|PAUL SHOUL PHOTO|
|1998: Progressive Scott
Harshbarger got the cold shoulder from liberal Bay State
Democrats when he ran for governor.
|2002:“Liberal” Bay State
Democrats canned progressive Robert Reich in favor of
machine pol Shannon O’Brien for governor.
|PAUL SHOUL PHOTO|
|With Democrats like ex-House
Speaker Tom Finneran, who needed conservative
presidential campaign has relied heavily on a rhetoric of fear: fear
of terrorist attacks, of a flu epidemic, a reinstitution of the
draft, the dismantling of Social Security.
But when George W. Bush really wants to scare the hell out of
middle America about his Democratic rival, he invokes the scariest
bogeyman of all: John Kerry, he warns, is one of those liberal
"Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49
percent increase in funding for education was not enough," the
president smirked at one debate. "In 20 years as a senator from
Massachusetts," Bush claimed at a campaign event, "he's built the
record of a senator from Massachusetts -- he's voted to raise taxes
98 times" (a figure challenged by Democrats).
To hear Bush tell it, Massachusetts is the land of free love and
bleeding hearts, where Thanksgiving is probably outlawed (or, if
it's not, you'd better at least be serving tofurkey), where
residents are allowed to marry their ferrets -- and the taxpayers
pick up the bills for all these excesses.
Never mind the fact that the commonwealth is on its fourth
consecutive Republican governor. Or that the state Democratic Party
is hardly the left-wing bacchanal that the GOP would have voters
believe. While the party's official platform is decidedly
progressive, plenty of members support the death penalty and oppose
abortion rights or gun control. When the state Legislature debated
gay marriage, it wasn't a Republicans-versus-Democrats debate; some
of the most vocal opponents were Democrats.
To outsiders, the Massachusetts Democratic Party is a confounding
beast. When such seemingly bread-and-butter Democratic issues as
choice and the death penalty are up for grabs, what exactly does the
party stand for? What does it mean that, in the 1998 gubernatorial
race, the most powerful Democrat on the state level, then-House
Speaker Tom Finneran, kneecapped his own party's candidate, Scott
Harshbarger, by dismissing him as "the loony left"? Why do voters
who re-elect Ted Kennedy to the Senate year after year fail to rally
behind progressive gubernatorial candidates like Harshbarger, Robert
Reich, Warren Tolman?
Where exactly are those liberal Massachusetts Democrats?
T hey're in the party -- they're just
not the only ones there, says Michael Goldman, a Boston-based
Democratic political consultant whose clients have ranged from the
party's left (Kennedy, Dukakis) to its center (Clinton).
"Being a Democrat doesn't necessarily mean being a progressive,"
he says. "Massachusetts is a one-party, two-ideology state and has
been for a while." (Before the Finneran/Harshbarger conflict, there
was John Silber versus Harshbarger, and the Ed King Dems versus the
Mike Dukakis Dems.) "There are fundamental differences within the
party in which everyone considers themselves a Democrat."
Goldman traces the party's dual nature to the aftermath of the
1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, when Nelson Rockefeller
was booed by his own party for being too liberal. The GOP was
veering right, and that left no place for moderate Republicans --
except the Democratic party.
Today, he says, being a Democrat in Massachusetts is like being a
Republican in Kansas: "It's the only game in town." Only the most
devoted pols will even consider running as a Republican. "In most
communities, just having the R next to your name means you're not a
caring and compassionate person," Goldman says.
Ask many Mass. Dems to explain the schizophrenic nature of the
party and they'll tell you that its diversity is a good thing, that
the organization is a "big tent" that welcomes all comers. But
that's not always true -- especially for more progressive Dems.
"The Democratic party is a big tent. The problem is that it
became a club. And if you were not a member of the club, you were
not a member of the club," says Fred Clarkson, a writer and activist
who lives in Northampton.
Clarkson is new to the Democratic Party; a former independent, he
was part of a flood of newcomers who joined to support Reich in
2002. They were not welcomed by many long-time members, who
skeptically viewed them as Johnnies-come-lately who would abandon
the party after the election, he says.
Their skepticism was understandable but counterproductive, he
adds: "The [local] Democratic committees were getting old, not
reaching out. The party was an ossified husk that lost four
gubernatorial elections in a row."
Reich lost the Democratic primary to Shannon O'Brien, who then
lost the general election to Romney. But Reich's supporters were
eager to keep their momentum going -- even though, Clarkson says,
they weren't quite sure where it would take them. They formed a
group called Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts (http://www.progressivedems.org/),
which now has about 450 members, many in liberal strongholds like
PDM has a grand goal: to elect a progressive Democrat governor
and Legislature in 2006. But to get there, Clarkson said, they need
to start modestly. "Progressives, when they get together and form an
organization, the first thing they want to do is go out and teach
somebody something. ... We need to avoid the hubris of that. We need
to educate ourselves. We're the ones who lose elections time after
time. We need to figure out how to change that."
Many PDM members have campaign experience: the Reich and Tolman
gubernatorial campaigns, the Dean and Kucinich presidential
campaigns, Springfield City Councilor Carol Lewis-Caulton's
re-election bid, Pat Duffy's 2002 race for state rep. They were all
good, progressive campaigns -- and they were all losers.
"One of the definitions of mental illness is making the same
mistake over and over again," Clarkson says. "That's what
progressive Democrats had been doing."
PDM hopes to provide a home for progressive activists, so they're
not starting from scratch with each new campaign. "You
systematically need to recruit like-minded people, get people
trained to expand their knowledge of the electoral process and be
able to work together to win elections," Clarkson says. "The
conservative movement figured this out some time ago."
This year, for the Democratic primaries, PDM threw its resources
behind a half-dozen strategically selected campaigns around the
state. Its shining moment was Peter Vickery's victory in the
four-way primary for the 8th District Governor's Council seat.
PDM's decision to get involved in Democratic primaries ruffled
some feathers. The state party avoids taking sides in a primary,
waiting to back the winner in the general election. That avoids
sticky situations like the one PDM faced in the Governor's Council
primary, in which two of Vickery's challengers, Isaac BenEzra and
Michael Bissonnette, could also point to progressive credentials.
But PDM is unapologetic about the work it's doing. "There are a
lot of agendas within the party," says Peter Dolan of Gloucester,
chair of PDM's coordinating committee. "There's a need for people
who share what we broadly call progressive values to bring people
into the Democratic party and also have a say into its agenda."
Still, PDM wants to avoid coming off as preachy, or
more-Democrat-than-thou. "Our goal isn't to take over the party, or
directly steer the party," but to make it stronger, Dolan says.
"I consider myself and PDM well within the Democratic party,"
Clarkson says. "We're not crashing the party. We should have been
invited in the first place."
J ane Lane, spokeswoman for the state
party, welcomes PDM. "It really enhances the party as a whole to
have these people organizing and working with us," she says. "So
many of us in the party are liberal progressives, and we wear that
badge with great honor."
Other progressive Dems have not been so embraced by the
Democratic establishment -- like Progressive Democrats of
Somerville, which, like PDM, was founded by former Reich organizers
who wanted to preserve that campaign's energy. (Despite the similar
names, PDS is independent of PDM.)
"The party's so content with being the only game in town," says
Marty Martinez, co-founder of PDS, who suggests that Democrats have
lost sight of the importance of building from within -- and the
importance of defining what they stand for.
"When you have someone like Speaker Finneran so consistently
opposing so many things in the platform, it's embarrassing. That's
not what it means to be a Democrat," Martinez says. In fact, he
adds, it's hard to say what it means to be a Democrat when so many
members stray from the party's stated priorities.
One example: In January, the party passed a resolution supporting
equal marriage rights -- but it was a Democrat, Rep. Phil Travis,
who sponsored an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. That
kind of inconsistency has hurt the party, leading more and more
voters to defect, Martinez says: "They say it's a big tent party;
everyone has a place. Well, for the last 12 years, we haven't been
able to elect a governor because we're a big tent."
Last month, PDS, along with Progressive Democrats of Cambridge
and Citizens for Participation in Political Action (CPPAX), released
a scorecard that rates Democratic legislators on their adherence to
the party platform (http://www.massscorecard.org/).
The results underscore how split the party is on numerous key
issues; the scores for Valley legislators, for instance, range from
Springfield Rep. Ben Swan, who voted with the platform on 27 of 28
votes, to Chicopee Rep. Joe Wagner, who scored just 16 out of 27.
(Valley Democratic senators were more faithful to the platform, all
posting near-perfect scores.) The scorecard has triggered great
controversy within the party, particularly after an early,
incomplete draft that showed some Republicans scoring higher than
Dems was accidentally leaked last year.
It's ironic that the state party is upset about the scorecard,
notes Martinez, since it was party delegates who voted to create a
scorecard in the first place, at the 2002 state convention. But
party officials dragged their feet, he says, so PDS and its partners
took matters in their own hands and put together the report, in time
for the primaries.
The goal, Martinez says, is simply to inform voters. "We are in
no way trying to say someone is more Democrat than someone else. ...
We're not out to 'get' conservative Democrats or to hurt the party."
But critics like George Barnoski, a state committee member from
Somerville, say they are hurting the party. With Romney leading a
well-funded charge to oust Democratic legislators this fall, why are
Dems beating up on their own? "Normally, the GOP would have to do
the research on opponents. [The scorecard is] basically turning it
over to them, free of charge, gift-wrapped," Barnoski says.
"They seem to feel they are the real standard-bearers of the
party, and those of us who've doing the work for years don't mean
anything, our day has passed," adds Barnoski. He also objects to
Democratic groups endorsing in primaries. "They say they want to be
part of the party, but they don't want to follow any of the rules."
One of those rules: Under state law, no group can use the phrase
"Massachusetts Democrats" without the permission of the state party.
The party recently threatened to sue PDS over its name; that, says
Martinez, was clearly retaliation for the scorecard dispute.
Lane says the party had been working on the scorecard and was
surprised when a reporter called her to ask about the leaked PDS
scorecard. "This was a complete surprise to us," she says. "It was
completely -- I don't want to say the word inappropriate but
nonsensical, I guess. There were issues there that had nothing to do
with the platform," like a vote on legislative pay raises.
"I'm not sure how serious they are about working in good faith
with the party," Lane says. "I think this is a group that searches
for the headlines and notoriety at any cost."
The Democratic party's diversity, she adds, is its strength.
"There are conservative Democrats, moderate Democrats, progressive
Democrats, and they're all welcome in the party."
She sees no problem with Democrats who, for example, are
anti-abortion, despite the party's pro-choice platform. "I think on
social issues it's really a matter of your moral compass. A lot of
times, your decisions are based on your moral and religious
beliefs," she says. "We respect that. ... There's room for
disagreement on these -- I call them peripheral issues."
Lane gives this explanation of what ultimately defines Democrats:
"We all believe that government is good. It's not this evil that
intrudes into people's private lives. It's there to provide a
service when you need it. We can disagree on a whole range of
issues. But the core issues we all agree on. It makes us a very big
So why don't progressives flee that tent, find a place where they
feel welcome, that's more, well, consistently consistent with their
values -- a third party, maybe, like the Greens?
Fred Clarkson understands the appeal of third parties; he voted
for Ralph Nader in 2000. But, he says, "The Green Party has not
succeeded. If it was going to succeed, it would have by now."
Like it or not, the reality is that we live in a two-party
system, he adds. And until that changes, voters who want to bring
progressive social change can't afford to opt out of that system.
"The Democratic Party is the place if you're serious," Clarkson
Marty Martinez agrees. Rather than abandon the party, he says, he
wants to push it to focus on the priorities outlined in its own
platform. "What people would like us to do is join a third party, go
Green, so they don't have to deal with these issues."
Use our contact form to write to Maureen Turner.