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Out of focus
In the final dash to Election Day, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shannon O’Brien champions gay rights. Is that what suburban-independent voters want?
BY SETH GITELL

FUTURE CANDIDATES for statewide office in Massachusetts should pay close attention to the final weeks of the 2002 gubernatorial race. That’s because the results are likely to shed light on the all-important electoral question: what do suburban-independent voters want?

For these key swing voters, the ones who influenced the outcome of the 1998 contest between Governor Paul Cellucci and Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, does the race boil down to the same thing as it did in the 1992 presidential election? That is to say, the economy? After all, a number of these voters, who work in the high-tech sector (see "Unconventional Wisdom," News and Features, May 30), have been affected by the layoffs that have plagued the tech industry over the past two years. Which will appeal to them more? GOP gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney’s plan to spur development by selling the state to outside corporations and lowering taxes, or Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien’s Tsongasian mix of government investment and fiscal discipline?

Or are social issues the priority of these voters, many of whom bristle when they hear comments such as the one Romney made during the second debate in Worcester in response to a question from CNN’s Judy Woodruff about gay marriage: "Call me old-fashioned. But I don’t support gay marriage.... It’s just my belief that marriage should be preserved for a husband and a wife of opposite genders." After all, independents gave the socially liberal Republican William Weld the juice he needed to win the 1990 governor’s race against a reactionary John Silber. Will O’Brien, who said last week that she would sign a gay-marriage bill into law if it crossed her desk, appeal more to these voters than the right-leaning Romney?

Both issues have dominated the race over the past two weeks. Last Tuesday, O’Brien received the endorsement of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus (MGLPC). Three days later, during the lieutenant-gubernatorial debate, O’Brien’s running mate, Chris Gabrieli, criticized GOP candidate Mitt Romney for giving $1 million to Brigham Young University, which has a restrictive honor code that bans gay and lesbian sex — all premarital sex, for that matter (see "Faith in the System," News and Features, April 18). On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last week, stories about O’Brien’s and Romney’s stands on gay-rights issues dominated the Boston Globe’s coverage of the race: October 17’s o’brien would back gay marriages; October 18’s romney gave to school with anti-gay rules: aide defends gift to brigham; and October 19’s on boards: silence on gay concerns. (The Boston Herald gave the issue much less attention, with just one story on O’Brien’s promise to sign a gay-marriage bill into law if the legislature passed it.)

While O’Brien’s campaign has driven the gay issue, Team Romney has pursued economic issues. On October 10, the candidate appeared with former president George H.W. Bush at a New Balance factory in Lawrence; on October 16, Romney held a press conference on state-budget matters; and on October 18, he criticized O’Brien’s handling of the pension fund.

WHICH ISSUE is the winner? We may already have the answer. "[O’Brien’s] 12-point lead of two weeks ago seems to have evaporated," says David Paleologos, an adjunct professor at Suffolk University, who is finalizing a poll conducted for Suffolk and WHDH-TV (Channel 7). Although many in the O’Brien camp see Romney’s social conservatism as the candidate’s Achilles’ heel, Paleologos, who says Romney has gained significant ground on O’Brien since his last poll two weeks ago, disagrees. The focus on gay issues so late in the race is "untimely," he says. "The focus here is to woo independent voters.... The time to move positive on that issue was pre-primary, when she needed those voters. Democrats and Republicans are pretty much spoken for. The key here is wooing the most fickle of voters — independent."

That hasn’t stopped O’Brien from staying the course. As reported by the Boston Herald October 21, when Romney put up a tough ad titled "Duncan" that linked O’Brien’s pension-fund losses to her husband, former Enron lobbyist Emmet Hayes, Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston countered by pointing to the support of Romney’s wife, Ann, for a controversial statewide "Defense of Marriage" referendum, noting that she signed a petition in its favor. But just 11 days before the election, the O’Brien campaign’s emphasis on gay issues is looking like a bad move. Says one local pollster: "She should be focusing 100 percent on the economy. [Focusing on gay issues] is a strategic error on their part. They’re not focusing on bread-and-butter issues."

But whether to focus on the economy, social issues, or some delicate balance of both during the final stretch to Election Day is not an easy call for the Democrats. To achieve victory in a statewide race, the winning candidate must attract the 51 percent of state voters who are unenrolled — the independents. At the same time, he or she must hold on to the party base. For the Democrats, this task is made more difficult by the candidacy of the Green Party’s appealing physician-activist nominee, Jill Stein. O’Brien’s problem is that the more she lurches leftward — as she did last week by touting the MGLPC endorsement and saying she would sign a gay-marriage bill if it crossed her desk, a statement that largely touched off last week’s gay-issues furor — the more she risks alienating the center. Not that the center isn’t sympathetic to the position. It’s just that the average independent voter in Massachusetts might wonder why O’Brien is talking about gay marriage when the state economy is going down the tubes. Meanwhile, if she focuses primarily on economic issues (where she is a fiscally responsible moderate) at the expense of social issues (where she can perhaps draw the greatest contrast with Romney), she chances alienating the Democratic base, some of whom may vote for Stein, others of whom may choose to stay home on Election Day.

None of this is to say that O’Brien, who is running in part on her credentials as a fiscal manager, has avoided talking about the economy. Along with running mate Chris Gabrieli, himself a former venture capitalist, O’Brien announced in May a detailed economic plan prepared with the help of MIT professor Robert Solow. Still, she seems to be playing catch-up with the Romney camp on the issue. After a week’s worth of gay-marriage talk, O’Brien’s campaign seemed to put on the brakes Saturday, making an abrupt switch to economic issues. On that day, O’Brien announced that the state pension had lost another $1.5 billion, and her campaign began running "Music Phrase," a television ad that questions Bain Capital’s purchase of Ampad, an Indiana paper company that saw significant layoffs and the loss of health-care coverage for workers after its purchase by Bain. Bain, of course, is the venture capital firm where Romney made his fortune and which he headed until 1999, when he moved to Utah to work on the Olympics. That day O’Brien also delivered a high-profile address in response to President George W. Bush’s weekly radio commentary, in which she talked about the economy. "It wasn’t the Democrats who squandered more than $5 trillion of the federal budget surplus," O’Brien said. "It’s not Democrats who have given us the grizzliest bear market since the Great Depression. It’s not Democrats who chose to grant tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans while cutting small-business, job-training, and education programs."

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Issue Date: October 24 - October 31, 2002
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