Democrats and Republicans try to set the bar for this fall’s legislative elections

INTRO TEXT

It has been billed as the biggest challenge to Democratic dominance on Beacon Hill in more than a decade. But after rolling out a field of 131 Republican candidates for the Legislature in late May, Gov. Mitt Romney and Republican Party leaders were, by Labor Day, keying in on 20 to 30 seats in the 200-member Legislature that might realistically be in play—and keeping predictions modest even about them.

“If we pick up a seat, I’ll be happy,” Romney told reporters in a mid-September press conference that used Paul Revere’s house in Boston’s North End as a backdrop for the Republican effort to bring revolutionary change to the State House. “If we pick up more than that, I’ll be very happy.” In an interview later in the month, Romney depressed expectations even further, saying that, with the Democratic favorite-son presidential candidacy, he was bracing for a “Kerry tsunami” that would make 2004 a particularly tough year for Republicans to make headway in the Bay State.

If Romney’s audacious electoral gambit—engaging a battle over legislative seats his three Republican predecessors studiously avoided—has turned into an exercise in diminishing expectations, it’s not for lack of trying. Romney has made the state GOP a fundraising powerhouse, raking in and spending about $2.7 million to rebuild the party, and showering legislative candidates, whom he dubbed “Team Reform,” with another $1 million in donations and in-kind support, according to the Boston Globe.

Republican Field (left) is targeting incumbent Peisch (right).
The governor’s not the only one trying to manage expectations for the coming election. “Everybody knows that he’s being disingenuous when he says he’ll be happy with a pickup of one seat,” says Philip Johnston, chairman of the state Democratic Party. With rumors circulating that the state GOP may launch a huge media campaign down the homestretch, featuring Romney himself in TV ads beseeching voters to elect Republicans who support his reform agenda, Johnston says he’s prepared for the worst. “If he does a million-dollar buy, I think we can lose quite a few seats,” he says.

Johnston’s fears notwithstanding, things haven’t exactly broken Team Reform’s way. The GOP lost its favorite symbol of all that is wrong under Democratic rule when Thomas Finneran resigned as House Speaker September 28. Republican leaders were quick to pronounce his successor more of the same. “Sal DiMasi is no reformer,” says Republican Party chairman Darrell Crate. “We’re swapping one for another.”

But Romney—who has distanced himself from fundraising letters sent out under his name, as reported by the Globe, calling Finneran the “poster child for patronage, waste, and blocking my reforms at every turn”—says that the legislative contests ultimately will turn on the pressing issues in each district. “I think Tip O’Neill had it right, that all politics is local,” says Romney, invoking an icon of the Democratic Party.

And that might prove to be Team Reform’s biggest challenge. The Republican Party is hoping its candidates can hitch themselves to Romney’s coattails, echoing the governor’s message on issues such as merging the Turnpike Authority and state highway department or honoring the voter-approved rollback of the state income tax to 5 percent.

‘It’s laughable to think I am a pawn of the speaker.’

But by concentrating those efforts in parts of the state where Romney drew strong support in 2002, GOP challengers are taking on Democratic incumbents in the suburbs who are not as easily tarred by the Beacon Hill insider brush. Take Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat being challenged by Republican George Field, an attorney who says the race is “about independence and reform.” He claims that Peisch, in her one term in office, has been “following the lead of the Boston-based leadership in the House.”

“It’s laughable to think I am a pawn of the Speaker,” says Peisch, a former Wellesley school committee member and elected town clerk who is the first Democrat ever to represent the upscale suburb in the House. Peisch opposed a leadership effort to grant Finneran power to hand out pay raises to favored lieutenants, and cast one of the few Democratic votes against stripping Romney of the power to appoint an interim US senator should John Kerry win the White House.

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.

Citing two other Team Reform planks, Field charges that Peisch does not support an immediate rollback in the state income tax and voted to “water down” the state’s new English-immersion education law, which was passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2002. But it’s not clear how much Wellesley voters will be stirred to outrage over a 0.3 percent margin in tax rates or allowing school districts to continue popular two-way bilingual programs, in which English- and non-English-speaking students receive concurrent instruction in each other’s languages.

The Wellesley face-off highlights a pattern in some of the most seriously contested races: Many of the Democrats facing the strongest challenges are suburban moderates who have tended to operate more independently of the legislative leadership. “It’s an ironic twist,” says Johnston. While Romney “talks about reform, his real targets are reformers.”

But with the GOP holding just 22 seats in the 160-member House of Representatives and seven seats in the 40-member Senate, who can blame the Republicans for taking any target they can get? The districts now being concentrated on are those “where the gap is closing, where instead of being 20 or 30 points behind, we’re 10 points behind,” says Romney, citing the party’s polling. “Targeting races in Lawrence and Boston wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”