Whats new Democrat

With his White House days winding down, President Bill Clinton journeyed to upstate New York last year to deliver his swan song address to the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group whose “Third Way” approach to politics carried him to two terms in office. Reaching for a rhetorical device that has become a fixture of political speechmaking, Clinton looked out over the sea of supportive “New Democrats,” as DLC adherents bill themselves, picking out a few faces in the crowd for recognition. He found one from the Bay State.

Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton.

“Marc Pacheco, back there from Massachusetts, the state senator, sponsored a program to give medical students and other health professionals academic credit for providing primary and preventive health services to underserved people,” Clinton said. “Should we do more in our public health clinics like that?”

It may have been a fleeting reference, but to the lawmaker from Taunton, it was a moment of sheer glory. “To have the president of the United States acknowledge my work–it blew me away,” says Pacheco, appearing to savor the moment last May at the FDR Presidential Library all over again. “He actually pointed to me and referenced this initiative, and it was all about DLC ideology around service and looking at new ways of getting things done.”

A tip of the presidential hat was in many ways a fitting capstone to a decade of loyal service to the Clinton cause on the part of Pacheco. He was among Clinton’s earliest Massachusetts supporters, and he served as chairman of the state’s DLC chapter for the last several years.

But back home, mention of Pacheco’s role in the DLC is more apt to draw raised eyebrows than approving nods. “I’ve told Al From, who runs the DLC, that it’s a joke that Marc Pacheco is the chairman in Massachusetts,” says David Osborne, co-author of Reinventing Government, the 1992 treatise on entrepreneurial government that became a policy bible of the DLC crowd. “I like him personally. I respect him. But he’s not a New Democrat,” says Osborne, who lives on Boston’s North Shore.

Reactions like Osborne’s can be traced largely to a single piece of legislation Pacheco authored, one so closely identified with him that it is among a handful of state laws known popularly not by its subject, but by its chief sponsor. The Pacheco Law, enacted in 1993, established a complex set of rules governing the privatization of state services. The law has made the Taunton senator a hero to labor unions, who saw good-paying state jobs on the line in the privatization showdown. To its critics, however, the Pacheco Law threw up a roadblock to thwart efforts to bring competition and private-sector efficiencies to state government.

“He has this dichotomy of, on the state level, being captive to organized labor, and on the national level espousing a more centrist political philosophy,” one veteran political operative says of Pacheco. “There’s a contradiction, but it has served him well.”

Indeed, it has. So much so that Pacheco now is in the hunt for the congressional seat left vacant by the death of Joe Moakley. Pundits and early polls rate him a decided underdog in the race, but more because he lacks a big base in the district than because he doesn’t belong in the political big leagues. (Of the 12 communities in Pacheco’s senate district, only Taunton lies within the 9th Congressional District.)

Though Pacheco could use a fresh angle to help stand out in the race, don’t look for much New Democrat politicking from him. Embracing DLC stands on everything from trade to welfare reform has been an effective campaign platform in congressional contests in other states. But it tends to pay the biggest dividends when Democrats face strong Republican candidates in districts that are up for grabs between the parties. These days, Massachusetts has neither.

Rather, Pacheco sees his best chance in being the “labor candidate” of the field. It’s a designation he may richly deserve, but one he won’t be able to claim outright against the early Democratic frontrunners in the race, state senators Stephen Lynch of South Boston, a former ironworker who was once president of his union local, and Brian Joyce of Milton, who has also racked up a labor-friendly voting record. Thus Pacheco finds himself in a tough competition for the party’s most faithful constituency.

Such crowding around the Democratic core might suggest an opening for a candidate staking a claim on the DLC’s centrist ideas, in an appeal to both disaffected Democratic moderates and the burgeoning ranks of independents, who are free to vote in the party’s primary. For all the talk of how solidly Democratic the district is, that’s partly because there’s been little in the way of an alternative. In 1992, then President George Bush and independent Ross Perot combined for 52 percent of the vote to Bill Clinton’s 48 percent. Indeed, in only two Bay State congressional districts did Clinton win an absolute majority that year. Such numbers point to an opportunity for the right kind of Republican candidates in Massachusetts, which could, in turn, make New Democrat politics more relevant.

Until then, however, Pacheco’s brand of New Democrat thinking, weak tea though it may be by DLC standards, may be just about right for Bay State politics. And where some might see contradiction in Pacheco’s views, others see the dogged consistency of a politician who keeps a firm finger on the pulse of his blue-collar district.

The man from Taunton

Spend a few hours with Marc Pacheco in Taunton and the small towns that make up his southeastern Massachusetts district and it’s quickly apparent how he stays in tune with average voters here: He seems to know every one of them.

When he comes upon a minor traffic accident along Route 44 on a warm Saturday in April, Pacheco leans out the window of his Olds 88 to make sure no one is hurt. The woman driving one of the cars involved recognizes him, but this may be one constituent problem he can’t fix. “It’s my boyfriend’s car; he’s going to kill me,” she sighs to Pacheco. Pacheco reaches for his cell phone to notify police of the mishap, but another man on the scene waves him off: “We already called the police, Marc.”

If Pacheco, 48, knows the face of most everyone he encounters on this afternoon tour, he must know the shoe size of everyone in “the Village,” a close-knit Portuguese enclave of Taunton where he grew up. Pacheco, who worked his way from the local school committee to the House of Representatives and then the Senate, is the state’s top-ranking Portuguese-American officeholder. It’s a banner he wears proudly; he’s still a member of the local Portuguese-American Civic Club he joined at age 16. He and his wife, Barbara, an assistant register at the Bristol County Probate Court, occupy half of an attractive two-family home they own, less than a dozen blocks from the small white house where Pacheco was raised and his parents still live.

Pacheco’s father, now retired, worked the swing shift as a press operator at a local plastics manufacturer. His mother was an office clerk who moved into records administration at Morton Hospital. “I grew up to know and understand and believe you need a thriving private sector,” Pacheco says. But the son of a lifelong member of the United Electrical Workers Union says he also saw that improved health care coverage and other benefits “came about because of the work of organized labor in this country.”

With a mix of triple-deckers, small bungalows, and modest Victorians, Taunton is marked by neither glaring urban blight nor showy suburban wealth. The city’s practical, working-class sensibility is exactly what its residents seem to look for in their elected officials. “There is an expectation of being there to help, basically being a conduit between that person and government,” says David Simas, the president of the Taunton City Council. “And that’s where Marc cut his teeth, and that’s the approach he takes to politics.”

Not exactly the formula for a big-picture thinker, however. And, more prosaic than professorial in his delivery, Pacheco is nobody’s idea of a policy wonk. But he seems to thrive on the give-and-take of policy discussions at national DLC meetings and other public policy skull sessions. In August, Pacheco is booked to spend a steamy week in Lexington, Kentucky, attending a program on recent developments in state policy sponsored by the Council of State Governments. If he misses it, it will be because of the congressional campaign, not because he’s slathering himself in sun block and catching sea breezes on the Cape like most of his State House colleagues.

“He’s a very serious legislator,” says US Rep. Barney Frank, whose congressional district overlaps with much of Pacheco’s state Senate base. “He’s not intellectual, but he’s become very knowledgeable about public policy. It’s a good lesson in not stereotyping.”

Going green

As Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture the city born-and-bred Pacheco has also become an unlikely champion of environmental causes. He was the lead Senate sponsor of last year’s Community Preservation Act, which lets cities and towns levy a surcharge on property taxes to fund open space acquisition, affordable housing, and preservation of historic buildings. And on the final night of the legislative session last year, Pacheco “made sure we got a vote on the Beaches Bill,” says Jim Gomes, executive director of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. The law requires weekly water quality testing throughout the summer at every public bathing beach in the state.

“He didn’t come to the chairmanship looking like the prototypical suburban progressive, but on many issues that’s the way he’s voted, and he has the political skills you would associate with being an urban politician,” says Gomes. Translation: Pacheco knows how to press a little here, wheel and deal there, or do whatever else it takes to get things done in the sausage-factory world of lawmaking.

A major focus of Pacheco’s attention lately has been the problem of unrestrained development “sprawl,” an issue that has found its way into the DLC’s policy sights, but is on Pacheco’s radar, not surprisingly, because it found its way to southeastern Massachusetts. Fueled by relatively affordable housing costs, the opening of commuter rail lines and robust job growth along I-495, the region has the fastest growing population in Massachusetts, at a rate three times the state average. As a result, it has become ground-zero for efforts to address the problems of unchecked, poorly planned development, and Pacheco has become the undisputed legislative leader of the region’s effort to grapple with the issue.

He was instrumental in securing state funding for a regional planning initiative, Vision 2020, launched in 1998. “I think he’s a remarkably effective and visionary legislator,” says Donald Connors, a Duxbury lawyer who serves as chairman of the Vision 2020 Task Force. Last year, the organization secured the support of 38 of the region’s 51 cities and towns for a “New Mayflower Compact,” to pursue regional planning and promote growth in underutilized areas with existing infrastructure. Pacheco also has filed legislation that would award regional planning grants to communities, but would make municipalities ineligible for certain state grants if they haven’t completed a regional planning process. Connors calls Pacheco “a very persistent fellow.”

If Pacheco is known for his persistence, he has also earned a reputation for fierce loyalty in the political trenches, a trait for which he draws both jabs and praise. When Pacheco hopped a ride back to Boston once with Clinton on Air Force One, the Boston Herald dubbed him the “envy of every Clinton syncophant.” Though Pacheco basks in the glow of his Friend-of-Bill status, there was little glory to be had in 1994, when he stuck with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Roosevelt all the way through the drubbing he took from Bill Weld. Says Pacheco today, without a trace of regret: “I told [Roosevelt] I was going to be with him, as Bill Clinton would say, till the last dog dies.”

The privatization battle

But nothing he has done locally or nationally has overshadowed the legislation that bears his name and muddies his New Democrat identity. For his part, Pacheco stands proudly behind the Pacheco Law, insisting that it creates standards and accountability where there were none. He even takes issue with the idea that the restrictions he put on privatization put him out of step with the Democratic Leadership Council’s embrace of entrepreneurial government.

“What we were doing at the time was reacting to a complete abuse of the system,” he says. “In my opinion, the Weld administration saw the contracting out of services not as a way of getting more service delivery done for the taxpayers of Massachusetts, but as a way of taking care of their friends. If you talked to the right person in the administration you could get the contract–and that’s not what the DLC is talking about either. The DLC mantra is around competition, it’s not a mantra about taking care of a contractor.”

Privatization was in many ways the centerpiece of Gov. William Weld’s first term in office. When he arrived at the State House in 1991, Weld famously vowed to clean house of the wasteful “walruses”–his term for do-nothing bureaucrats whom he claimed filled the state payroll–and bring an entrepreneurial spirit to government. A chief strategy was to seek out private contractors to perform a range of services previously done by state workers.

Pacheco on Air Force One: “To have the president of the
United States acknowledge my work–it blew me away.”

The new Republican administration farmed out a contract for upkeep of state roads in Essex County. It hired vendors to run state-owned skating rinks. It even brought in a private company to provide health care to prisoners–all in the name of saving taxpayer money. Within three years, the administration struck private contracts for 36 state services, claiming that the efforts would save $273 million.

The lion’s share of the claimed savings–$143 million–were to come from one sweeping initiative: the closing of eight state hospitals serving the mentally ill, mentally retarded, and those with chronic physical ailments, and hiring private caregivers in their place. As it happened, two of the hospitals were in Marc Pacheco’s small patch of southeastern Massachusetts, the Dever State School for the retarded in Taunton and the public hospital in nearby Lakeville.

Suddenly Pacheco, then a state representative, was getting calls from residents with relatives at the facilities, worried whether they would get adequate care in their new homes. He also was hearing from some of the hundreds of state workers likely to lose jobs. All this in the throes of a recession that had hit southeastern Massachusetts particularly hard.

The last straw, says Pacheco, was the administration’s inability to come up with basic information to back up claims of huge savings from the shutdowns. “My constituents were being impacted in a negative way, it certainly was impacting jobs, and there was no proof that it was saving money,” he recalls.

It didn’t take long for battle lines to form. In 1992, Pacheco sponsored legislation to require proof of savings before any state-run services could be privately contracted. The measure passed both branches of the Legislature, but was promptly vetoed by Weld. At the time, Republicans held 16 of the 40 seats in the Senate, more than the one-third needed to sustain a veto. But that November, Republicans took a pounding in state elections, dropping seven Senate seats–and with them, the ability to block a veto override. One of the GOP senators broomed from office was Erving Wall, a first-termer from Taunton, who was defeated by the local Democratic state representative–Marc Pacheco.

Upon joining the Senate in January 1993, Pacheco promptly refiled his privatization bill. With the Legislature’s new alignment, Democrats were licking their chops at the prospect of dealing the cocksure Weld his first significant defeat since taking office. By the end of the year, the Legislature was ready to pass a revised version of Pacheco’s plan.

The measure required the administration to seek detailed bid proposals from private vendors for any services it wanted to farm out. In order for any outsourcing proposal to be approved, the contact had to yield clear cost savings to the Commonwealth, and not just from lower wages. The law also made the state auditor, then as now Democrat Joseph DeNucci, the final arbiter of all proposals.

There were clearly grounds for debate on the bill’s merits. But reasonableness was in short supply during the pitched battle over privatization. Weld and his top lieutenants–most notably James Kerasiotes, then the state transportation secretary and the administration’s biggest privatizer–could barely disguise their disdain for state workers and the public employee unions who represented them. “To dispense with any diplomatic niceties,” Weld said at the time, “this legislation is little more than a state employee preservation act.”

Meanwhile, Pacheco and his allies insisted that the administration was more interested in using privatization to reward supporters than to streamline government. The charges gained traction when the Boston Globe published an investigative series documenting a pattern of revolving-door access to state contracts, as ex-administration officials allegedly cashed in on their connections by helping private firms secure state work. In December 1993, the Legislature signed off on the bill, then promptly overrode Weld’s veto.

Today, even some of the law’s harshest critics say the Weld administration bears a significant responsibility for its passage. “I think the law’s a disaster,” says Michael Widmer, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “It essentially guts any meaningful competition in terms of providing government services.” But Widmer adds, “I share some of that sentiment that the Weld administration brought this upon themselves… Kerasiotes was very outspoken about how bad public employees were, and how outsourcing was the ideologically correct way to go. Because of their unmitigated, unbridled approach to this, they helped invite the counter-reaction.”

“We were a victim of our own zeal,” admits Mark Robinson, who as secretary of administration and finance was Weld’s point man for the privatization battle.

In the seven-and-a-half years since Pacheco’s bill became law, the administration has made just nine attempts to privatize services by meeting its stringent provisions. Of these, six were ultimately approved by DeNucci, though most were for relatively small contracts, with projected savings from all six totaling just $2.8 million. What the two-thirds approval rate doesn’t capture, argue the law’s critics, are the missed opportunities for savings that have never been proposed because of the hurdles the law sets up.

“The law was designed to make any attempt to contract any state service out so onerous that no state agency or private company would even try the process,” laments Charles Chieppo, director of the Center for Restructing Government at the pro-competition Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. It has been “a smashing success from Marc Pacheco’s point of view and those who agree with him.”

New Democrat or old?

A smashing success, perhaps. But no matter how you slice it, the Pacheco Law is never going to be billed as the “Idea of the Week” on the Democratic Leadership Council’s Web site. “There’s no secret that on some of the reinventing government issues, the core New Democrat movement differs with Marc Pacheco,” says Al From, the DLC founder and CEO. “On the other hand, on most of the other issues, including welfare and crime and the overall approach to the economy, we agree, and those are core issues to us.”

Pacheco’s moderate leanings do place him squarely in the flow of DLC thinking on many issues. And as highlighted by President Clinton’s reference to the health services corps program Pacheco helped launch–which was featured as a DLC “Idea of the Week”–Pacheco has shown particular interest in the New Democrats’ focus on community service as a way to reinvigorate a sense of civic life.

“I’m a centrist Democrat that has strong feelings to stand up for the little guy.”

“I’m a centrist Democrat that has strong feelings to stand up for the little guy,” Pacheco says, a statement that explains why he was drawn to the DLC–and hints at why he parts company with it on bread-and-butter issues like privatization and trade policy (he was anti-NAFTA, the DLC pro).

Of course, DLC leaders insist that their emphasis on education, health care, and economic opportunity puts them squarely on the side of the little guy, too–including those in labor unions. “If we’re going to build a majority party, we’ve got to combine what’s viewed as our growth-oriented New Democratic constituency with some of the core constituencies, including labor,” says From, the DLC founder.

But the heart of the New Democrat movement–and the source of its “Third Way” label–is its rejection of the “worn out dogmas of liberalism and conservatism,” as DLC literature frames it. The New Democrats talk instead of progressive opportunity-for-all policies, while unleashing the creative forces of “New Economy” enterprise–in the private sector and in government.

Politically, that has translated into carving out an identity that distances them from labor and the very Democratic “core constituencies” DLC leaders say they’re now trying to engage. The New Democrat philosophy fits neatly into a message the DLC leaders believe will sell among the new class of “wired workers,” the better educated, suburb-dwelling voters who hold the key to many statewide contests and US House races in crucial “swing” districts. There’s a good case to be made for appealing to this demographic group, which represents an expanding segment of the work force–and the voter population. What’s less clear is how a die-hard labor ally like Pacheco fits into that New Democrat world order.

If Pacheco is drawn to the DLC despite being out of step with the group on some key issues, it may be because there’s nowhere else for a moderate Democrat to go. When the party veered sharply to the left in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, moderate and conservative Democrats jumped ship in large numbers. But it was actually two groups that were driven away, says Barney Frank, and they don’t necessarily fit well together. In the 1980 election, Frank says, “some of them went and voted for Ronald Reagan, and some of them went and voted for John Anderson [the reform-minded former Republican congressman who ran as an independent]. The DLC is going after the Anderson vote; Pacheco’s working the Reagan vote.”

Third Way, but no second

The DLC focus on battleground states and House districts also goes a long way toward explaining why the New Democrats have not had a prominent presence–or much electoral success–in Massachusetts since Paul Tsongas, whose centrist Democratic iconoclasm in many ways presaged the DLC. In 1994, a New Democrat message did little for then-state representative (and Pacheco Law opponent) Kevin O’Sullivan in his challenge to US Rep. Peter Blute, but the Republican congressman was knocked off two years later by traditional Democrat (and Joe Moakley protégé) James McGovern in a strong labor push. The crowded 1998 Democratic field in the 8th Congressional District attracted two New Democrat types–then-Boston City Councilor Thomas Keane and venture capitalist (and MassINC co-chairman) Chris Gabrieli–who not only cancelled each other out but captured just 9 percent of the primary vote between them.

It also may explain how the Third Way’s most enthusiastic exponent here could be someone who seems less DLC diehard than cafeteria New Democrat. State Sen. Richard Moore of Uxbridge, who was the state’s first DLC chairman, says the New Democrat effort here may have reached its high point in 1990 and 1991, just after the state chapter was formed. Weld had just swept into office and State House Democrats were shaken by the anti-incumbent atmosphere. “I think there was a concern among Democrats that their message needed to be cleaned up and be more responsive to what the voters were looking for,” Moore says.

But talk of a broad Republican renaissance in Massachusetts proved to be just that, and soon the wind had gone out of the DLC’s sails as well. “The lack of a counter-force undercut the [DLC] effort, the need for people to define where they stood on the political spectrum,” says Moore.

Which is not to say that Massachusetts politics have proceeded untouched by the national move toward the center that the DLC embodies. Indeed, the 1993 Education Reform Act and the 1995 welfare reform legislation (proposed by Weld but embraced and shaped by the Democratic Legislature) represent classic DLC thinking–joining expanded opportunity with accountability and personal responsibility. Pacheco says there’s simply less need here to brand such initiatives as “DLC-concept type of ideas.”

“If we were Arizona or if we were New Mexico or somewhere else in the country,” he says, “you’d see a lot more trademarking taking place.”

But himself hardly trademarked as a New Democrat, Pacheco soldiers on as nominal leader of the local DLC forces. The organization recently disbanded the structure of formal state chapters in favor of forming New Democrat caucus groups within state legislatures. In April, Pacheco sent out letters to all 167 Democratic members of the House and Senate inviting them to join the New Democrat caucus. By May, he had received replies expressing interest from just “15 or 20,” he says. Trying to put a good face on this tepid response, Pacheco suggests that his colleagues may just have been preoccupied with budget deliberations.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

But it’s not just the distraction of normal legislative business that keeps Massachusetts Democrats away from the DLC in droves. There will have to be something on the line before the New Democrat banner becomes one that politicians here start waving. And the only thing that could force that is a state Republican Party with some life in it–an eventuality for which no one, least of all congressional hopefuls like Marc Pacheco, is making plans. Until they face competition from Republicans, the Democrats who dominate state politics will remain bystanders in the national debate over the direction of their party.

So as he sweats through a summer sprint toward the all-important September 11 primary, erstwhile New Democrat Marc Pacheco will try to cut in on rivals for labor union loyalty and the affections of other traditional Democratic prom dates. It may or may not get him to Congress, but in Bay State politics, it’s still the only dance in town.