Primary Politicos

The latest configuration of the presidential primary season–we’ll be voting on March 7, the same day as California, New York, Ohio and four other New England states–makes the Massachusetts balloting less consequential than ever. But that’s not enough to keep Bay State politics junkies out of the Big Game.

In every race since US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s challenge to President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Massachusetts-grown political talent has been steering presidential campaigns-though the opportunities for operatives are more slim this year, without a favorite-son candidate. “This is the first time in a while–not counting 1996–that there is no one running from Massachusetts,” notes Boston-based political consultant Dan Payne, who has worked on two presidential campaigns.

In the past, the ambitions of homeboy politicians have made Massachusetts a training ground for political professionals of national stature. John Sasso, former governor Michael Dukakis’s chief of staff, served as campaign manager for Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and for Dukakis himself in 1988–that is, until a nasty little trick against Delaware senator and primary rival Joe Biden got him thrown off the Dukakis train. Mark Gearan, a Gardner native and former Fitchburg Sentinel reporter, worked as candidate Bill Clinton’s director of communication in 1992 and Vice President Al Gore’s campaign manager in 1996. (The 42-year-old Gearan left Washington earlier this year to become president of Hobart College.) Pollster Tom Kiley and strategist John Marttila are presidential campaign veterans.

This year, a handful of operatives with Massachusetts ties work in the highest levels of presidential campaigns this year–and they’re working almost exclusively on the Democratic side.

The biggest names are in Gore’s campaign. Dorchester-bred Michael Whouley, now a resident of Danvers, is a senior advisor to Gore, and will be the key organizer in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. In 1992, at the age of 33, he was Bill Clinton’s national field director and in 1996 he helped run Gore’s vice-presidential campaign. Whouley has brought along Chuck Campion and Charles Baker, his partners in the Boston-based lobbying firm, the Dewey Square Consulting Group.

Elaine Kamarck, director of the Visions of Governance for the Twenty-First Century project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, also serves the Gore campaign as a top-level advisor. Kamarck worked in the vice president’s office from 1993 to 1997 and quarterbacked Gore’s “reinventing government” initiative. The public voice of the Gore campaign, spokesman Chris Lehane, is a native of Lawrence who went to high school in Kennebunk, Maine, and graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School. One top-level Gore aide with ties to Massachusetts, Ron Klain, left the campaign, citing personal reasons, in November. An Indiana native and Harvard Law School graduate, Klain had worked for US Sen. John Kerry and US Rep. Ed Markey, including directing Markey’s brief 1984 Senate campaign, before becoming chief of staff for the vice president.

Gore’s sole intra-party rival, former US senator Bill Bradley, has his share of Bay State politicos on board as well. Perhaps most significant of these is Boston native David Burke, a long-time Kennedy loyalist. Burke served from 1975 to 1980 as Sen. Kennedy’s chief of staff, and went on to become vice president of ABC News and president of CBS News. He’s now helping Bradley with such tasks as debate preparation, but what’s most important is that Burke’s there at all. Political insiders note that Burke would not likely sign on with Bradley without Kennedy’s blessing. So his presence at Dollar Bill’s side indicates that Kennedy is, at very least, staying out of the Democratic contest, rather than marshalling his forces behind Clinton’s heir apparent.

Also on the Bradley team as New Hampshire director is Mark Longabough, who ran former lieutenant governor Evelyn Murphy’s campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1990. Barbara Opacki of Melrose, former deputy national field director for Dukakis, is doing field work for Bradley in New Hampshire as well. And Matthew Henshon, a Wilbraham native, graduate of Princeton (Bradley’s alma mater) and Harvard Law School, and attorney at Hill & Barlow, is working full-time for Bradley up north.

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Few Bay Staters have risen up the campaign ranks on the Republican side. Rob Gray, director of Gov. Paul Cellucci’s campaign committee, says Massachusetts “is much more of a political incubator on the Democratic side.” But Cellucci, an early and vocal supporter of George W. Bush, has been raising money by the truckload for the Texas governor. That’s helped Mary Kate Kelly look good. Kelly, who was deputy finance director for former governor Bill Weld’s campaigns, is serving as northeast regional finance director for Bush. And should Bush win the Republican nomination, he may very well pluck a Weld-Cellucci loyalist or two for his expanded general-election staff. If so, Gray is the most likely choice. He worked as press secretary for former US representative Peter Blute and for Weld.

Free-lance writer Mark Leccese is former editor of the newspaper Beacon Hill and former State House bureau chief for CNC Newspapers.