January through June 1
Here’s the most important thing to know about the first stage in the Democratic race for governor: unless you’re a state-party delegate, an elected state representative or senator, or a former elected official, you don’t count — not even a wick. The days of political bosses like Lomasney may be long gone, but unless you’re an insider, you’re excluded from the process of selecting gubernatorial contenders.
That’s thanks to the state’s 15 percent rule, which gives both party establishments a large say in who runs for statewide office. At the state Democratic convention, candidates who want to see their names on the ballot (i.e., anyone who hopes to have any chance of winning) must garner support from 15 percent of the local political chieftains, labor-union loyalists, teachers, and other assorted payroll patriots who make up the delegates to the Democratic convention.
It’s not as bad as the proverbial smoke-filled room, but it’s close. Here’s how it works. The important pre-convention work will take place on February 2 at party caucuses. Here, Democratic activists from across the state will gather in ward meeting halls to select convention delegates. Under normal circumstances the meetings are pro forma events that see the usual suspects elected year after year with few exceptions. This year, however, outside candidates like Tolman, Grossman, and Reich must get delegates who will support them at the convention to the convention. It’s a daunting organizational task. Insurgent candidates first need to recruit potential delegates, then find enough Democratic voters to pack the ward hall to elect them. Clubby inside candidates like Birmingham, O’Brien, and Galvin, meanwhile, will be doing their best to make sure the delegates remain status quo.
"These folks have never had to battle delegate-by-delegate in the caucuses before," says Lou DiNatale, a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute at UMass Boston. "That’s where you get in or get out. You can’t make it up after that. You have to win on caucus day." Says another veteran Democratic insider: "If you don’t have 15 percent of the delegates the day after the caucuses, the only way you’re going to get on the ballot is if someone gives you delegates." In other words, if Reich doesn’t have the support of 15 percent of the delegates elected on February 2, he’ll have to appeal to the charitable instincts of candidates such as Birmingham and O’Brien to find a place on the ballot. (There are two ballot votes at the convention. Candidates who win the necessary 15 percent on the first ballot can release their delegates to vote for another candidate on the second ballot — if they’re feeling generous, that is.) Message to Reich: if you don’t have the votes by February, don’t count on getting on the ballot.
Grossman, for his part, has already made his play for delegates. His campaign unveiled a flashy video, featuring state luminaries such as Reverend Charles Stith and former BankBoston head Ira Jackson singing the praises of the businessman candidate, and sent it out to 8000 potential delegates. The Grossman campaign has already planned dozens of events to introduce Grossman to potential delegates in January. "We will come out of the caucuses strong," says Grossman spokeswoman Alex Zaroulis. "Steve was state party chairman and has lots of support on the city and town committees."
O’Brien is distributing similar printed materials to potential delegates. Tolman, meanwhile, maintains he is helped by the Clean Elections process he has already gone through, gathering more than 7000 donations from $5 to $100. "It’s a massive undertaking," he says. "The nice thing about having more than 7000 donors is that those people are supportive and are a built-in network around the state."
One of the more intriguing insider convention fights will surround the push and pull between Birmingham and O’Brien. Conventional wisdom has it that Birmingham will benefit by having fewer candidates on the primary ballot. With fewer potential threats, he will use his advantages in money and party muscle to overwhelm one or two opponents, goes the thinking. For her part, O’Brien, the only woman in the race, could be helped by campaigning against a slew of men.
A recent party-rules change set for implementation at this year’s convention is seen as helping Birmingham. The change would bar the practice of allowing alternates to fill in for ex officio delegates who fail to show up for the convention. Ex officio delegates are Democratic members of the House and Senate, members of Congress, and current and former statewide elected officials. At first glance, the change would seem to excite only the Robert’s Rules of Order gang. But it has consequences for "outsider" candidates Reich, Tolman, and Grossman. Ex officio delegates are usually people like former attorney general Frank Bellotti and former treasurer Robert Crane — the sort of people likely to support an insider like Birmingham. Alternate delegates, on the other hand, are usually political newcomers — the sort of people drawn to fresh candidates like Reich, Tolman, and Grossman. In 1998, Harshbarger was anything but an establishment candidate — few Democratic Party bosses gave him much support. Yet he was able to win his 15 percent at the convention, in part, by garnering support from these alternates. Almost 4000 delegates — and 2792 alternates — will be elected at the caucuses, along with 1100 ex officio delegates.
Given how this change helps Birmingham, many have speculated that he’s behind it. But Charles Baker, chair of the rules committee that approved the changes, says Birmingham had nothing to do with it. "None of these changes were recommended by a candidate representative, and I’m not aware of anybody who complained about any provision," he says. And Michael Shea, Birmingham’s media consultant, says he had "no knowledge whatsoever" of the change until asked about it by a reporter.
With this change in rules, Birmingham could very well knock one, two, or possibly even three candidates off the ballot right away. (Reich, Tolman, Grossman are the most likely victims in descending order.) Of course, he would then risk looking like a bully.
"His convention scenario is based on twisting arms and getting votes," says one unaligned political insider. That makes him an unattractive candidate in the primary and an unattractive one in the general election against Swift.
Issue Date: January 3 - 10, 2002