Meet Jim McGovern: congressional class of 96 and godfather of Worcester politics

bald and bespectacled, he doesn’t exactly look like power in pinstripes as he moves though the Capitol. Still, after 10 years in Congress, Jim McGovern is increasingly taking on the aura of a certified Massachusetts powerbroker, even if he’s quick to deny it.

“That’s not the way I see myself,” says the 46-year-old congressman from Worcester, whose district extends southeast to take in part of Fall River. McGovern says he’s “just a hard working, bread and butter, nuts and bolts congressman who wants to make a difference for his district.”

But the 3rd Congressional District representative has also spawned a political subculture in the City of Seven Hills and beyond, becoming the undisputed go-to guy in central Massachusetts—a role in his region that few, if any, of his colleagues in the state’s congressional delegation can lay claim to in theirs. Among his protégés: former McGovern campaign coordinator Timothy Murray, who went on to become Worcester mayor and is now a candidate for lieutenant governor, and Ed Augustus, onetime McGovern chief of staff, who won election to the state Senate in 2004.

Not surprisingly, McGovern downplays his role as political godfather. “If I can encourage good people to pursue politics and government as a career, that’s all to the good,” he says.

McGovern himself needed little encouragement, even though he was considered a long shot in the 1996 race against two-term incumbent Republican Peter Blute, two years after failing in a bid for the Democratic nomination. But since then, the left-leaning McGovern has had an easy go of it in less-than-liberal central Massachusetts. His GOP challenger in 2004, anti-gay marriage activist Ron Crews, couldn’t muster even 30 percent of the vote. Thus far, he has no announced opponents in this year’s election.

“Jim’s demeanor is down-to-earth friendly,” says Augustus. But “it masks a backbone of steel. People look at him and say he’s an easygoing guy. But he can fight hard.”

McGovern studied at the knees of two very different Democratic Party masters, the late South Boston congressman Joe Moakley and former US Sen. George McGovern. He worked as an aide to both men, toiling on Capitol Hill for 17 years before winning office on his own, and he is in many ways a composite of his two mentors. From Moakley, he inherited a bring-home-the-bacon devotion to district interests. From the former South Dakota senator whose surname he shares (they are not related), McGovern acquired an unvarnished liberalism that he practices without apology.

“I love this job,” says McGovern. “I want to keep it, but not so much that I want to sell out all my convictions and at every vote stick my finger up and see which way the wind is blowing.”

The combination has served McGovern—and his district—well, even in the eyes of constituents who may not share his passion for bleeding-heart causes. “Everyone doesn’t have to agree with every position he takes, but from an economic development perspective, he’s been quite effective,” says Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce president Richard Kennedy.

Former state senator Guy Glodis—the Worcester County sheriff and a socially conservative Democrat who’s often considered a McGovern rival —also has almost nothing but praise. “We don’t always agree on the issues,” he admits, but quickly adds, “Jim McGovern is a great congressman—accessible, visible, and effective.” That despite the fact that the two differ on some major culture-war issues, such as the death penalty, which Glodis favors in contrast to McGovern, and gay marriage, which McGovern champions and Glodis opposes.

How influential McGovern is in politics outside of Worcester County will soon be seen. Last year, he became one of the first high-profile Massachusetts politicians to endorse Deval Patrick in his bid to wrest the Democratic gubernatorial nomination from the establishment favorite, Attorney General Tom Reilly. McGovern met Patrick, who has been embraced by the party’s liberal wing, at a political function, then got together with him privately.

“We had a three-hour dinner,” says McGovern. “We talked about everything. I’d been reading his speeches. I decided this guy is the real deal.” Since then, McGovern says, “I’ve been campaigning my ass off for him.”

As much as McGovern’s brand of full-throated liberalism seems to descend from his almost namesake, his passion for social causes was as much honed in service to Moakley, the longtime chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. In 1990, Moakley sent McGovern to El Salvador as part of a House task force that investigated the murders of six priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in 1989. McGovern’s work is credited with revealing the depravity of the Salvadoran army, then funded by the United States as a bulwark against communism. McGovern has continued to advocate for the closure of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, a US Army school that trained Salvadoran military officers. He’s also continued to work on issues of poverty in the developing world, chairing the Congressional Hunger Caucus.

As he was dying of leukemia in 2001, Moakley asked then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri to ensure that his seat on the Rules Committee went to McGovern. Rules is considered one of the most powerful committees in the House because it sets the terms for debate on every bill that passes through the chamber. It was a valuable gift, and McGovern—now the second-ranking Democrat on Rules behind 76-year-old Louise Slaughter of New York—says his career ambition is to take over the committee chairmanship eventually. If that dream were to come true, it would vault him to the pinnacle of national power, which for McGovern would be a change of pace. Unlike his mentor Moakley, McGovern has never spent a day in the House majority. To win victories, he has had to make friends on both sides of the aisle, following his mentor’s advice: “Get to know every single person here on a first-name basis,” because “a lot of what gets done up here is based on relationships.”

Sometimes, that means getting on a conference committee that’s resolving differences between the House and Senate on a bill. That’s how McGovern managed to amend last year’s transportation funding bill to bar destruction of the Brightman Street Bridge, which spans the Taunton River between Fall River and Somerset. McGovern’s move kept a literal barrier in the way of plans for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Fall River, preventing the passage upstream of tall LNG tankers to the proposed docking site (“Congressional Club,” Washington Notebook, CW, Fall ’05). McGovern has been an outspoken critic of the project, arguing that the risk of terrorism is too great to allow flammable LNG near a population center.

He’s an unvarnished liberal who delivers for his district.

It’s been harder for McGovern to get his way on matters of national policy. He’s been a vocal opponent of US involvement in Iraq, and he believes the United States should withdraw troops immediately. Like the state’s senior US senator, Ted Kennedy, he wants to expand Medicare until every American has health insurance. He’d also like the federal government to be doing much more to regulate polluters, combat greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, and fight poverty.

Still, by picking his battles and his allies, McGovern has scored some victories. He worked closely with North Carolina GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole to boost funding for an international school lunch program, which he considers one of his proudest achievements. In 2005, the program provided $91 million in food to 3.4 million children in 15 developing countries.

He’s also worked to overturn the decades-old embargo on trade with Cuba, and is working with the Cuban government to preserve the home of author Ernest Hemingway, who lived on the island from the late 1930s to 1960. Though he’s teamed with like-minded Republicans on Cuba relations, it’s this kind of thing that drives hometown Republicans crazy.

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“To give Jim McGovern credit, he brings projects and money to the district,” says Michael Theerman, past president of the Worcester County Republican Club. “Politically, though, he is way too far to the left for the district. He likes to mollycoddle up to dictators.”

So far, his politics have done McGovern little damage at home, and in Washington, he has gotten used to operating in the opposition, though he’d love for that to change. “[There is a case] to be made that people like me may be of greater service in the minority than the majority,” he says. “I don’t want to test that thesis for very much longer.”