A political roadmap to the Democratic Party’s run-up to the 2002 gubernatorial race
BY SETH GITELL
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.
Issue Date: January 3 - 10, 2001