Whose party is it?

Professional-managerial class has commandeered the Democratic Party

SO FAR, THE DEMOCRATIC RACE to take on Gov. Charlie Baker next year has been a who’s who of “who’s that?” Pols and party professionals are rushing to the sidelines in hopes a better choice will emerge. But what is becoming clear is that the competition for the Democratic nomination for governor as well as races for city council and the US House continue to expose a fractured Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party, once the champion of the working class, has become a party for the professional-managerial class, made up of doctors and lawyers, professors and programmers, and those authentic prairie-populist voices of the party of the people – Silicon Valley billionaires and Wall Street bankers.

This shift began with the rise of “Atari Democrats,” so-called for their new-found love of supply-side growth and tech industry entrepreneurship. In Massachusetts, Mike Dukakis and Paul Tsongas were its embodiment, drawing a distinction between themselves and the old politics of the New Deal and its champion, Tip O’Neill.

You may not have heard of the Atari Democrats, but most political watchers will be familiar with their intellectual heirs: the New Democrats, known to others as neoliberals or Third Way Democrats, and their standard bearer, William Jefferson Clinton – a self-described Eisenhower Republican. It was in Clinton’s  administration that one of the presumed Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, Setti Warren, son of a Dukakis advisor, served.

In Massachusetts, the white-collar workers of the high-tech boom, who would come to identify with Dukakis, were no longer part of the collective economic struggle that defined the era. They made their way to the tony suburbs of Lexington, Concord, and Newton, where they were free to cherry-pick the tenets of liberalism they found most appealing, such as: keeping poor people out of their town, environmentalism, telling poor and working-class inner-city families where their kids should go to school, reproductive rights, and easing their own liberal guilt by letting a lucky few attend their schools. In a move that also defined the 2016 election, their approach also includes casting all members of the white working-class as backward-looking racists.

The state’s largest pro-business trade group/lobbyist, Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), recently issued its legislative scorecard on the Massachusetts House and Senate, an exercise that illustrates the continued divide of the party.

The report calls it a “tale of two chambers,” where 126 of 160 House members registered at least a 75 percent pro-business score and, by sharp contrast, only five out of 40 Senate members scored higher than 50 percent. Not surprisingly, the report said, Senate bills had “potential to harm the Massachusetts economy.”

Among the bills that had “potential to harm” the local economy, and help workers, was a measure on wage theft, whose aim was, and still is, to stop the “rampant” problem of workers having their earnings stolen from them.

A joint legislative committee drafted the bill, suggesting House and Senate members were in agreement that the bill should become law. That is not what happened. In July 2016, the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 38-to-2, in favor of the bill. It was then left to languish and die in the House, where it faced opposition from business.

“From my experience, AIM exercises veto power in the House,’’ then-state senator, and current potential gubernatorial candidate, Dan Wolf told the Globe last fall. “They have an undue amount of influence in the State House, more so with the House than the Senate.’’ Wolf points to other bills in the previous legislative session that would have helped workers.

One of them, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, and another bill would prohibit employers from asking for credit reports from job seekers. Both passed the Senate last session, but because of strong objections from AIM, were not brought up for a vote in the House. (The House is now moving to take up the bill concerning pregnant workers.)

Lawmakers from working-class backgrounds account for just 3 percent of seats in state legislatures nationwide. So even in Massachusetts, where 80 percent of both legislative branches are on the same team, workers are often still an afterthought in policy-making. For example, workers’ compensation, an extremely important benefit for the working class, hasn’t been adjusted since 1991, when the average weekly wage was $486. Today, with the average weekly wage $1,290, a serious injury can be a ticket to poverty.

Massachusetts has the sixth-highest rate of income inequality of any state in the nation, while Boston is the most unequal city. This has led to income segregation taking its place alongside racial segregation. Just 4 in 10 families live in mixed-income neighborhoods across Massachusetts. In 1970, that figure was 7 in 10 families. These inequalities have become an entrenched reality in large part because the Democratic Party has eschewed its working-class base in favor of a class that doesn’t allow the party to forge policy that supports economic fairness.

In a one-party state like Massachusetts, what is needed is for more working-class candidates to run for the House of Representatives. Recent governors, of either party, have made it clear that for anything to get done in Massachusetts, the House must consent. Deval Patrick’s agenda was held up by Sal DiMasi. Charlie Baker, the most popular governor in the country, constantly finds himself in agreement with Speaker Robert DeLeo.

To begin, an inclusive and diverse Massachusetts AFL-CIO can revive its Labor Candidate School to field candidates who are much more likely to support progressive policies that expand economic opportunity, liberal social policies, and, importantly, not forget where they came from.

Meet the Author

Sean Mulkerrin

Engagement fellow, Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health
When working-class candidates are elected, the perspectives they bring to public office often have enormous positive impacts on the direction of economic policy. For Massachusetts, this is important because we are becoming geographically and politically polarized, with rural voters left out of the prosperity happening elsewhere. It’s one reason why we saw the Trump effect take place here. It’s clear there is a need for local politicians who still speak to the bread and butter issues.

Sean Mulkerrin is the engagement fellow at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.