Harshbarger says democracy needs a shot in the arm
Jump to United Independent Party is effort to promote more competition
SCOTT HARSHBARGER MAY have the right diagnosis, but it’s less clear that he’s landed on the cure.
The former attorney general and one-time Democratic nominee for governor says democracy is withering on the vine, with far too few contested elections in Massachusetts. With more than two-thirds of all legislative seats going unchallenged this fall, who can argue with him? But it’s hard to know whether Harshbarger’s announcement that he is joining the United Independent Party in an effort to help jump-start more political activity will make a difference.
Though Harshbarger has been a lifelong Democrat, no one ever accused him of being a Beacon Hill insider. Indeed, some think the feisty former AG’s independent streak and unwillingness to cozy up to party poohbahs cost him the 1998 governor’s race.
But nothing in Harshbarger’s decades on the state political scene showed quite the independence of his move this week to abandon the Democratic Party and change his registration to the United Independent Party. Harshbarger says his switch was driven by frustration at the small number of contested elections for seats in the Legislature every two years. “Ensuring contested elections is the single most important reform we can implement right now to encourage citizen engagement and renew our democracy,” Harshbarger wrote in a piece earlier this week for CommonWealth.
He decided helping the fledgling United Independent Party, founded by Newton businessman Evan Falchuk, who ran for governor under the party’s label two years ago, was the most direct way he could try to invigorate the political landscape in Massachusetts.
Harshbarger is not declaring permanent loyalty to Falchuk’s party. His move was intended to draw attention to the party’s need to claim at least 43,000 registered voters by the November election in order to retain its ballot status and the ability to field candidates under its banner.
“I think it’s a big deal that he’s joined us,” says Falchuk. “It means a lot that he’s done this to help build our party and maintain our ballot access.”
Harshbarger got to know Falchuk during the 2014 governor’s race, when Falchuk notched just over 3 percent of the statewide vote, and they’ve had conversations since then about the state of Massachusetts political life.
Harshbarger came to appreciate the value of the party maintaining its ballot status, and he says Falchuk won him over to the idea of showing he believed in that enough to switch his own registration.
The timing of Harshbarger’s announcement coincided with the deadline for candidates to submit nominating signatures for legislative races this fall. If the vitality of a democracy is measured by the number of contested elections that offer voters a choice in who represents them, Massachusetts has long been in doldrums, and this year looks no different.
Former state Democratic Party chairman John Walsh is sympathetic to Harshbarger’s goals, but questions his means.
“I really believe in competition,” says Walsh. “But they recruited exactly one legislative candidate in the whole frickin’ state.”
“You can’t be involved in this stuff and not respect Scott, his years in politics, the work he’s done after that,” says Walsh. “But the idea that the United Independent Party is going to drive competition is an interesting theory without proof.”
Walsh pointed out that not only are Democrats challenging 13 incumbent Republicans, there are 18 Democratic lawmakers facing primary challenges.
“We should aspire to do better,” says Walsh, but he says the idea that Democrats “are these evildoers locking down the system [against competition] is ludicrous.”
Walsh says he would welcome more primary challenges within the party, a view he says he also put forward while serving as chairman. “I got in trouble for saying that,” he says.
Political parties can gain ballot access in Massachusetts by fielding a candidate who wins at least 3 percent of the vote in a statewide race, or by claiming at least 1 percent of the state’s registered voters.
Though Falchuk won just over 3 percent of the vote in the 2014 governor’s race, the party is now trying to preserve its status through registration numbers so that it will maintain ballot access regardless of whether it has a statewide candidate two years from now who notches 3 percent of the vote. The party must have 43,000 registered voters before this November’s general election, a steep climb from the roughly 21,000 it currently claims.
More candidates on the ballot this fall might have been the best way to raise its visibility and registration numbers. Falchuk says party activists are mounting registration drives at schools and other locations, where they are encouraging people to switch their affiliation to the UIP. He says the party is also in the process of establishing town and city committees in 10 Massachusetts communities.
The party waves efforts to pin an ideological label on it. It resembles something of a cross between moderate Massachusetts Republicanism and reform-minded Democratic Party thinking. Referring to this week’s debate on transgender rights, Falchuk says, “We need people to say everyone is equal. We also need to spend taxpayer money wisely. So if that’s an ideology, that’s what our ideology is.”Harshbarger says he “anticipates” that he will return to the Democratic fold after helping the United Independent Party try to reach its registration goal, but he’ll wait to make that decision.
“If the United Independent Party can’t prove its value, it will fade away,” says Harshbarger. “It doesn’t deserve to win, but in my view, it deserves to be heard.”