He doggedly and astutely picked up support from African-Americans, Latinos, and other ethnic groups, meeting with Cape Verdean leaders at one of his last campaign events. He was also courageous. During a gubernatorial debate at the Kennedy Library, when asked whether America's war on terrorism served "corporate interests," Grossman recast the question as one about democracy and then went out of his way to voice support for Israel, America’s strongest democratic ally in the Middle East — an issue that sometimes divides Democratic Party activists. But despite his virtues, he never caught on with voters.
I first met Grossman in Washington, during the height of the 1998 Clinton-impeachment debate. As chair of the DNC, he was in the midst of helping his party raise funds for the bitter midterm congressional fight. Despite the uphill battle, however, Democrats had a banner year. The party not only picked up seats, but Grossman helped Democrat Chuck Schumer defeat incumbent Republican New York senator Alfonse D’Amato. I spoke to Grossman on that election night, and he invited me to DNC headquarters several weeks later to discuss his future following his resignation as DNC chair. He struck me as a smart, savvy, well-connected political operator whose efforts had, against the odds, succeeded.
Grossman's behind-the-scenes electoral success at the DNC may well have planted the seed in his mind of graduating from political operative to a candidate in his own right. But it was not to be — or at least, not in 2002.
Speaking to the Globe, political consultant Dan Payne attributed Grossman’s failure to his reliance on TV commercials, which can’t create a candidacy. " It’s quite clear that money can’t buy you love, " Payne told Phillips. " You have to be a politician who has worked hard and developed relationships. " But this thinking represents a complete misreading of Grossman’s candidacy: through his years of fundraising and building both the state and national Democratic parties, Grossman had amassed enormous good will among politicians. When writing an in-depth profile of the would-be governor, I was able to quote no fewer than five members of the state congressional delegation praising him. The late South Boston representative Joe Moakley, for example, said of Grossman: " He’s been all over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He’s been in the ward rooms, the selectmen’s rooms. He’s been touring all over the state for years selling the Democrats. This guy’s in the pits. He’s been in the trenches. " The party insiders rewarded Grossman by helping him garner 22 percent of the delegates at the convention — more than enough to put him on the ballot.
But despite his political ties, the voter connection just wasn’t there. Even though Grossman had made the CNN-Fox-News-MSNBC circuit during Clinton’s impeachment, nobody around here really knew who he was. To deflect the perception that he was merely a money candidate — " another Steve Forbes, " in the words of political analyst Lou DiNatale — Grossman redoubled his efforts at " retail politics " aimed directly at voters, activists, and politicians via person-to-person contacts and individual approaches. (See " Is Grossman Our Next Governor? " , News and Features, March 16, 2000.) A student of Michael Dukakis’s campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s, he believed that if he did enough on the grassroots level, voters would reward him.
However, much has changed in the two decades since Dukakis leveraged statewide grassroots support to defeat incumbent governor Ed King. To pierce current voter apathy, a candidate needs a degree of celebrity — a quality possessed by both Republican Mitt Romney, who headed the Salt Lake City Olympics, and Reich. If Grossman were truly a money candidate, as DiNatale suggested, he might have had a chance. But this would have required political advertising on an exponentially larger scale than the modest statewide ad-buy of roughly $1 million to which he committed himself. Relative to this race so far, $1 million is a large sum to spend on ads, and certainly dwarfs the $0 spent by O’Brien. But success requires even more: lots of advertising, all the time. This is how billionaire Michael Bloomberg (who spent more than $50 million on TV alone) won the race for New York mayor and how Jon Corzine (who spent more than $70 million) got himself elected senator from New Jersey. Businessman Craig Benson is currently taking this tack in his run for New Hampshire governor. Grossman — really more of a community leader and philanthropist than a plutocrat — ran a campaign that focused more on meeting with activists and delivering policy-laden addresses than buying the saturation advertising that might have helped him win.
Now that he’s dropped out, political junkies are wondering who will get his support. Reich partisans hope their candidate will benefit, but that’s unlikely given the ill will between the two men. Most Grossman supporters will go the way of Somerville mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay, who wasted no time rallying to Treasurer Shannon O’Brien’s banner last week. At this point, the Democratic contest is now essentially a two-person race — Reich versus O’Brien — with Senate president Tom Birmingham fading fast (Warren Tolman, with his low unfavorable ratings and $2.4 million in Clean Elections money, is not completely out of the running either).Whoever wins the primary will need significant help from the Democratic apparatus to defeat Mitt Romney.
That’s where Grossman may come in. After his announcement, which included his promise of support for the Democratic nominee, State Democratic Committee communications director Jane Lane rushed up to welcome the former candidate into the fold. " If Phil [party chair Phil Johnston] wants me, he can have me, " Grossman said. We haven’t seen the last of Grossman yet.
Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
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