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At caucuses, Reich supporters vow to press the liberal cause

By John McElhenny, Globe Correspondent, Globe Staff, 2/9/2003

CAMBRIDGE - A year after they shocked the state's political establishment with their strong showing at the Democratic Party caucuses, supporters of former gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich say their work has only just begun.

Reich supporters, many of whom hadn't been politically active before last year's campaign, turned out for Democratic Party caucuses around the state yesterday, even though their candidate is no longer a political force.

''Half of the people here are here because of Reich,'' said David Prum, a Reich supporter, with a nod to the 100 or so people gathered for caucuses at a Cambridge senior center yesterday.

Prum, 44, a private detective, was a Reich delegate at last year's caucuses, even though he hadn't been active in politics for 14 years - since Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign.

''I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I got in because of Reich,'' he said.

Many Reich supporters, energized by his candidacy last year, are vowing to keep pushing their liberal message. They say the state's Democratic Party has moved too far to the center in an effort to attract independents.

Reich, the Brandeis professor and former US labor secretary who campaigned as a reform candidate, finished second in the Democratic primary in September, losing to state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, who went on to lose the general election to Republican Mitt Romney. Democrats Thomas F. Birmingham, Warren Tolman, and Steven Grossman also ran.

Reich, 56, who qualified for the primary after his strong showing in the party caucuses last February, one month after he joined the race, surprised many observers.

As Reich's candidacy gained momentum, many who said they had lost interest in politics jumped on the bandwagon. Democrats saw it as a strong injection of dynamism for a party that had in many ways been victimized by its own success, with Democratic candidates around the state facing little opposition, leading to a lack of interest among voters.

Jane Lane, a party spokeswoman, said the five Democrats running for governor last year accounted for some of the spike in Democratic participation, measured in huge attendance at the caucuses, but there was another factor as well.

''Robert Reich attracted a whole new level of Democratic voters,'' said Lane. ''To a great extent they were young, well-educated, and hadn't been very involved with the party before.''

Reich proved himself an able campaigner during last year's race, with his self-deprecating wit, comfortable speaking style, and appeal to liberal voters. But his campaign was hampered by poor fund-raising and the lack of an established network of supporters. Some derided him as too liberal, even for Massachusetts.

In the September primary, Reich finished just ahead of Birmingham, then Senate president, and Tolman, a former state senator, but well behind O'Brien.

Reich, who was elected a convention delegate in Cambridge yesterday, said he has ''no idea'' if he will run for office again. He said he was heartened by those who kept active in Democratic politics after supporting his candidacy.

''The next best thing to winning is to have gotten a lot of people involved who would not otherwise be involved,'' he said.

About 200 Democratic Party caucuses met around the state yesterday, choosing about 3,000 delegates for the issues convention in June.

In Jamaica Plain, Deb Pasternak, 35, an alternate delegate for Reich last year, said she planned to stay involved with the Democratic Party. ''It's not about Bob any more,'' she said. ''For me, the Reich campaign made me realize how much power an individual has.''

Joanna Weiss of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 2/9/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.