Harsh history lessons
Constitutional office looks like a great springboard to becoming governor, but no statewide officeholder has been elected to the state’s top job in almost 60 years. Voters may be telling us something.
It’s hard to hear as the chatter bounces off the bare tile floor of the crowded VFW hall in Ipswich. The Democratic town committee is holding its annual breakfast on a sunny Saturday in early February. Local party activists have turned out in droves, and not for the chafing trays of scrambled eggs and bacon warming in its own juices. Four of the five Democratic candidates for governor are due to address the gathering.
One by one the candidates slip into the room and start mingling with the crowd. Their arrivals go largely unnoticed, except for one. When Martha Coakley walks in, a murmur ripples across the room that morphs into a round of polite applause. It’s not exactly a raucous welcome, but the two-term attorney general has what passes for star power in a contest featuring three political neophytes and one fellow state officeholder who is far better known as a party insider than for his public profile.
Coakley has the highest name recognition of any candidate in the race. Early polls show her with a huge lead in the five-way Democratic primary. And she fares the best of any Democrat in match-ups against presumed Republican nominee Charlie Baker. Throw in the state’s heavy Democratic tilt in party voter registration, and Coakley might seem like the most logical bet to be the next governor.
| Coakley: She knows something about how tough a reach up can be. Grossman: An insider who’s working it hard.
Dwight Eisenhower won a second term in the White House on the day former state treasurer Foster Furcolo was elected governor in 1956. Since that time, 15 current or former statewide officeholders have sought the Commonwealth’s top job in 17 elections for governor. Their collective record: 0 for 17. (The tally comes with two asterisks: Frank Sargent and Paul Cellucci were both elected governor after having served as lieutenant governor, but each had already ascended to the top job when governors they served under resigned.)
Holding one of the five other statewide offices (lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, and auditor) looks like it should be a great launching pad for a run for governor. Name recognition from appearing on the statewide ballot and relationships with elected officials and party activists would seem just the right starting place for a successful campaign. Time and again, however, the state’s voters have said otherwise, showing a decided preference for political outsiders who represent a fresh face on Beacon Hill.
That’s been true across party lines, whether it was Republicans Bill Weld, with his vow to take on the Beacon Hill status quo, and Mitt Romney, with his businessman can-do profile, or Democrat Deval Patrick’s grassroots call for those who have “checked out” of the political system to check back in.
There is no hex or dark spell hovering over the lower statewide offices. Nothing automatically disqualifies those holding these posts from winning the state’s top job. And perhaps this will be the year the nearly six-decade streak is broken. But it is a remarkable run of electoral history, one that is especially hard to ignore in a year with two statewide officeholders in the race.
The 58-year record seems to offer some clear clues to what gets voters excited—and what can leave them cold —when it comes to filling the state’s top office. As this year’s race shifts into gear, that history doesn’t have veto power over the outcome, but it may have a say.
Michael Dukakis served as Massachusetts governor for 12 years, longer than anyone in state history, and he stands as one of the leading figures in modern Massachusetts politics. He was anything but an established political powerhouse, however, when he sought the governor’s office in 1974. Dukakis had served six years as a reform-minded state representative from Brookline and was the nominee for lieutenant governor on the Democrats’ losing ticket in 1970. In 1974, with three terms in the 1960s as a rabble-rousing House backbencher his only credential in elected office, Dukakis took on Robert Quinn, the state’s attorney general, for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Under the guise of a call for party unity, Democratic leaders wanted Dukakis and Quinn to agree to a deal: The party would rally around whoever won the backing of a majority of delegates at the state convention, with the loser gracefully bowing out and agreeing not to compete in the September primary.
“I started laughing at them,” says Dukakis, who quickly rejected the idea. “I said, ‘you got to be kidding me.’ I was under no illusions that I could win a convention against Quinn.”
“They were just furious at me,” he says of the party pooh-bahs. So furious, in fact, that they simply called off the convention that year. Dukakis and Quinn marched straight on to the September primary, where Dukakis rode a Watergate-inspired reform wave to victory and went on to knock off Frank Sargent, the sitting Republican governor, in the November general election.
Reflecting on the race, as well as those that came before and after it, Dukakis thinks there is no doubt about the type of candidate Massachusetts voters favor when it comes to electing governors. “We have an electorate that values independence,” he says.
That may be the best one-word description for the quality voters have rewarded. It has found expression in various ways, including the 16-year run following Dukakis when heavily blue Massachusetts opted for Republican governors as a check on a Legislature dominated by Democrats. Other characteristics seem important as well, not least an ability to connect with voters and inspire them with a vision of where a candidate wants to lead the state. If there is one overriding pattern to governor’s races, however, it is an aversion of voters to those with too close an association with Beacon Hill.
Shannon O’Brien got a harsh lesson in that as the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002. A former legislator who had been elected state treasurer four years earlier, O’Brien had a perfectly creditable record. It even included taking on her former colleagues when lawmakers made noises about extending the time for the state to fully fund the state’s pension liabilities.
But none of that could hold a candle to the ad campaign Mitt Romney rolled out as the campaign came down the homestretch. The centerpiece of Romney’s message was that electing O’Brien would be putting state government in the hands of a shady Beacon Hill “gang of three.” Making up the not-to-be-trusted troika of State House insiders with O’Brien were then-House speaker Tom Finneran, with whom she was friendly, and Robert Travaglini, who was in line to become Senate president and whose brother served as her top aide in the treasurer’s office.
That ad was “the thing that killed me,” says O’Brien, who lost the election by 5 points. “What appeals to Massachusetts voters, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, is the person who appears to be the most independent.”
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, says the success of the Romney attack underscores the reservoir of contempt many voters hold for state government. In short-hand talk about Massachusetts politics, he points out, “‘Beacon Hill’ is used as an epithet.”
It’s a curious reality in a state that tends to show plenty of deference to incumbent officeholders. Massachusetts is hardly overrun with the sort of throw-the-bums-out attitude one might expect given the taint associated with Beacon Hill. That paradox forms what might best be described as a split personality among the state’s voters.
Robert Reich, the former Clinton administration labor secretary who ran as an “outsider” candidate for governor in 2002, says he saw that first-hand in his race, where he was quickly able to gain traction as a first-time candidate, though he ultimately finished second to O’Brien in the four-way Democratic primary. “The very culture of insider politics that dominates so much of Massachusetts has caused voters to want something quite different in their governor,” he says.
“There’s a sense that the governor’s office is where people who are fed up with Beacon Hill can find someone who can work on their behalf against all the entrenched power and corruption,” says Ubertaccio.
Voters also seem to look to candidates for governor who they can connect with, something that seems far less important in their choices for other statewide posts.
With a PhD in economics, Evelyn Murphy says her focus had always been “studying and looking at policy.” Murphy, who had previously served stints in state government as secretary of environmental affairs and economic affairs, was able to parlay her strengths into a winning campaign for lieutenant governor in 1986. Running for governor four years later, however, was “entirely different,” she says.
| Berwick: A liberal who boasts that Glenn Beck called him “the second most dangerous man
“People know you’re smart enough,” she says someone once told her. “The question is whether they like you enough.” Murphy says the schmoozing and emoting of gubernatorial campaign politics was just not her strong suit. “The intangibles were far more important running for governor than lieutenant governor,” she says.
The importance of those intangibles was not lost on Bill Weld, the Republican victor in the 1990 race. Weld and the Democratic nominee, John Silber, were both outsiders in what shaped up as a major “change” election, with voters angry at the departing Dukakis and Democratic legislators over tax increases and a state budget tattered by recession. The tie-breaker in the race, many believe, was Weld’s much more affable bearing. It compared particularly well to what seemed to be Silber’s perpetual scowl, a trait that reached a costly nadir when he lit into popular newscaster Natalie Jacobson in a television interview.
Weld says a friend once offered him advice very similar to the bit of wisdom given to Evelyn Murphy. “If you’re running for governor, you should act like you’re running for class president and not valedictorian,” says Weld. The message: You want voters to like you, not to be impressed that you’re the smartest guy in the class. It helps to project a sense of being comfortable in your own skin, a quality that Weld fairly exuded. For that, he doesn’t credit any late-night study sessions poring over Greek classics but instead his time at Harvard’s often madcap Hasty Pudding Theatricals club. “Three years of running around in women’s clothes at Hasty Pudding—that was great preparation for politics,” says Weld.
For those looking to move up from the attorney general’s office to governor, a well-worn path in recent decades, the problem is that their training is quite the opposite of what Weld picked up—or put on—at the Hasty Pudding.
“I was never standing up as attorney general to have a big yuk with you,” says former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, the Democratic nominee for governor in 1998. “I’m standing up to indict somebody, to prosecute somebody. And that’s what they see in you.”
“The public was not able to get a clear picture of here’s who I am as a person,” Harshbarger says of his campaign for governor. Though winning the attorney general’s office involved a big statewide effort, he calls it “spring training” compared to the governor’s race. “You know that you won statewide, you have strong policies. It all fits in your own mind,” he says. “But what you learn is you have to reintroduce yourself as a candidate for governor. I may have thought I would be a very good governor, but I just wasn’t, at that point, as good a governor’s candidate.”
Frank Bellotti, still fit and tanned at 90, served as lieutenant governor in the 1960s and attorney general in the 1970s and 80s. He fell short in three different bids for governor. “They look at you in a different light,” he says of voter attitudes toward AGs running for governor. “You’re a law enforcement guy. They may have been happy with you there. They’re not sure they’re going to be happy with you as governor.”
LOOKING TO CONNECT
As the local Democrats get ready to hear from the four candidates for governor who have traveled to Ipswich for the party breakfast, Gerry Brown, a veteran area activist, offers a view of what draws people like her into the political fray. “It’s the dream that things will be better—I think that’s what politics is,” she says. “It’s the hole-in-one,” says Brown, an avid golfer. “Every shot you think is going to be the most perfect, gorgeous shot. You get up there. ‘Well, it wasn’t what I had in mind,’ you say, as the shot veers off. But that’s why you keep going. This next one, I know, is it.” She says it’s the same with electing leaders. We’re always looking to be inspired by the promise of a hole-in-one, even if we know that the reality of governing is often incremental progress and shots that sometimes end up in the rough.
Don Berwick is the first candidate to address the crowd. A pediatrician and health policy expert who served for a year and half as the director of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Obama, Berwick has carved out a niche as the full-throated liberal of the Democratic field. He supports a state-level single-payer health system, he’s calling for dramatic changes to prison and sentencing policy, and backs the idea of a graduated income tax that would ask more of those who earn more.
When Obama chose him to run the Medicare and Medicaid office, “Glenn Beck called me the second most dangerous man in America,” Berwick tells the crowd with evident pride. “He was wrong. I’m first.”
Asked before the breakfast what he thinks voters are seeking in a governor, Berwick says, “I think they’re looking for someone who will name the problems, say this is serious and we have ways to get out of this, and speak truthfully about the challenges. They clearly want a sense of decisiveness, someone who can make hard decisions and show confidence. I think they’re looking for genuineness.”
He winds up his pitch to the Ipswich crowd by telling them Massachusetts can be a progressive “beacon” to the nation. “We need a governor who fights for social justice, that fights for equality, that fights for compassion, and if I’m your governor,” he says, “that’ll be my fight.”
At that, Gerry Brown points toward Berwick with a knowing nod. “The dream,” she says.
The following week, the party began holding its caucuses, local gatherings across the state where city and town Democratic committees chose delegates to its state convention in June. Candidates need at least 15 percent of the delegate vote at the convention to appear on the September primary ballot. Berwick claims he did well enough at the caucuses to win a spot on the ballot. But Berwick and fellow first-time candidates Juliette Kayyem and health care executive Joe Avellone, who is trying to fashion a foothold as the moderate in the Democratic field, have barely registered in early polls.
“I’m not daunted by where we are at all,” says Berwick. “I’m excited by it. We’re following in the path of Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren, two very good role models, neither of whom was known when they started. I can see the pathway pretty clearly. The state has shown its openness to people who come in with other backgrounds and skills, and I think maybe especially value it.”
Kayyem is also very much banking on the state’s affinity for outsiders in the governor’s office. She served a stint as Patrick’s top homeland security advisor and was an assistant secretary in the federal homeland security department in Washington. A lawyer by training, Kayyem started her career in the US Justice Department’s civil rights division in the mid-1990s under its then chief, Deval Patrick.
“I’ve had public roles, but this is different. It’s a different animal,” Kayyem says early on a Saturday in February on her way to the first round of party caucuses. She says her campaign manager “keeps texting me two words: ‘Be yourself.’ Which is a good thing for me, because I can’t compete on another level.”
| Kayyem: “I am excited by people’s reception to having choice in the race.”
Kayyem has a breezy freshness, which occasionally includes exclamations saltier than she would ever use in a public address. At 44, she is the youngest Democrat in the field, and talks about representing a new generation of leadership in the state.
Kayyem hopes her dual background in civil rights and homeland security gives her the mix of liberal credentials on social issues and experience with difficult crisis management and infrastructure challenges that voters will respond to.
Her first stop is the Democratic ward caucus in Dorchester’s Savin Hill neighborhood. “There are big names, no question about it,” she says of the Democratic field as she addresses the small gathering of delegates. “For us, as Democrats, I am excited by people’s reception to having choice in the race. We are Massachusetts, and we are bold and fearless. And that’s what I hope from all you—to keep the process open. On the other end of this will be the strongest Democrat to face Charlie Baker.”
If Avellone, Berwick, and Kayyem are each hoping to catch some of the outsider magic that propelled Deval Patrick’s 2006 victory, Steve Grossman and Martha Coakley face the challenge of exploiting the advantages of their offices without hitting one of those sinkholes that have swallowed up so many statewide officeholders who have set out on this course before them.
Later in the month, it is the height of the Tuesday afternoon rush hour as Grossman’s campaign policy director, Jon Ostrowsky, fights his way through Boston traffic to get his candidate to the Democratic caucus that evening in Danvers. On the way, Grossman calls three different state reps who helped him corral delegates in recent caucuses in their districts. “The fact that they’re willing to help us organize is a big deal,” he says after getting off the phone.
He says Coakley is the clear frontrunner, and cites her 94 percent name recognition. Grossman is counting on dogged determination and decades of contacts developed with Democratic activists across the state to counterbalance Coakley’s bigger public profile. It seemed to pay off handsomely during the caucuses, from which most campaign operatives say Grossman emerged with the biggest share of delegates.
That sort of inside strength, say some in rival camps, won’t mean much when voters start paying attention to the primary race in the fall. But you go with what you’ve got. Grossman is, in many ways, the ultimate insider. He previously served as the chairman of the state Democratic Party and as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration. On the campaign trail, however, he emphasizes the family envelope and packaging business he ran for decades—a union shop where they never went to arbitration, he reminds labor-friendly Democratic audiences—and his three and a half years as treasurer and the programs he has developed to aid small businesses in the state.
Grossman seems to be of two minds on what voters want. “They definitely, I think, want to put their faith and trust into somebody who has a wealth of experience at managing complex organizations and institutions, and what I do is more closely related to what the governor does than anybody else running in the Democratic primary,” he says. “I think that’s clear. I just have to be able to tell that story.”
He later adds to that, recognizing that no matter how good your record, winning the governor’s job involves more than showing your prowess as the state’s chief bookkeeper. “Unlike any other office in the state, the governor to a large degree carries the hopes and dreams and aspirations of all the people of Massachusetts on his shoulders,” says Grossman. “Not as a burden, but as an opportunity.”
Grossman says he doesn’t put a lot of stock in the idea that, as state treasurer, he is fighting the tide of electoral history in running for governor. “Those historical patterns are meant to be broken,” he says.
Martha Coakley needs no reminder that statewide officeholders can be blindsided by exaggerated expectations of success in seeking higher office. Her loss in the 2010 US Senate race to Scott Brown was a stinging reminder of the skeptical eye Massachusetts voters can cast on well-known figures who think it is their turn to move up the ladder.
“That was as tough a loss as anybody’s ever had,” she says. “I recognize that a lot of people were disappointed, if not angry, about that race. So I know I have to earn everybody’s vote. But that’s why I said, if I’m going to do this, I will do it from the bottom up, we’ll do this grassroots campaign.”
Coakley and her campaign team say she is running a very different campaign this time. Like her insurgent rivals, she points to the grassroots approach that helped catapult Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren to office, twin efforts that now constitute something of a holy grail in Democratic campaign efforts in the state. What’s more, she’s even hired Doug Rubin, a key strategist behind the Patrick and Warren victories, as her campaign advisor.
It may be a very different campaign than the one Coakley waged for Senate, but it is the same candidate, one who has struggled under the bright lights with the challenge that has tripped up previous attorneys general running for higher office: How do you transition from the state’s top cop to a candidate with a vision for the state’s future and a persona that inspires people to think you can lead the way there?
“I recognize that this is a different job and people want to see more of me,” Coakley says of the need to give voters a fuller sense of who she is. One very deliberate way she is doing that is by talking about her brother’s suicide 18 years ago, and trying to link it to the need to improve mental health services and remove the stigma associated with seeking them. “Being able to share that is liberating in a way,” she says of the decision to tell his story on the campaign trail.
She rejects the idea that there is some sort of “curse of the AG” in seeking the governor’s office, and points to the success that women AGs in particular have had in moving up to governor in other states. The last two men elected governor of New York, Elliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, also moved up from the attorney general’s office. Both were able to use the AG’s office to build profiles as crusading champions against powerful big interests.
Coakley is doing something of the same, and she has some good issues to pound on the campaign trail. She highlights her work combating foreclosures and abuses by shady lenders as well as the successful national role her office played in challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.
Rubin, her campaign strategist, also downplays the long arc of election history working against them. “The past is interesting. It makes for good stories, but it doesn’t have to be instructive about the future,” he says. Harkening back to Patrick’s campaign in 2006, he says, “You’re talking to a guy who had to answer the question, ‘There hasn’t been a Democratic governor in 16 years. How can you win?’”
Coakley isn’t the only one in the race for whom this represents something of a redemption run. Charlie Baker, the likely GOP nominee this fall, lost a 2010 race to Patrick in which many people said he had a nasty edge that turned voters off. Baker has rebooted his gubernatorial campaign with a different feel to it, one that he and his backers insist is not a contrived reinvention but much closer to the real Baker.
When asked about the state’s long run of rejecting statewide officeholders in governor’s races, Baker offers a laugh and says, “Well, that’s really good news for me, I guess.”
Outside of a stint on the board of selectmen in Swampscott, where he lives, Baker has never held public office. But as health and human services secretary and later the top budget official in the Weld and Cellucci administrations, Baker spent eight years at the very heart of state government.
If voters are still open to the message of a moderate Republican governor serving as a check on the Democrats who otherwise rule Beacon Hill, that will be good news for Baker. That message will play less well if Baker gets tied to the tea party currents that have pushed the Republican party to the right nationally and even in Massachusetts, where the state GOP adopted a platform this year that runs against the grain of Baker’s support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, Democrats seem ready to pounce on his record in state government in a way designed to blunt any idea that Baker represents a fresh face on Beacon Hill. Four years ago, Patrick’s campaign hammered him with charges that Baker was part of a fiscally irresponsible financing scheme for the Big Dig, an issue that Democrats may try to revive this fall.
On issues, Baker is hardly running a slash-and-burn campaign against the Beacon Hill status quo. At this stage, in fact, his message sometimes sounds remarkably similar to those coming from some of his Democratic rivals, with lots of broad—and bland—pronouncements about having every community be home to the kind of economic vitality and quality schools enjoyed by the state’s better-off burgs.
One challenge Baker faces is to heed Bill Weld’s advice about running for class president and not to be class valedictorian. The brainy Baker got dubbed the “smartest man in state government” during his time on Beacon Hill. His smarts will be an asset if he’s in charge of state government. But getting there, as his former boss reminds, involves people liking you, not just being wowed by your policy smarts.
Posted on Baker’s campaign website is a grainy homemade video someone recorded at a recent dinner for the Big Brother/Big Sister program. In it, Baker speaks movingly about his experience mentoring a boy in the program.
“I think one of the things that people look for in public leaders is some demonstrated representation that what you say is not just what you say, but in fact when the lights are off and no one’s paying attention, you’re actually doing some of that stuff,” Baker says when asked about the video clip. Baker served as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care after leaving state government. He says a former colleague there delivered this message to him: “Charlie, everybody knows you’re a really hard-headed guy. I mean you could be annoying about what you expect with respect to the people who work for you. But you’re also a really big-hearted guy, and I just never thought the big-hearted guy ever showed up in the last campaign.”
A VISIONARY FIXER?
“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose,” Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor, famously observed.
It describes well the dynamic facing those running for governor. It applies very little to other statewide offices, where campaigns rarely capture the public’s imagination or turn on a candidate’s ability to inspire. That probably goes a long way toward explaining why victory at one level in Massachusetts politics has for so long not been the ticket to the corner office that so many have hoped for.
In electing a governor, voters are looking for a “charismatic, visionary leader, and that’s a different set of qualities than for other statewide officeholders,” says Dorie Clark, who served as a spokeswoman for Robert Reich’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign and Howard Dean’s presidential bid in 2004. “You want your treasurer to be smart, judicious, workmanlike. You want your attorney general to know the law and be a smart, careful litigator. Those things can overlap with being visionary, but they don’t always.”
Deval Patrick looms large over any current discussion of the formula for success in winning the governor’s office here. When Patrick came out of nowhere to win the 2006 election, he demonstrated just how potent a force charisma can be in a governor’s race.
By Mario Cuomo’s yardstick, Patrick would rank as a poet of the first order. When it comes to the prose of governing, however, his composition skills have been flagging badly.
The last year has seemed to bring one crisis after another involving the workings of state government. From a drug compounding scandal linked to several dozen deaths to the broken Health Connector website and botched handling of the process for awarding medical marijuana dispensary licenses, it has felt like the wheels are coming off the Patrick bus.
His popularity remains surprisingly high despite the rash of bad turns in state government. But it is still tempting to think this may be an election where voters are more interested in a doer than a dreamer. “You wonder whether, with all the problems state government has faced, people aren’t going to look for someone who can manage this thing,” says Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
With good reason, the candidates from both parties—as well as two independents who have launched longshot campaigns—have all been emphasizing their background actually running things. But they also seem to recognize that those credentials alone will not be enough.Even the outsider candidates who are trying to take a page from his insurgent campaign playbook concede that there is no Deval Patrick in this year’s field when it comes to his ability to turn a campaign into a cause. That may give this year’s election a more prosaic feel. But it won’t stop the candidates from trying to inspire and connect with voters. And victory may still belong to whoever emerges as the most passable poet.