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Allston-Brighton Democrats’ golden opportunity

As someone born and raised in Brighton, educated at Harvard, and trained in law at the College of William and Mary, State Representative Brian Golden should be a shoo-in for re-election this fall to his 18th Suffolk House seat in the city’s Allston-Brighton section. Instead, the 37-year-old lawmaker is one of only handful of incumbents statewide — and perhaps the only one in Boston — in danger of losing his seat.

Golden’s decision in October 2000 to endorse Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush over Vice-President Al Gore on the eve of the Boston presidential debate earned him not only the enmity of state and local Democratic officials, but also two well-heeled, highly educated opponents in the September 17 Democratic primary.

Yet Golden says he has " no regrets " about endorsing Bush and helping him foil the Florida recount. The state representative says he chose Bush because of his opposition to so-called partial-birth abortions and his support for private-school vouchers — two issues of great importance, Golden says, to his Roman Catholic constituents.

Based on principle or not, it is a decision could cost Golden the election, says Michael Moran, a top political operative for city councilor and state-treasurer candidate Stephen Murphy, who came in second to Golden in 1998’s five-way Democratic primary for the then-open seat.

" Allston-Brighton is still a heavily Democratic area, " Moran explains. " Many people are still deeply upset, myself included, that he supported George Bush over Al Gore. And that could determine the outcome of the race. "

Golden — who, as a major in the US Army reserves, has just returned from a six-month tour of active duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he served as a judge advocate general for US peacekeeping forces — is working overtime on the campaign trail to repair the damage.

Watching the candidate campaign door-to-door on Presentation Hill outside Oak Square on a Sunday afternoon, it is apparent that Golden remains a favorite of many of the " old Brighton " voters who traditionally turn out to cast their ballots in the Democratic primary. People like Mary McDermott, of Burton Street, a widowed mother of 10 grown children, who is active in the church and the nearby Veronica Smith Senior Center. She still has the handwritten note Golden sent her from Bosnia, offering his prayers for the recovery of an injured grandchild and the services of his statehouse staff during his absence.

" He’ll do just fine, " she says, when asked if Golden is in trouble. " He has a lot of friends here ... who else would remember to send a card? "

Running hard on his heels, and combing many of the same neighborhoods for voters, are his two opponents — David Friedman, 31, an attorney currently on leave from the downtown law firm of Hill & Barlow and a former clerk to US Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens; and Paul Felker, 33, a former Boston College graduate student with a doctorate in philosophy, who is active in local party and union circles.

A native New Yorker, Friedman moved to Boston in 1989 to attend Harvard. While working at Hill & Barlow, he says, he became frustrated with the legislature’s funding decisions after he helped to win a lawsuit forcing the state to provide services to mentally retarded adults (see " The Waiting Game, " News and Features, September 22, 2000). But it was only after he woke up one morning last year to discover that the House had switched his Brookline precinct into Golden’s district that he decided to take the plunge into politics. He was encouraged by many local Democrats, he says, including Ward 21 Democratic chair Charles Doyle. In May of this year, Friedman and his wife, Jennie, moved from Brookline to Lake Street, in Brighton, where they purchased a home. They are expecting their first child later this month.

Touting himself as a " real Democrat, " Friedman’s pro-choice views on abortion and his liberal bent on state funding (he’d like to see more money spent on human services, for example) have won him the endorsements of several public-interest groups and unions, including the Commonwealth Coalition, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the Boston Teachers Union. While not officially endorsing him, state Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston has helped to raise money for Friedman. The candidate also has the active support of several volunteers from Massachusetts Democratic Future (MDF), formerly the Massachusetts Young Democrats.

Walking door-to-door on Hardwick Street, just up the hill from Oak Square, Friedman quickly strikes pay dirt. Tom Elliott, an eight-year Brighton resident and homeowner, says that while he is not a " fanatic about party loyalty, " he is nonetheless " irritated " by Golden’s endorsement of Bush. More troubling to Elliott, however, is the legislature’s response to the economic downturn. " I’m not in a complete throw-the-rascals-out mode ... but the rascals have not impressed me with their votes on taxes and tolls. "

Friedman says he is surprised at the number of people who are aware of Golden’s endorsement of Bush. But he says it is the contrast between his views on the issues and Golden’s that will ultimately decide the race in his favor.

Of course, this is what Felker, who says he has " lapped " the other two candidates in his door-to-door " grassroots " campaign, believes too, although he says it’s his economic ideas, which consist mainly of using tax cuts to fuel economic growth, that will bring him the win in September. A Delaware transplant who has lived in Brighton for 10 years since coming to Boston College in 1992 to earn his PhD, Felker says he has taken leave from helping manage his family’s flooring business to campaign full-time for the legislature.

" Brian [Golden] is a nice guy ... but I do not want to focus on the endorsement as much as others, " Felker says. " I am running because I want to fix the economy. "

Despite the fact that his Bush endorsement has obviously become an issue in the current campaign, Golden remains unrepentant about his move. He points to a recent UMass poll showing the president with over 70 percent approval ratings for his handling of the September 11 crisis as vindication of his decision. And he says the dividends are paying off in other ways as well, noting his recent appointment by Bush to the regional board of directors for the Federal Home Loan Bank, which provides affordable-housing financing to local banks.

Ultimately, it is turnout that will determine the outcome of the race, Moran notes, with the biggest intangible being the number of students and young professionals who turn out to vote in the four-way Democratic primary for governor, and then continue on down the ballot to cast votes in the race for state representative.

The district, which runs across Allston and Brighton from Boston University to Boston College, and includes the Cottage Farm precinct of Brookline, is among the most diverse in the city. It encompasses an eclectic mix of students, recent immigrants, and working-class families of Irish, Italian, and Jewish heritage. While one in three residents is a student, and nearly 80 percent of residents are renters, many of them are not registered or do not vote in the Democratic primary, recent census figures show.

The bottom line for Golden, despite the backlash against his endorsement of Bush, is that he’ll likely survive if the students and newcomers stay home. But he’s in trouble if they come out to the polls.

Issue Date: August 8 - 15, 2002
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