What’s the matter with Blackstone?
The steady move to the right of Worcester County’s small working-class towns
Ten years ago, journalist and historian Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter With Kansas? The book was an exploration of the political transformation of his home state, which had gone from hotbed of left-wing populism in the late 1800s to heartland of rock-ribbed conservative Republicanism. The title refers to the argument put forward by Frank, an unreconstructed liberal, that Kansans are now often voting against their own economic interests.
As committed Democrats, we find ourselves asking a similar question with a local twist. The Massachusetts version might be, “What’s the matter with Blackstone?” And Millville, too, for that matter.
Blackstone and Millville are two small towns — geographically and population wise — in the Blackstone Valley of southern Worcester County, far closer to economically depressed Rhode Island than prospering Greater Boston. The two towns, like many similar communities across the state, have moved over the years from reliably Democratic to more often Republican-leaning.
While there are lots of Massachusetts communities where this pattern has played out, Blackstone and Millville stand as the forerunners of this trend, at least based on one nugget of obscure Massachusetts electoral history.
We started with that 1964 race for attorney general, and examined six subsequent elections, in both presidential and non-presidential election years. Here are the statewide results in our seven index elections.
What has happened to Blackstone and Millville? Not unlike other blue-collar towns which had been reliably Democratic, they are no longer in that category. The two towns, along with many other communities in the Blackstone Valley and the southern reaches of Worcester County, are now reliably Republican. This transformation is so strong that longtime state Sen. Richard Moore, a moderate Democrat and fixture in local politics, whose district includes Blackstone and Millville, lost his seat this month to a 30-year-old conservative Republican state representative, Ryan Fattman. Below are the results from our seven races for Blackstone and Millville.
Similar trends exist elsewhere. Woburn has traditionally sent Democrats to the State House. During Ed Markey’s 2013 special election race for the US Senate, however, Woburn did not vote for him, even though he had represented Woburn in Congress since 1976. It wasn’t about Markey, it was about Woburn. Ronald Reagan would often say he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him, or words something along those lines. Perhaps some of these “Reagan Democrats” in Blackstone and Millville and Woburn are the people who vote Republican, even if they may not be registered that way, and do so regularly.
In 1948, when Tip O’Neill and his Democratic colleagues recruited candidates to run for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, they looked for candidates who were veterans — usually church-going, family men, often from large Catholic families. They were classic middle-American community leaders, in towns like Blackstone and Millville, and small cities such as Woburn.
Across Massachusetts, Democrats who fit that profile defeated Republicans, resulting in O’Neill being elected the first Democratic Speaker of the Massachusetts House (previewing the same role he would later play in the US House). Many of them were elected for many terms and their districts became reliably Democratic.
These towns were the building blocks of what some would call the Kennedy machine, which designated a campaign secretary in every community. This organizational structure dominated Massachusetts politics for decades after WWII, until the move in more recent years of Blackstone and other communities toward the Republican column.
Similarly, a swath of affluent communities that were once regularly Republican now have flipped in the opposite direction and vote Democratic more often than not. That is certainly the case for the affluent suburbs west of Boston, such as Brookline, Newton, Lexington, and Concord. These communities have more recently voted based upon social issues rather than voting in their economic self-interest. These voters are slightly warmer to moderate Republicans in the mold of Ivy League-educated Bill Weld and Charlie Baker, who didn’t necessarily win these liberal-leaning suburbs but were able to narrow the usual Democratic margins there.
Lawrence S. DiCara, a former president of the Boston City Council, is a partner at Nixon Peabody and the author of Turmoil and Transition in Boston. Samuel True Adams, a 2014 graduate of Boston University, is interning at the office of the Attorney General of Massachusetts.