In Search of a Sales Pitch

It is the middle of the school day and Somerville High is strangely quiet. The only sound of youth in the huge building comes from the score of teenagers who are composed in photo op balance behind a lectern in the lobby. The students are peer counselors and participants in an anti-violence program championed by Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

This morning, Harshbarger is at the school as a candidate for governor, and he’s using the Somerville school as a backdrop to release a “four-point plan” for education reform. The kids may be a powerful testament to the kind of problem-solving programs Harshbarger likes to promote, but in truth they are more valuable today as multi-cultural window dressing for the campaign visuals.

Harshbarger limps to the lectern on crutches as the crowd looks on. A recent injury on the basketball court has him temporarily hobbled. Handing his crutches to a student, he then lets go with one of his trademark presentations. His words aren’t so much spoken as thrust from the tight spring of muscle and bulk of this former college football player. He has disengaged from the students behind him, indeed seemingly from the entire school surroundings, and instead is fixed with an unmistakable single-mindedness on the target before him.

Nominally, it is Paul Cellucci. The Acting Governor, Harshbarger contends, is a mild and ineffectual supporter of public education. But truly, Harshbarger is locked into launching his own cinematic vision of public education in Massachusetts. His script is a novella-length white paper that’s overweight with details, considering the media minimalism of modern American politics.

“There’s no job more important than making public education work,” he says in introducing his idea to have the governor chair the state Board of Education. “And the best way to make it clear that it’s a priority for me as a governor is to signal that by my personal commitment and commitment of time and the investment in leadership.”

Instead of just letting his rhetoric carry him, Harshbarger feels compelled to dip deeply into the position paper for supporting evidence. His proposal for safer classrooms is annotated with statistics about school violence; a pitch for hiring more teachers includes specific case studies on smaller classes; the “Bright Beginnings” section draws heavily on the hot new research in early childhood education.

The presentation shows something of the style, as well as substance, of Scott Harshbarger. He has always seemed the eager student, the one who’d finish off the year’s reading list over summer vacation and now has the best-prepared book report in the class.

At this rate in the campaign, Harshbarger may well end up as class valedictorian, may be voted “most likely to succeed.” But as anyone who retains the faintest memory of high school knows, this doesn’t necessarily make him the most popular kid in class.

Grabbing for pocketbook issues

There are two Democrats whose presence hangs over the Massachusetts election this year, yet neither is on the ballot.

One is President Clinton, who has insistently promoted a free-trade, market-based economic agenda, even when it put him in conflict with the party’s social idealism and incurred the anger of core constituencies such as organized labor. Clinton’s popularity with middle-class voters has become the envy of Democrats up and down the ballot, and has led some to define themselves as Clinton-Democrats.

The other is U.S. Sen. John Kerry, and his understudy is not a Democrat, but Republican Cellucci. The Acting Governor saw how Kerry painted hard Gingrichian edges around former Gov. William Weld in the 1996 Senate race, and he is determined not to let his opponents do the same. So Cellucci is single-mindedly aping Democratic positions on issues that have real or symbolic value with suburban voters: supporting an increase in the minimum wage, going easy on spending issues in general, and being generous on child care services and public education in particular.

In so doing, Cellucci has stolen potential pocketbook issues from the Democrats. Paradoxically, he has at the same time insulated Democrats from attack on spending issues, usually a potent Republican strategy.

“There’s nobody demonizing Democratic proposals to spend money because they’re being mirrored on the right by Republican proposals to spend money,” says Democratic Rep. James Marzilli of Arlington. “There’s no mandate to shrink government. If Cellucci wins, it’s only because he proposed to increase the size of government.”

This certainly gives Democrats more latitude to define an agenda rich with public services, always popular in Massachusetts. But it hardly justifies making a change from a Republican who may be giving the voters what they want. In the battle for middle-class votes, Weld won in the 1990 governor’s race, though he forgot how to keep those voters in 1996. By default, they belong to Cellucci this year. It’s up to the Democrats to win them back. It’s a burden-of-proof thing, and the Democrats are on the wrong side of the burden.

“The problem is, they’ve [Republicans] won the economic message,” says Mark Roosevelt, the Democrats’ 1994 gubernatorial nominee. “And the alternative message, which I think primarily is an educational one–they’ve embraced that.”

It would help, of course, if the Democrats were offering candidates of such bracing presence, like Joe Kennedy, or quixotic purpose, like John Silber, individuals who could electrify even the most minute differences by force of charisma or personality.

But neither Harshbarger, nor former state senator Patricia McGovern nor former congressman Brian Donnelly–the three who emerged from the party’s convention in June to win a place on September’s primary ballot–are crystallizing characters. If voters are already having difficulty distinguishing between the Republican and Democrats, they could become cross-eyed by the nuances separating these three. The digital age may be able to colorize the grayest grays, but elections are still broadcast in black and white.

The plain picture is that the economy is doing so well that the signposts and measuring devices that can give a political race context are hard to distinguish. “You’ve got a public that’s satisfied and is dancing in the streets over the economy,” says William Guenther, president of the public advocacy group Mass Insight. “It’s a little harder to argue, ‘time for a change.'”

“You’ve got a public that’s satisfied with the economy. It’s harder to argue, ‘time for a change.'”

And for Cellucci, it is a simple matter of suggesting that the “change” the Democrats represent is really a relapse, to the party of “tax and spend” that broke the bank 10 years ago and made it finally seem reasonable to be a Republican in Massachusetts. Of a scurrilous charge he once lobbed against an opponent, Lyndon Johnson said, “I don’t have to prove it. He has to deny it.” Good luck with that.

So here we have three smart, sophisticated Democrats reduced to promoting (shudder) competence over ideology. They have a firm sense of social justice, but find they have to be more selective in choosing which social causes to sell to a wary electorate.

“Here we are in this major economic boom, which everybody agrees is wonderful,” Harshbarger says. “But you look around and see not everybody is benefiting from it. That’s not fair. That’s not to say government should come in and redirect everything. It simply says that in this state we have values that say there should be an opportunity for everyone to benefit.”

It’s spread the wealth, not redistribute it. But one of the great questions of the 1998 election is whether the Massachusetts voters’ noble impulse to do good with tax money will prevail over their suspicions that they might be taken to the cleaners again.

“One of the essential problems the Democrats have to address,” argues Marzilli, “is how to inspire people to vote for their deepest sense of fairness.”

Re-defining economic progress

Patricia McGovern is a diminutive woman with a soft but almost raspy voice that at times can erupt with booming emphasis. Ordinarily, she is poised, in a relaxed sort of way; her short straight hair is cut smartly and her small face is framed by thick-lensed glasses. She has a habit of responding to questions with, “that’s very interesting … ,” which often is followed by an illuminating observation.

It is several weeks before the Democratic State Convention, and we are driving south into the Blackstone Valley, where McGovern will try to convince the uncommitted delegates of the Bellingham Democratic Town Committee to support her candidacy. This is out-of-the way Massachusetts, far from the power center of Boston and the jobs-rich suburban belt around it. But change and prosperity have crept into this valley, and with them come the confusing coin of the realm: that we are better off, but more tenuously so.

McGovern goes into the Bellingham dinner meeting with an intrinsic understanding of this anxiety–maybe even a sly willingness to exploit it. “I’m going to challenge you to think a little differently,” she says, surveying the room of chewing diners in the basement of a roadside restaurant. “The Republicans have gotten us to think of economic growth as the Dow Jones. I say, if you’re working longer, and working harder, with no pension or benefits, then that’s not economic progress.”

Pat McGovern would uncharitably be called a policy wonk if so many people weren’t respectful of her brains and political acumen. From her working class roots in Lawrence, she built a reputation as an effective progressive in a state Senate that was controlled by conservative men.

When she was chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee she had a tendency to propose magnificently concocted solutions to problems government didn’t yet know it had. Whether it was welfare reform, government finance, or workplace security, she was usually right in her analysis, and yet often utterly unable to persuade the rest of the political world to think as boldly. Her proposals were like the first Clinton health plan: big beautiful solutions that collapsed under their own weight.

Today McGovern is more of an incrementalist. She still believes in universal health care, for example, but would no longer dare have government order businesses to provide medical coverage to their employees, as she did in 1988.

She has changed in one other respect since her Senate days. Where she once rambled through speeches with breathtaking verbosity, McGovern today is pointed and punchier, and even through the harsh distortion of the cheap sound system she delivers a stemwinder that reaches the hearts of these Democrats right through their ziti-filled stomachs.

The emotional core of her politics is still health care, a subject that illustrates her new approach to problem-solving. “People are frightened they’re going to lose health care,” she says. “They don’t want bean counters and bureaucrats determining what they get for health care.”

The applause that greets this remark is passionate. McGovern herself summoned the same passion 10 years ago to justify what was for her a moral imperative: ensuring that every adult and child in the Commonwealth has medical coverage.

Today the job is still not finished, and according to McGovern and others, the situation has gotten worse–and they directly blame Cellucci. But where she once urged mandates, McGovern now preaches the gospel of markets to buy our way to universal coverage. Businesses and individuals could pool their money with giant government health programs, and use this purchasing power to negotiate affordable medical insurance.

A stint in the private sector can work wonders with one’s politics.

McGovern has been out of the State House since 1993, earning a handsome keep as a lawyer representing business clients. She has served on corporate boards, and her rhetoric is closer to Tsongas than, say, Tip–more Clinton than Gephardt.

“It broadens you,” she explains at a press conference, speaking of working in the business world. “It makes you a better person. And couple that with your public-sector experience, it makes you a good governor.”

“She talked to me about it,” recalls businessman Alan Solomont, her longtime friend and now chief fundraiser, “and how she was able to see government in a different way, and the difficulties of dealing with it from the other side. It might give her a greater appreciation of the importance of government, and it might at times give her a greater appreciation of the limits of it.”

McGovern asserts she long ago sensed a change in the electorate, and adjusted her outlook on government accordingly.

“I grew up in a world where government loomed much larger in people’s lives than the private sector,” she allows. “Today that has changed dramatically. Government has a legitimate role to play in people’s lives. It’s very narrow, very limited.”

“Government has a role to play in people’s lives. It’s very narrow, very limited.”

The Donnelly factor

“Working families” is a phrase that appears a lot in Harshbarger’s and McGovern’s campaign rhetoric, just one of many similarities between the two campaigns. Both have as their basic platforms: expanding education reform and day care, improving the jobs training infrastructure, providing medical coverage for the uninsured, and strengthening consumer protections for managed care patients. And the methods of each for achieving those goals also have a lot in common.

Brian Donnelly, meanwhile, has a slight but telling variation. To him, it’s about “working-class families.” This is an ode to the Democratic Party of his Dorchester roots, which he touts regularly in explaining his political persona. (Donnelly himself now lives in Dennis, which is more of a statement on the migratory politics of Massachusetts than he might care to admit.) He projects an aura of GI Bill-New Deal Democrat that reflects his upbringing as a young congressman under Tip O’Neill. Back when Washington had real ideological differences, Donnelly reliably opposed the military build-up, excessive Reagan tax cuts, and supported labor with protectionist policies to keep out cheaper foreign goods.

His rhetoric has that old-fashioned Democratic religion. “I don’t think the Democratic party should veer from its principles. We want the workers to be protected, to be adequately paid and have a good benefits package.”

It would be unfair to tag Donnelly as a nostalgic throwback. His campaign was slow to develop this spring, but what few policies he issued showed a thoughtful combination of Democratic populism and market manipulation. For example, he wants to freeze tuition at the state’s public colleges, but also jigger the tax code to spur commercial and residential investment in urban pockets that have missed out on the current prosperity.

Still, it’s hard to take the measure of Donnelly’s campaign, because there is so little to measure. Throughout the spring season of town committee forums, Donnelly’s attendance was erratic; several local activists say they never got an answer back from the Donnelly organization about whether he would attend their sessions.

In an interview, Donnelly claims this stealth approach will allow him to build an organization to compete with his two rivals. But a map of his scheduled stops suggests a limited campaign–one targeted at urban ethnic voters and former constituents in his congressional district. Such a narrow focus was reflected in Donnelly’s showing at the Democratic convention where, though he made it on to the ballot, his support was largely confined to a Dorchester-to-Brockton urban swatch. Donnelly likes to say that the small cities are the hidden jewels of Massachusetts, but unfortunately the political gold mine is in the suburbs, where the independent voters who swing elections reside.

And now a word about values

The rubber chicken circuit brings Scott Harshbarger to Angelica’s in Middleton, where the menu this soft April evening is not chicken, actually, but baked scrod. About 80 businessmen from St.Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church are having their monthly social, and Harshbarger cracks a few aging-jock jokes about his basketball injury as he limps from table to table.

They begin with whistles and catcalls when Harshbarger’s age (56) is announced, and then one diner impatiently blurts out “c’mon, will ya” when the introduction drones on. “If we like the guy, maybe we ask him a few question,” Stavros Moutsoulas, a building contractor, confides to his table mates. “If we don’t–none.”

Like Moutsoulas, most of the men own small businesses, and yet also vote Democratic. It’s a perfect audience for this career public official with the liberal reputation to show he knows about the brute facts of making a payroll.

It is Harshbarger’s intention this night to show he is a different kind of Massachusetts Democrat. Harshbarger wants these men to know that on a personal level, he shares the same concerns they have about society and family. This might seem a stretch, but Harshbarger wants to show he’s one of them.

He begins with a kind of old-country postcard that these immigrants and sons of immigrants can recognize. He grew up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, and his minister father and schoolteacher mother instilled in him a work ethic and sense of social justice. “Education and hard work were drummed into me from the first day I can remember. And you got values whether you wanted them or not,” he declares.

With this last phrase, the eminently suburban Harshbarger identifies himself with the same values that he suspects guides these immigrants’ voting habits today. He bemoans how religion plays less of a role in people’s lives, and expresses frustration that the law, which has brought his own political career to this pivotal point, is an inadequate substitute for measuring a civil and just society.

“Too many young people grow up to believe that if something is not illegal, then it’s O.K. The law was not meant to be our values. America has increasingly turned to the law to fill the vacuum of our values. We have to have values and standards. We need to take personal responsibility.”

The room is quiet. The men stare off in different directions, not so much in awkward silence as mute absorption, as if they’re trying to see how this is relevant to a political race in Massachusetts.

Harshbarger goes on to joke that the crowd will think him a “closet Republican.” But if he’s trying to disguise the naked appeal to an audience for whom “hard work” is as much a matter of economic necessity as morality, it’s too late. Yes, they are sympathetic. But not stupid.

“I want to know,” one of the men says, turning to his colleagues in obvious pique, “how he’s going to square that with him being a Democrat.”

But he is a Democrat of the quintessential Massachusetts model. Harshbarger has an outsized reputation of using the law to promote issues and protect constituencies that are at the heart of his party. He has been an unerring champion of civil rights and racial justice, and has made the attorney general’s office the de facto consumers’ representative in Massachusetts. He is a zealot on environmental enforcement; he’s prosecuted elder abuse and hate crimes against gays, and has aggressively protected women’s access to abortion services.

And despite grumbling from organized labor, Harshbarger has tried to fly union colors by prosecuting workplace wage violations, siding with the teachers on education issues, and filing the first bill this year to increase the minimum wage.

“I’ve been in office in this eight-year period trying to uphold core Democratic values,” he says in an interview. “I’ve had to fight for these values at a time when they haven’t been popular and with a Republican governor and an atmosphere that’s often hostile to them.”

As attorney general he’s long been a thorn in the side of institutional powers. He beat up the Boston banks on redlining in minority neighborhoods, challenged insurance companies on rate and policy issues, and went after hospitals and health care providers on how they allocate charitable services.

It’s on these latter regulatory issues that Harshbarger’s interventions have not produced such clear-cut results.

Health care activists believe he went too easy on for-profit chains that took over non-profit hospitals. And consumer advocates criticize his electricity deregulation plan as a giveaway to fat utilities. Jim Braude, who is emerging as Harshbarger’s chief liberal critic, dismisses him as a sellout. “The guy is essentially a prosecuting lawyer and technocrat who doesn’t have a clue of what state government is about,” says Braude, who is supporting McGovern.

But Harshbarger contends that his critics’ view is uninformed. Government can’t micromanage outcomes in the private sector, but should rather establish a generic set of rules and performance standards by which businesses can compete. His mindset is strongly regulatory.

“You’re not trying to compromise here,” he says. “You want the private sector to be able to innovate. On the other hand, they’ve got to be able to do it fairly. And you’ve got to have rules about what you’re able to do. I believe in competition, and I believe in protecting people who cannot compete fairly.”

“He’s non-judgmental,” says his friend and former aide Tom Greene–meaning Harshbarger doesn’t instinctively distrust business, as some Democrats do. And he’s fair-minded. “He’s a Democrat who believes in a level playing field. It’s a phrase he might use in civil rights cases, and in a meeting on bidding rules.”

Harshbarger’s overall business sensibilities are still developing. He doesn’t have a specific platform, except to promise to be an energetic advocate for the business community. “I want to make sure [government] is a partner, not a dictator,” he says before a meeting of the Small Business Association of New England (SBANE).

Back at Angelica’s in Middleton, Harshbarger is wrapping up his “values” speech to the Greek businessmen. If they were mystified at his morphing into William Bennett, the Democrat has reassuringly lapsed into bromides of “public-private partnerships” and government programs that teach youths about making the right decisions.

It is a perfectly confusing picture of Harshbarger, one that shows the tension marks of being pulled and pushed by different political impulses. He is trying to break out of the mold of the good Democratic policy-maker, but he chooses to do so by venturing into a politics of morality that never really gained a foothold in latter-day Massachusetts politics. He is trying to put a more human face on the zealous prosecutor, yet he awkwardly settles on an issue that seemingly has no context or justification in today’s Massachusetts. And maybe all he did this night was give his severest critics more evidence he can be self-righteous and sanctimonious.

Later his staff suggests Harshbarger was nervous and tired and frustrated at his performance; it is an uncharacteristic display of ennui for a man of terrific energy and tight focus, and briefly hints that Harshbarger is not always the man in control of his mission.

The men at the table in the rear of Angelica’s function room are stirring, anxious to ask questions. But after his speech, Harshbarger is distracted by the club’s host, who wants to present him with one of those forgettable awards that gets him a picture with a potential governor. The energy among the audience dissipates, and Harshbarger closes the night without taking any input from voters who are interested in more from him.

Taxes and growth

It’s become a not-well-tested article of faith that each Democratic gubernatorial candidate must have a tax-cut proposal. Ray Flynn was the only one who refused, but he dropped out of the race in early May for so many reasons that you can’t read too much into that. “Democrats have to be for tax cuts simply to prove they’re not for tax increases,” says Harshbarger pollster John Gorman.

All three have proposed cutting the income tax by some amount, with only McGovern supporting a complete return to the 5 percent rate that was in effect before the state’s fiscal crisis. And in the first clear sign they are learning from the recession of ’89-’90, the Democrats have qualified their cuts with stopgap measures that would freeze the rate cuts if the economy worsened.

They are trying to negotiate a tricky balance between party doctrine and realpolitik, as a visit by Pat McGovern one spring evening to the Newton Democratic City Committee illustrated. On this liberal committee’s agenda was single-payer health care and alternative sentencing. Then, McGovern was asked about the growing state budget surplus. The framing of the question was instructive; McGovern was asked how would she spend all that extra money.

She could have played it safe by talking up her own ambitious to-do list. Instead, McGovern talked of moderation. “I’m very cautious about putting money on the table. Not too much in tax cuts, not too much in new spending.”

Such is the voice of one who learned the hard way, a candidate who lived through the fabulous run-up in state spending throughout the ’80s, and the politically ruinous tax hikes that brought the decade to such an ignominious ending for the Democratic Party. She became a sharp critic of the Dukakis Administration’s handling of state affairs during the recession. Yet, as chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee she then promoted tax increases that stabilized the government–and also contributed to the Democrats’ suspect reputation to this day.

Her chief fundraiser Alan Solomont says McGovern exerted the highest form of leadership–making unpopular decisions in difficult times.

“She really did see the need for increased revenue and was one of the forces for a billion-dollar revenue package, which Bill Weld rode for eight years,” he argues. “Were it not for that, Bill Weld would have seen more red ink than any governor in history.”

To others, her record on taxes dooms her against a Republican. “She not only voted for them, she wrote them. And she wrote the most monumental of all–the tax on services,” says one former Democratic legislator who did not want to be identified criticizing McGovern. “I believe those of us who voted for taxes are on the sidelines for a while.”

In the time between the last recession and now, there have been sea changes in economics and politics. The suburban soccer mom parked her sports utility vehicle square in front of the Massachusetts voting booth, and we all religiously tithe to our 401-k accounts. It was, after all, the Democratic Legislature that enacted tax cuts for the mutual fund, banking, and defense industries while adopting one of the most sweeping welfare overhauls in the nation.

It would simply be too out of context now for Harshbarger and McGovern, in particular, to do anything but talk a language of change, in which a more limited government obsessively keeps economic well-being as the ultimate goal of all its activities.

“I do think you see a more explicit commitment to growth strategies that do lead to things such as increased stock values. And what ultimately raises stock values is profits. And that definitely changes Democrats’ attitudes,” argues Massachusetts Democratic Party general counsel James Roosevelt. “I think Democrats traditionally weren’t very enthusiastic about high profits. They were more enthusiastic about high wages. Now, there’s more of a balance between the two, and a realization that in fact, higher profits lead to higher wages.”

“Now there’s a realization that in fact higher profits lead to higher wages.”

“I’m an internationalist,” adds McGovern, “but I’m a Democrat. One party says, ‘It’s the markets.’ Our party says, ‘It’s about the markets, but–.'”

Her intellectual passion causes McGovern to get worked up about issues that we all know are important but that are, as she puts it, not exactly “electric.” You can see the excitement building in her, for example, when she launches into her proposal for “lifelong learning.” As usual, it is a smart, detailed approach to retraining workers that deftly satisfies the business community’s need for skilled labor, and salves voters’ growing anxiety about keeping abreast of technological changes in the economy.

“It’s not an electric issue,” she concedes. “But it’s the future of Massachusetts. It’s the future of families. It will ultimately decide who succeeds and survives in the economy. And you can’t put it on a bumper sticker.”

Repackaging the sales pitch

We used to call them the “working poor.” Now, they’re “working families.” The semantic distinction is important. It is not a knock on the candidates to say that it’s just easier to sell programs that benefit families than it is to sell those that benefit the poor.

By many accounts the lower working class has suffered the most from the wrenching changes in the economy. This is the group whose wages have remained stagnant and whose jobs seem least secure. They do not have the network of government support programs–Medicaid, subsidized housing–that have kept the truly poor from total abandonment.

It’s why Harshbarger and McGovern so stress health care coverage for low-wage earners, adult literacy and skills retraining for old-line workers, and accessible child care for the two-income but no-margin family.

That these happen to be problems that even middle-class educated voters can identify with is part of a shrewd calculation to appeal to two constituencies with an agenda that largely benefits only one. They are now “economic investments” that better-off voters intellectually understand benefit them too, if not directly.

True, you don’t hear the Democrats pounding their fists on behalf of the welfare moms who on Dec. 1 face the first serious cutoff in government aid under the state’s new two-year time limit. Nor have you heard much about the record overcrowding in the state’s homeless shelters. Or how the steady erosion in government support programs proposed by the Weld-Cellucci administrations, and agreed to by the Democratic Legislature, has further marginalized the welfare population.

This is not to say the Democratic candidates have forsaken them. They’re just being more discreet.

“To me, that is strategic smart thinking, that the candidates are focusing on the working poor, not welfare recipients,” argues veteran social service lobbyist Judy Meredith. She contends that the kind of programs Harshbarger and McGovern are pushing will do more to improve the quality of life for low-income families than welfare assistance that provides basic support but doesn’t eradicate poverty.

“People are looking for practical solutions that work,” she adds. “That’s O.K., as opposed to tub-thumping rhetoric a la Jesse Jackson or Ray Flynn that made people feel good, but didn’t come to anything. Neither Harshbarger nor McGovern are silly people. They’ve got serious practical plans. I think that shows a mature candidate and a mature campaign.”

Meet the Author
But you can’t put that on a bumper sticker either.

Andrew Caffrey is a free-lance reporter and political analyst for WBUR-FM in Boston.