Endorsements don’t always translate to votes

Support from fellow pols takes a backseat to field organization

If endorsements reflected a candidate’s standing among voters, Steve Grossman would be sitting pretty just days from the September 9 primary for governor. Instead, he finds himself trailing Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley by 24 points in the latest WBUR/MassINC Polling Group survey.

Grossman, one of three Democrats vying for the nomination, has piled up a boatload of endorsements from state lawmakers, mayors, and other officials, far outpacing the backing received by Coakley or health care expert Don Berwick. Grossman has been endorsed by 93 state legislators — nearly half the entire Legislature — as well as15 Massachusetts mayors. Coakley claims the support of 20 lawmakers and six mayors. Berwick has been endorsed by seven legislators.

Steve Grossman greets a commuter outside Broadway Station in South Boston.

Grossman acknowledges that endorsements alone don’t count for much, but he says they open the door to the campaign workers candidates need down the home stretch and on Election Day itself. “The endorsements of elected officials are a gateway to thousands of activists, because every one of those elected officials has a team” that has helped put them in office, he says, while campaigning Wednesday morning outside an MBTA station in South Boston.

Grossman says that stable of activists is what propelled him to win the Democratic Party endorsement at the state convention in June, and he thinks it will help push him to what would be, at this point, an upset victory on Tuesday.

Grossman is scheduled to be in Melrose on Sunday, where Mayor Rob Dolan will walk him through the huge crowds that are expected at the city’s annual Victorian fair. “Melrose people go out there and they see me with Rob, and he introduces me to people,” says Grossman, previewing the scene. “They say, wow, so Rob Dolan is with Steve, OK. I didn’t really know much about Steve and now I’m going to take a look. And then when Rob pulls together all of his team, who are going to hold signs, knock on doors, and do all the things that are the building blocks of a grassroots, get-out-the-vote effort, it all comes together really in that last week.”

Dolan is a huge Grossman supporter. But his lines of political support may not necessarily transfer as readily as Grossman seems to suggest.

In 2001, as a newly elected 29-year-old mayor facing some serious municipal challenges, Dolan says he called Grossman, who came and met with him at a Bickford’s on Route 1 in neighboring Saugus. “He sat with me and gave me some of the best advice anyone could ever give me for how to run my office,” Dolan says. Dolan has continued to turn to Grossman for advice on city management and other issues.

The laying on of hands: Martha Coakley receives the blessing of a group of black clergy outside the United Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain.

Dolan helped organize for Grossman at the state Democratic convention, he’s hosted coffee hours for him during the campaign, and he thinks the treasurer would make a fantastic governor. But Dolan is realistic about the impact he can have on primary day. “We’ll have people out on Election Day. I might take the day off,” he says, to help with those efforts. But he says there is no Dolan political machine in Melrose that he can put in motion on Grossman’s behalf.

“People think for themselves here,” he says. “So my job is not to say, I’m for Steve Grossman, you should be, too. It’s to say, I’m for Steve Grossman, if you like the way Melrose has been run it’s because Steve Grossman has been such a solid mentor to me in how it has been run.”

Coakley says she’s grateful for the support she has from fellow elected officials, but she quickly pivots to the theme she’s been sounding since the start of the campaign. “I’ve been doing more grassroots, both organizations and people,” she recently said, standing outside a Jamaica Plain church where she received the endorsement of a dozen black clergy members. “For instance, SEIU 1199, the workers there, who I know really care about the future of health care and are organizing for the quality of life for their folks.”

Not for nothing does Coakley cite the health care workers union. SEIU has emerged as a powerful political force in Massachusetts elections. And its clout doesn’t come just from a surge of volunteer grassroots efforts by its members. The union’s PAC has spent $65,000 so far to pay canvassers working door-to-door in support of Coakley.

For his part, Berwick largely dismisses the role of endorsements, though he says the handful of state lawmakers who are backing him have lent more than just their names to his cause, with many of them working hard for his campaign and helping introduce him to voters in their districts.

As for Grossman’s big lead in the endorsement chase, Berwick says, “it shows he’s a professional politician” who is closely tied to the “inside status quo political system.”

Coakley’s campaign chalks up Grossman’s broad support among political figures to his longstanding role in Democratic politics. Grossman previously served as chairman of the state party as well as of the Democratic National Committee.

Doug Rubin, a top Coakley advisor who helped steer Deval Patrick’s two winning campaigns for governor, says there are plenty of examples of candidates who had the most backing from political figures not faring as well when it comes to the state’s electorate.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“It’s something we’ve seen in the past,” says Rubin, drawing a parallel with Patrick’s 2006 primary victory over then-Attorney General Tom Reilly, who had racked up a lot of endorsements from elected officials. “Reilly had a lot of insiders,” says Rubin. But Patrick “put together a grassroots organization, and had a real compelling message. I just see a lot of similarities between that and what Martha Coakley is doing this time around.”

Plenty of questions have been raised about how compelling Coakley’s message has been. How successful she’s been at building a solid field organization will be clear on Tuesday night.