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Life of the party
A resurgent Republican opposition plans to make life very difficult for the state’s Democratic establishment. Is the Massachusetts Democratic Party ready for the challenge?

FOR MORE THAN a decade, the rivalry between the state’s Democratic and Republican Parties has been the political equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals, with Democrats retaining huge majorities in the House and Senate that left four successive Republican governors — William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney — hamstrung by their inability to override legislative vetoes. (Weld, who was elected in 1990, came to office with veto power in the Senate but lost it in the next election two years later.) Today, though, there are signs that the balance of power is starting to shift.

Consider the following: the Massachusetts Republican Party won a special election of huge symbolic value when State Representative Scott Brown defeated Angus McQuilken for the vacant Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex Senate seat on March 2 (see "Romney Flexes His Muscle," This Just In, March 5). The party’s finances are flush: after lagging behind the Democrats in fundraising for much of the 1990s, the state Republican Party has turned the tables of late, pulling in $3.8 million for state races to the Democrats’ $2.6 million between 2000 and 2003. Under the leadership of chair Darrell Crate and executive director Dominick Ianno, the state Republican Party has also excelled at selling itself: witness the new Governor’s Fellowship program, in which two dozen young conservative activists from around the country will receive training as political operatives and then get to run a key Republican legislative campaign. And the man at the top of the party, Governor Romney, is an ideological partisan — a clear break from the days of Weld-Cellucci-Swift. Indeed, the last time the state Republican Party looked as good as it does today was in 1990, when Weld defeated Democrat John Silber in the governor’s race and voters, angry over tax increases, swept seven new GOP senators into office.

The Democrats, by comparison, look like a party in disarray. Recent allegations that House Speaker Tom Finneran basically used the party to launder $24,500 in contributions to key allies provide fodder for the Republicans’ "shame on Beacon Hill" script and suggest the party may be off its game. So, perhaps, does the trajectory of the McQuilken campaign. The Democratic establishment admits the party needs an infusion of new energy, but some aspiring Democratic activists counter that the establishment is unfriendly to newcomers and new ideas. Meanwhile, as the state’s Republicans hone their "reformist" script to a razor-sharp edge, the gay-marriage debate has given new urgency to the question of what, exactly, it means to be a Massachusetts Democrat.

For the Democrats, all this in-house turmoil is happening at a very bad time. During the next seven and a half months, as the new-look Massachusetts GOP rolls out more than 100 legislative candidates and mounts an aggressive assault on the State House, the Massachusetts Democratic Party will face its biggest electoral challenge in recent memory. Is it up to the task?

THE OPTIMISTIC gloss on the Democrats’ situation is that a few high-profile setbacks can make things look worse than they really are. But the state party’s troubles run deeper than Brown’s win and the flap over Finneran. Take the question of fundraising. Publicly, Democrats have attributed Brown’s fundraising edge over McQuilken — and the state GOP’s $1.3 million advantage in 2002 — to deep-pocketed corporate Republican donors. Privately, however, some suggest that Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Philip Johnston, a former state representative who served as secretary of health and human services under former governor Michael Dukakis and took the state party’s reins in November 2000, hasn’t done enough to line the party’s coffers. "Phil needs to do a much better job of fundraising," says one Democrat who didn’t want to be identified. "He hasn’t done much to take advantage of people’s anger at George Bush and Mitt Romney. And I think he should be able to do that."

There’s also, among many Democrats, a sense that the state party has grown stale. Virginia Allan, a consultant at the political lobbying firm Liberty Square Group, sits on both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic State Committee, the state party’s 330-person governing body. She notes that the State Committee, which includes a large number of state legislators, is heavy on people who got involved in Democratic politics during George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and the 1982 gubernatorial primary rematch between Ed King and Mike Dukakis. "The fact that so many of us have stayed involved and been active for a long period of time speaks to the fact that there’s a lot of energy on the committee," Allan says. "But by the same token, it’s time for us to move aside. Certainly we’ll still work and help, but it’s time for the next generation to come and start running for these seats, running for state rep. The farm team should be encouraging people to run for selectman, to run for state committee, to serve on appointed boards in towns."

The party framework is supposed to encourage this kind of new involvement. There’s a special lifetime-membership category for State Committee members who’ve held office for two decades, for example; after 20 years, these individuals no longer have to seek re-election, and their seats are opened to newcomers. The State Committee also allocates a number of slots for youth — a category generously open to anyone under 35 years of age — and sets aside additional spaces for persons of color. But the latest of these changes dates back to the 1990s. More recent alterations to the party’s structure, on the other hand, have almost seemed geared to driving newcomers away.

Consider the fallout from the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of Brandeis professor and former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich. Like Howard Dean, Reich was an insurgent progressive candidate who didn’t land the nomination but generated excitement among independents and formerly disaffected Democrats. In 2002, as a latecomer to the race, Reich managed to secure the requisite 15 percent of delegates required to participate in the Democratic primary, thanks in part to a rule allowing would-be caucus voters to register as Democrats one day before the caucuses took place. In a subsequent Democratic State Committee meeting, however, the preregistration requirement was increased to 40 days. It’s a change clearly designed to handicap future candidacies like Reich’s — late entries by big-name outsiders. Just the kind of campaigns, in other words, that draw new people to the party.

The 2002 Democratic state convention was a protracted, chaotic affair (it dragged on for so long that the party didn’t make a selection for treasurer, instead nominating all four candidates). In its wake, Johnston, the state party’s chairman, decided change was in order. He appointed Dukakis and Worcester congressman Jim McGovern to co-chair a reform commission charged with reviewing state-convention protocol and proposing improvements to the Democratic State Committee. Earlier this year, the Dukakis-McGovern commission, in addition to suggesting some changes aimed at streamlining the nomination process, recommended re-implementing the one-day registration window. It also proposed dropping the delegate threshold for candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary from 15 percent to 12 percent, another step that might benefit political outsiders. But both proposals were rejected by the Democratic State Committee.

For Jesse Gordon — a Cambridge resident who was Reich’s technology director, served on the Dukakis-McGovern commission, and wrote the commission’s recommendation for the one-day window — it was a profoundly disillusioning experience. "The most frustrating part was that I wasn’t allowed to speak to the Democratic State Committee, because I’m not a member," recalls Gordon, who was recently elected to the Cambridge Democratic City Committee. "I authored this recommendation and I’m a member of this commission, and they said, ‘Sorry, you have no standing, you can’t speak about it.’"

Gordon believes his experience on the Dukakis-McGovern commission is emblematic of a larger problem facing the state party — namely, its reluctance to open itself up to new faces and new ideas. For example, he says, the party hasn’t yet warmed to the potential of interactive Internet organizing as exemplified by the Dean campaign. "Phil Johnston — I think he’s one of the most sincere people in saying that he really does want to reach out to young people and newcomers, but he really doesn’t get how to do it," Gordon says. "I always say, ‘Why don’t you use the Internet better?’ And he says, ‘Ah, well, who cares about that?’ The reply is, if you want to reach people, you have to go where they are." For his part, Johnston insists the party’s become far more tech-savvy under his watch. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he says of Gordon’s charge. "We’ve put very serious resources into technology.... I like Jesse, but he shouldn’t make these statements without checking them out. Technology is the number-one priority for me and has been from day one."

Whether or not the state party has made the most of the Internet, the belief that the Democrats need a new infusion of energy is widespread. McGovern, for example, says he was disappointed by the rejection of proposals that could have made the Democratic nominating process more attractive to outsiders. "Look, I have incredible respect for the people who are on the Democratic State Committee," he says. "These are people who have dedicated their lives to good causes and deserve all the recognition we can give. But on the other hand, I also think it’s important for us to get new people involved.... I think we need to find more forums to talk about some of the things we stand for. And I think we have to be open to allowing for nominees who may or may not be part of the establishment or part of the inside gang. I have nothing against insiders. But sometimes an insider may not be the best candidate."

Johnston, too, admits the party needs to open up. He’s backing a reform-committee recommendation that would earmark 25 percent of delegate slots at the state convention for individuals under 35. "It’s very important to bring young blood and young people into this party," Johnston says. "I’m particularly concerned about the Dean workers, for instance, and some people who gravitate toward the Green Party and Ralph Nader.... It’s very important they feel welcome within the Democratic Party. It needs to be a priority." The 25 percent proposal is still on the table. But Johnston may be disappointed: the State Committee already voted not to implement it in 2004.

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Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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