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Did You Say "Liberal Democrats"?
Progressive Democrats look for their place under the party´s big tent.

- October 28, 2004

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.
With Democrats like ex-House Speaker Tom Finneran, who needed conservative Republicans?
This year's 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 Massachusetts Democrats.

"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 (, which now has about 450 members, many in liberal strongholds like Northampton.

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 ( 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 tent."

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 says.

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."

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