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Let the games begin
A political roadmap to the Democratic Party’s run-up to the 2002 gubernatorial race

BY SETH GITELL


The issues

EXPECT THE FOLLOWING to be discussed, debated, and dissected in the coming year.

Clean Elections. Two-thirds of state voters passed a 1998 referendum establishing a system of public financing for elections in the Commonwealth. The state legislature failed to fund the measure this year. If voters care about state leaders doing what they say, this issue will matter. In the meantime, gubernatorial candidate Warren Tolman, the only statewide candidate to qualify for Clean Elections funding this year, is owed $800,000 from the state under the law. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments last month in a suit filed by Tolman, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and others seeking full funding for the law.

Budget. Not only was the state budget late this year (a frequent occurrence in the Finneran-Birmingham era), it mandated millions of dollars in budget cuts. Public anger over the broken budget process could dominate both gubernatorial and legislative elections.

Tax cut. In 2000, Governor Jane Swift helped lead the charge for a reduction in the state’s income-tax rate from 5.85 to five percent. The cut, Swift promised, would not affect the state’s ability to pay for services. With the downward-spiraling economy and the state in the midst of budget woes, that guarantee has failed and the tax cut doesn’t look quite so hot any more.

Massport. Two planes hijacked out of Logan Airport, governed by Massport, destroyed the World Trade Center. Massport, which once employed Swift, is a hack-ridden, bloated bureaucracy. How can the Democrats not make an issue of this?

Big Dig cost overruns. Dissident Turnpike Authority board members Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy say Big Dig costs could be at least $1 billion higher than previously acknowledged. Delays and difficulties are still adding to costs at the Fort Point Channel and elsewhere in the project. How will the financially strapped state pay, and who is to blame for letting this get out of control? We don’t have former Big Dig chief James Kerasiotes to kick around any more.

Education reform. Education is always a hot issue in the 128/495 belt. Although MCAS test results are showing improvement, critics remain. In this economic climate, can the state still afford the high cost of reform?

Same-sex marriage. With a lawsuit filed by same-sex couples seeking the right to marry wending its way through the courts and a repressive anti-gay-marriage referendum making its way onto statewide ballots, candidates will be called upon to express their views on marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Bilingual education. An initiative that would end bilingual education in Massachusetts is set to appear on the ballot. Candidates will have to take a position. This could easily morph into a hot-button social issue that candidates won’t be able to dodge.

— SG

THE COMING YEAR represents the best chance the Democrats have had in a decade to regain control of the governor’s office since William Weld defeated the deeply flawed Democratic nominee, Boston University president John Silber, in 1990.

Governor Jane Swift is easily the most vulnerable Republican to hold the state’s top job in the 12 years since Weld’s election. An interesting politician, Swift boasts formidable skills; she understands, for example, how to campaign against the legislature. Plus, she doesn’t have to endure a costly primary campaign. At the same time, however, she has a disturbing tendency to exhibit political tone-deafness. The most recent example of that, of course, is her treatment of Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board members Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy, who’ve fought for the driving public against further turnpike-toll increases.

But there’s more to the governor’s troubles than that. Unlike in 1998, when just three name-brand candidates (former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, former congressman Brian Donnelly, and Senator Patricia McGovern) pursued the Democratic nomination to run against then-governor Paul Cellucci, a slew of big-foot candidates have entered this year’s primary fray in the hope of running against Swift next fall.

The three insider candidates are easily State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Senate president Tom Birmingham, and Secretary of State William Galvin. O’Brien is a centrist Democrat, who, like Swift, hails from the western part of the state. During her time at the treasury, she’s reformed the office by tightening fiscal controls in the wake of the $9.4 million embezzlement scandal that took place during former treasurer Joe Malone’s reign. She can also lay claim to ferreting out the true cost of the Big Dig by refusing to sign off on bonds until she received a full accounting of the project — which eventually revealed a $1.4 billion overrun.

State House pols prefer Birmingham. Yet Birmingham may be hard for voters to swallow, since he offers a curious mix of progressive ideals and the sort of old-fashioned politicking that smacks of the ’90s — the 1890s, that is. His standard political strategy — get the party activists in line — seems modeled on the sensibilities of Martin Lomasney, the early-20th-century West End political boss renowned as a master of back-room trickery. He even looks the part. When Birmingham delivers major addresses — as he did at last year’s state Democratic convention, for instance — he accompanies his words with stiff, archaic hand gestures. The only features missing from this picture are an old top hat on his head and a cigar in his mouth.

Meanwhile, Galvin, Swift’s second-in-command, comes across as a furtive figure always in search of an angle. Galvin’s tactics — such as trying to postpone the Ninth District primary on September 11 and seeking to block Swift from conducting Governor’s Council meetings via speakerphone when she was hospitalized prior to the birth of her twin daughters — may not have gone over well, but he has run for statewide office three times, more than any other candidate. This makes his the most recognizable name by far. He’s also successfully broadened his appeal with moves to the left on economic issues.

Along with these three well-positioned contenders are three "outsider" candidates — all formidable talents in their own rights: former state senator Warren Tolman, the only statewide candidate who’s fulfilled the daunting qualification requirements of the Clean Elections Law (not that he’s likely to see any of the $3.8 million the state was supposed to have begun paying him earlier this month); businessman and former state and national Democratic Party chair Steve Grossman; and former US secretary of labor Robert Reich. All six candidates, in short, come with remarkable portfolios, and voters may very well have difficulty marking out a clear favorite. A December Boston Herald poll found O’Brien leading the pack in a run against Swift with a 38 percent favorability rating, followed by Reich at 35 percent, Birmingham at 34 percent, Galvin at 32 percent, Tolman at 25 percent, and Grossman at 23 percent.

Two more matters may affect the general election. One is the gubernatorial candidacy of the Green Party’s Jill Stein. A Lexington physician, Stein may draw unenrolled and progressive voters away from the Democrats. There’s also the matter of the state’s economy. The Commonwealth’s fiscal fitness hasn’t been this bad since Michael Dukakis was governor. Add these considerations to the impressive list of six prime Democratic contenders, and it’s certain that 2001 will see combative politics unlike anything since the 1996 battle of the titans: Governor William Weld versus Senator John Kerry for Kerry’s Senate seat.

What follows is a guide to the coming year, which can be divided into three distinct political phases: the build-up from now until the June Democratic convention; the primary fight itself from June to September; and, finally, the fight between Swift and the Democratic nominee.

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Issue Date: January 3 - 10, 2001

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