Outsiders as Insiders

Flickr/Office of Governor Patrick

Massachusetts could be the harbinger of a hopeful national trend in Democratic Party politics – the reformer as regular. For 16 years, this bluest of blue states oddly kept electing Republican governors. Between 1990 when Gov. Michael Dukakis stepped down and 2006 when Deval Patrick took the governorship back, no fewer than four Republicans sat in the governor’s chair.

And then Democrats blew the special election for Ted Kennedy’s seat in January 2010, when Scott Brown upset Attorney General Martha Coakley. This occurred in a state that reliably votes Democratic for president, and hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. House since 1994. Despite the Democratic sentiments of Massachusetts voters, the institutional party has often seemed dysfunctional, decrepit, and not welcoming of new blood.

In this odd history, however, one fact screams out. The two big statewide winners of recent decades were complete outsiders—Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren.

Neither had ever run for office. Both mobilized an army of eager volunteers, complemented by effective professionals.

We could be in a new era that might be called the reformer as regular. The people attracted by Patrick and Warren are now increasingly the institutional party, and they are very good at politics.

Even so, the legacy Democratic Party has a thin bench. Today, familiar faces are running for the Senate seat just vacated by John Kerry.

The frontrunner in the April Democratic primary is Ed Markey of Malden, 66, a staunch liberal with a good reputation and a safe House seat. However, Markey, the senior environmentalist in the House leadership, has not had a tough contest in decades.

Congressman Stephen Lynch of South Boston, Markey’s rival, is also a well-established incumbent. Both got lucky when Scott Brown surprised nearly everyone by deciding not to contest the seat. The Republican bench is even thinner than the Democratic one. But if former Republican governor Bill Weld, a genuine moderate, were to get in, the June special election could still be close.

More than a century ago, George Washington Plunkitt of the Tammany Hall machine contemptuously declared, “Reformers are morning glories.” Politics was for professionals, he added. “You’ve got to be trained up to it, or you’re sure to fail.”

Here in Massachusetts, Plunkitt may be proven wrong as reformers become the new regulars. Yet despite the new energy brought to politics by Patrick and Warren, there is still an undertow of the old political culture of “wait your turn” that would be familiar to Boss Plunkitt.

The question, in Massachusetts and nationally, is whether a new politics of grass roots, progressive, issue-oriented activism can literally become the regular party—and enlist millions of new people as Barack Obama did in 2008. If so, Democrats, and progressive Democrats at that, become the national majority party.

Deval Patrick was a political novice in 2006, but a quick study, and he energized an army of eager volunteers complemented by skilled professionals. Warren, with no electoral experience, built on Patrick’s talent pool and went the governor one better, enlisting some 20,000 ground troops and 60,000 in-state small donors, as well as massive national financial support.

Patrick’s win in 2006, a good year for Democrats nationally, was dismissed by some as a lucky accident. But Patrick’s convincing reelection in 2010, a dismal year for Democrats, was no fluke. He is now one of the most popular and effective governors in recent memory.

Yet dynamic outsiders like Patrick and Warren co-exist with the local culture of party regulars. A friend, active in local Democratic politics, tells this story. His Democratic state committeeman, a longtime party stalwart, was complaining about a newcomer who was showing up at meetings. “He had all these new ways of doing things. I had to set him straight.”

The alarming heresies turned out to be ideas for getting more people involved. This tendency of party regulars not to welcome strangers is a staple of decaying urban machines.

In the Chicago variant, Abner Mikva, later a reform congressman and federal judge, tells of trying to volunteer, as a college student in 1948, to help Governor Adlai Stevenson and Senator Paul Douglas. When he showed up at the local party headquarters, the ward boss asked, “Who sent you?”

“Nobody sent me,” Mikva replied.

The boss glared, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

While national and state parties are eager to enlist new voters, local party machines like to keep the pool familiar. Otherwise, you never know whom they might vote for.

Regulars are good at turning out their own people, not so great at energizing a broader public. By contrast, an outsider candidate like Warren or Patrick has nothing to fear and everything to gain from expanding the voting base.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino epitomizes the culture of wait your turn. Good people are growing old while Menino, still convalescing from serious illness, considers whether to run for a sixth term.

There is much conjecture about why Menino took so long to endorse Warren. It may have had something to do with Menino’s good relations with Brown, or his early assumption that Brown would defeat Warren, or perhaps some perceived personal slight. But part of the reason was that Menino and Warren represented entirely different political cultures.

Another factor that contributes to the lethargy of state Democratic politics is the Massachusetts State Legislature. It is a mostly one-party body dominated by regulars who seldom face challengers, as well as a top-down operation.

The House speaker awards chairmanships and other perks based on loyalty. Back-benchers don’t get to do much other than service constituents. When key decisions get made, they aren’t in the room. It’s not a culture that showcases or cultivates energetic people to run for higher office.

A final — and huge — factor that discourages emerging new talent is the money hurdle. Markey is the instant front-runner in the Senate primary because he begins with a $3.1 million war chest left over from a non-competitive House race. That clears the field.

Warren, coming out of nowhere, raised upwards of $40 million to defeat Brown, partly because she had a whole year to campaign. As an emergent national liberal rock star, she could also reap a lot of out-of-state money.

Markey, by contrast, faces an abbreviated campaign and a low-turnout special election. He is justifiably a hero to environmentalists, but not exactly a rock star. Lynch, a former ironworker from Southie, is beloved by the unions, but still has to make the sale with a broader statewide electorate.

An intriguing question is whether the political professionalism and volunteer army built by Patrick and Warren can give a less charismatic figure like a Markey or a Lynch enough lift to hold Kerry’s seat. Patrick and Warren began as outsiders, but they and their close allies such as state party chair John Walsh are increasingly the official party.

Walsh has gone out of his way to showcase up-and-coming reformers. To the consternation of some regulars, he is a big enthusiast of primaries. He considers them more energizing than divisive. His list of appointees to the platform drafting committee for the next Democratic Party state convention reads like a roster of young leaders with statewide potential.

Since Patrick was elected in 2006, the Legislature has experienced an above average rate of turnover, about 60 percent overall and almost 70 percent in the state senate, mainly through retirements. Many newcomers are allies of Patrick and Warren. Several reformer-outsider politicians are mentioned as potential candidates for statewide office in 2014 and beyond — people such as state Senators Ben Downing of Pittsfield or Dan Wolf of Harwich on Cape Cod. In addition, the talent pool includes people who bridge the role of reformer and insider, such as State Treasurer Steve Grossman.

The reformers are investing in a politics that combines technical skill with grass roots energy. We will soon see whether that formula can transform the culture of wait-your-turn.

“If we had a secret sauce,” says a senior aide to both Patrick and Warren, “it’s that they both loved meeting with local people, and we had professionals who could come in behind them and create a real organization.”

Markey has already hired two of Warren’s top fund-raising staff, Michael Pratt and Colleen Coffey. Doug Rubin, master strategist for both Patrick and Warren, is now working for the state party and will help the Senate nominee. Still, much depends on whether an old Washington hand can rediscover his inner grassroots activist.

A cruelty of politics is that yesterday’s insurgent is today’s incumbent. As a young state rep, Markey was such a thorn in the side of House Speaker Tom McGee that the speaker took away Markey’s office and put his desk in the hall. Markey, running his first race in 1976 for Congress in a crowded Democratic field, turned the incident to his advantage, declaring in a TV spot, “They may tell me where to sit, but nobody tells me where to stand.”

These trends seem to go in cycles. The first era of the reformer-as-regular began under Michael Dukakis, an outsider and consummate liberal elected governor in 1974, who created one of the Commonwealth’s most effective grassroots political operations.

The senior citizens who volunteered for Patrick and Warren were youngsters for Dukakis four decades ago. “It’s a lot more open now,” says Dukakis, who will turn 80 this year. “It was much harder to break in back then.”

This piece updates a version that ran in the Boston Globe.

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