Grassroots democracy or insider politics?

The state Democratic Party’s rule requiring a candidates for governor to get 15 percent of the delegate votes at the state convention in order to appear on the primary ballot is a sitting target for those who yearn for a more freewheeling, open democratic process. The rule, which dates back to the early 1980s, smacks of the distasteful strong-arming tactics of party bosses and other insiders who hijack political decision-making to serve their own self-serving ends.

A few weeks ago, Scot Lehigh took aim at the rule, decrying the practice of convention delegates playing a “field-weeding function that properly belongs to primary voters.” Yesterday, his Globe colleague Joan Vennochi picked up where Lehigh left off, declaring that, when it comes to deciding who can run for statewide office, “Massachusetts Democrats aren’t very democratic.”

The gist of their argument is that party activists shouldn’t screen out candidates who they don’t want on the primary ballot, and voters should get to choose the nominee. There is plenty of funny business at the conventions to make you think they’re right. There is already speculation about various approaches that might be taken to game the Democrats’ upcoming gathering this June. Will supporters of Steve Grossman throw some votes to newcomer Juliette Kayyem in the hope that she siphons some women’s votes from (current) frontrunner Martha Coakley, Grossman’s chief rival (at the moment) for the nomination? Will Coakley’s forces go all-out to try to keep Kayyem off the ballot for the same reason?  

Holy ward boss. It’s enough to make you pine for the wisdom of a good-government process liberal like Michael Dukakis.

But it turns out the Duke is one of the biggest champions of the 15 percent rule. “I’m a great believer in it,” he told the Globe in the run-up to the 2006 primary season. Dukakis was never a greater believer in the rule than in 1982, when his forces pushed hard to maintain it as he plotted his Democratic Party rematch with Ed King, the conservative one-time Massport official who had toppled Dukakis from office four years earlier. Dukakis desperately wanted a one-on-one primary against King, and his supporters used the 15 percent rule to keep then-Lt. Gov. Tom O’Neill off the primary ballot. “I didn’t want three people in the race for obvious reasons,” said Dukakis.

While that smacks of the sort of anti-democratic impulse Vennochi and others decry, is it that simple? Dukakis’s argument was that a multi-candidate field could have split the anti-King vote and given King the nomination even if most Democratic primary voters wanted him gone. It’s a pretty compelling argument, and the fact that both a former governor and the then-sitting lieutenant governor were ready to take the reigning governor from their party suggested a remarkable degree of dissatisfaction within the Democratic fold. Requiring a runoff election between the two top vote-getters if no one tops 50 percent in a primary would be one way to address this issue.

Stonehill College political science professor Peter Ubertaccio offers an impassioned defense of the 15 percent rule. He puts forward a strong case for parties exercising some control over who runs under their banner — and points out that those who don’t want any part in the process are free to run unaligned with any political party, as two independent are in fact doing in this year’s race for governor. As Ubertaccio points out, there are all sorts of rules that “impinge” on the complete expression of democratic rule, including the 10,000 signatures candidates must also gather to get on the primary ballot.

Far from an exercise in exclusionary insider politics, the caucus system and convention, he argues, provide some vital civic glue in a time when people feel a great disconnect from their government and political leaders. He puts the party caucuses and and local ward and town committee meetings together in the same category as local civic groups, PTAs, churches, and sports leagues. In other words, they help form the sort of “social capital” that Harvard political scientist — and Bowling Alone author — Robert Putnam argues has become all too scarce in modern life.

Ubertaccio also reminds us that political parties have a certain “hybrid” status, in which they are “neither purely private nor public entities.” Which means the only way anyone unhappy with the party rules can have a say in changing them is to become one of those disparaged insiders and get involved in the party doings.

–MICHAEL JONAS  

BEACON HILL

The state’s program to place homeless families in hotels is called a quagmire, reports the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Sen. Stan Rosenberg is the legislature’s 2013 per diem king.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

In her fourth term, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk joins Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Gloucester Times reports.

The state has granted Quincy a one-year extension to seek new funding for a sprawling public park while officials deal with the delayed $1.6 billion downtown renewal project and a potential developer shakeup.

Ray Flynn says new Boston Mayor Marty Walsh shouldn’t get down about Tom Menino’s seeming lack of enthusiasm about his new administration: “Tom never said a positive word about me in 20 years either.”

CASINOS

At a pro-casino rally in Revere, Mayor Dan Rizzo says “this will be one of the best things that’s happened in this city for generations,” the Item reports. Opponents, decrying the  prospect of predatory gambling and more addiction, see things a little differently.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Bill de Blasio ’slow grade road rage may be the reason he’s launched a safe driving initiative.

Chuck Hagel wants to shrink the military to pre-World War II levels.

The New York Times charts the Heritage Foundation’s drift from policy to Tea Party politics under Jim DeMint.

ELECTIONS

Gov. Deval Patrick, who has spent years dismissing talk that higher political ambition could be in his future, says he might be open to a future run for office — but not in 2016.

As Scott Brown preps for a possible Senate run in New Hampshire, he’s shunning Mitt Romney’s campaign organization while courting former aides to Kelly Ayotte and John McCain.

Kimberly Atkins argues that national Republican strategists are shying away from Brown, and refusing to line up a challenger to Sen. Ed Markey, because the national GOP is still married to its own hard line: “Republican candidates who don’t toe the party’s conservative ideological line are on their own, which is good news for their Democratic opponents.”

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Netflix and Comcast sign a deal on streaming speed, but the terms are not disclosed, Time reports.The Washington Post analyzes in detail Comcast’s deal with Netflix. Cable providers, including Comcast and Verizon, began slowing Netflix’s speed after winning a recent court fight over net neutrality. A Wall Street Journal op-ed column argues that the deal wouldn’t be necessary, if the FCC weren’t protecting cable incumbents and slowing the rollout of competitive, super-high speed internet service.

MGM International profits rebound in 2013, and the casino operator has its best year since the economy tanked.

EDUCATION

The SAT is still a requirement for most college admissions, but how much it matters varies depending on the school.

Keller@Large says Taunton has the right idea, foregoing the February school vacation he calls “a cruel joke” in exchange for closing the school year in mid-June rather than later in the month.

HEALTH CARE

Lawrence General Hospital is planning a $72 million project to build a new surgical building and renovate patient rooms, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Massachusetts scientists say there has been important progress in RNA interference, a way of interrupting gene activity that may be a key to fighting disease.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Enjoy the warm temperatures last week? Keep those memories as another polar vortex is set to sweep down on us in the next few days, covering nearly two-thirds of the United States and plunging temperatures 20 to 30 degrees below normal.

Peru (the Berkshires town, not the country) may get a small wind farm. Or it may not.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

More than half of the guns seized by law enforcement officials in Massachusetts come from out of state, mostly New Hampshire and Maine, WBUR reports.

The former assistant clerk magistrate in Ipswich District Court, who admitted sufficient facts in a witness intimidation case, is demanding the state pay her more than $500,000, the Salem News reports.

There’s lots of turnover taking place on the federal bench in Massachusetts.

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.

MEDIA

The Beat The Press panel debates the FCC’s proposal to sit in on news meetings to see how decisions are made on what stories to cover and report.