Why some establishment Dems are on the defensive

It’s not about ideology; voters want politicians they can trust

HEADING INTO THE SEPTEMBER 4 primary, there is an undercurrent of voter discontent with establishment Democrats, which activists and candidates propose to fix with more progressive ideology – or at least the appearance of progressivism.

 But the real choice isn’t between progressives and centrists; it is between constitutional ideals and an autocratic approach to governing. There are indeed bad apples within the Democratic Party, but their lack of integrity is not tied to their policies; it is tied to a culture of protecting oneself at any cost. To win over voters, the Democratic Party needs to address the trust gap.

Primary candidates for everything from governor to district attorney are tripping over themselves to seize the title “most progressive,” with gubernatorial candidate Bob Massie touting the Our Revolution Massachusetts endorsement and his opponent, Jay Gonzalez, trumpeting the nod he received from Progressive Massachusetts. According to Politico reporter Lauren Dezenski, at an early primary debate, Massie differentiated himself from his opponent, who was secretary of administration and finance under former Gov. Deval Patrick, by saying that “he was not a government insider who just wants to go back to the Patrick days.”

Not long after, I was at a meeting of the Cambridge Ward 6 Democratic Committee where Middlesex County district attorney candidate Donna Patalano said she hesitated to even use the word progressive to describe herself because “everyone uses it so much these days it almost has no meaning.” And recently I received a mailing from her opponent, incumbent Marian Ryan, who called herself “the proven progressive prosecutor.”

The last time I checked, Deval Patrick was still considered one of the most progressive leaders Massachusetts has ever seen. Yet these days, he is considered moderate by some party activists.

Similar to the national Democratic Party, Massachusetts is facing a battle between progressives and centrists for the “soul” of the party. Yet the fight is based on a misdiagnosis of the illness and Democrats are, as a result, applying the wrong cure.

Progressives conflate centrism with sellout politicians and centrists conflate pragmatism with protecting poor behavior. But voters don’t want to choose between ideas they approve of and the ability to work effectively within the system. What they don’t like is activists and politicians implying they must choose between the two. And their discontent with the Democratic Party is, in fact, a frustration with Democrats who appear more concerned with the accumulation and preservation of power than with making their constituents’ lives better.

For too long, staying in office at any cost has been an end unto itself. Incumbents rarely risk the consequences of speaking out when members of their own party behave egregiously. Indeed, in Massachusetts we have Democrats who close ranks when a colleague is accused of corruption, ignore the principles of democracy within their institutions, and prefer coasting to re-election to leading.

While blunt public statements aren’t always the best approach in a building based on relationships, there aren’t even subtle statements of concern about bad actors amongst the rank-and-file. Situations have to blow up before anyone will take action. Three consecutive speakers left under the cloud of indictment and the only people verbalizing alarm were outside of the State House. After the FBI raided the law office of then-Sen. Brian Joyce, rather than call him out for abusing the public trust or opening their own investigation, his colleagues waited out the clock until he chose not to run for re-election. While “innocent until proven guilty” is an important precept in our rule of law, it’s rarely applied in political campaigns. Yet once someone becomes part of an institution, they are instantly inoculated from public criticism by their peers. There’s an old saying that “politics is perception.” The silence appears to the average voter as complicity. And that’s what leads to voter mistrust.

Group-think culture is dangerous to any organization, particularly when that group has too much power. It leads members to take action that is counter-productive to their individual goals as well as the overall health of the institution. Take, for example, the artificially created and completely avoidable sloth-like pace of the Legislature, which resulted in the death of health care and school funding reforms at the end of the recent session juxtaposed with lawmakers’ first-vote-of-the-session pay raise for themselves.

Fear of taking “tough votes” on paid family leave, the minimum wage, and safe staffing in hospitals led advocates to force the Legislature’s hand by threatening ballot initiatives, which is a terrible way to write laws. It made the whole institution look lazy, which is far more dangerous to members than the risk posed by controversial votes.

Outside of the bubble of Beacon Hill, decades of story after story of one bad apple and a barrelful of silent enablers settles into voters’ consciousness. A narrative emerges: “They’re all bad apples and we can’t trust them.” From that springs forth the “throw the bums out” anti-establishment mentality now sweeping through swaths of the Democratic electorate.

This narrative lends credence to the belief that all we need to do is elect more candidates who are further to the left. Yet once they’re in office, those progressives face the same moral quandary centrists do: Sit on the backbench toiling in legislative obscurity or join the fold of leadership to advance their agenda and swallow their concerns about how things are being run. That’s why even some of the most progressive politicians in the Legislature, such as Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez and Rep. Byron Rushing, face primary challenges from the left. Activists and voters think they’ve silenced their own voices in lieu of power and expediency. The culture and power structure sets up that dilemma the day they’re sworn in.

Democratic Party activists and candidates are conflating a lack of leadership on party or progressive values with a lack of leadership period. And centrists are conflating progressives with impractical ideologues. The reality is Massachusetts is capable of producing centrists who lead (Speaker Tip O’Neill) as well as pragmatic progressives (Sen. Ted Kennedy).

It’s time to elect candidates up and down the ballot willing to speak truth to power, even if it costs them. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether they are progressive or centrist, but they must support the integrity of the system. Voters want politicians they can trust.

 To win back swing voters, the Massachusetts Democratic Party needs to show them they can have their cake and eat it, too: They can have a steady hand at the helm and call out bad behavior, rule-breaking, and hypocrisy within their own party. They can have Democratic vision and encourage small “d” democratic values such as the shared leadership model former Senate president Stan Rosenberg instituted, elimination of consolidated amendments in the Massachusetts House budget process, and allowing bills with two-thirds of the membership listed as co-sponsors to come up for a vote.

As we approach Tuesday’s primary election, Democrats have an opportunity to ask more of their leaders: When they see candidates at rallies and functions, ask if they will commit to shining a light on Beacon Hill. Will they call out officials for unethical behavior? Will they encourage a more democratic process within the House? Will they restore the trust voters need?

Meet the Author

Stefanie Coxe

Guest Contributor, Nexus Werx LLC
The Democratic Party deserves – and can afford – nothing less. While Democrats have focused on insulating themselves against attacks from the right, they’ve inadvertently lost the trust of the left and the center. Those of us who love our party must address this blind spot before it fractures us even further.

Stefanie Coxe is the owner of Nexus Werx LLC, an activism and lobbying training and consulting company, and a former political staffer to numerous Democrats. Email her at Stefanie@nexuswerx.com or follow her on Twitter @stefcoxe and Facebook @effectiveactivism