How to Make a Senator Sweat

Disgruntled Massachusetts Democrats have given John Kerry his first primary challenge in 24 years. That has him acting almost as if he still wants to be our senator. Almost.

john kerry

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

John Kerry arrived senatorially late to Lowell on a hot day back in July. He unfolded himself from a minivan in front of a new parking garage on a slightly rundown block just outside downtown, and ambled toward the assemblage of miscellaneous coat holders, bankers, and electeds, including Lowell Mayor Edward Caulfield, who, with a mouth full of gum and a matching purple tie and pocket square, stood as the very embodiment of Huey Long Chic. It didn’t take long for things to become awkward.

Kerry on a bad day is something to behold. The senator can, famously, radiate a sort of anti-charisma that doesn’t repel so much as baffle. When he showed up in Lowell, the crowd instinctively pushed toward him, propelled by the electric charge people feel when they see someone famous. But then came the inevitable disappointment. Kerry was uncomfortable, not entirely engaged. His back-slapping was unconvincing. To denote exuberance, he clapped his hands—but just once. It looked as if he was trying to kill a fly.

The stated purpose of the visit was to tour a collapsing mill complex that a Boston-based developer is trying to turn into housing, if he can get the federal preservation credits he needs. The tour began with the crowd following closely behind, as Kerry pointed at a building with “1825” engraved on it and approvingly remarked, “1825,” and asked questions like “Is that an old railroad bridge?” and “What’s that barrier there?” When the developer explained the need to retain the façade of the building and its original wooden beams—an expensive proposition—in order to be eligible for the grant money, Kerry could hardly summon the energy to respond. “Is there enough of the original structure there to—” and here he paused, rubbing his eyes, before shaking his head slightly and uttering, “skimp?” There wasn’t, of course. That’s why the developer needed the grant.

Ten minutes later, most of the attendees had dropped away and were milling around a parking lot. Kerry and the developer walked alone, 50 yards up ahead. They approached a canal with a lock in it. A boat full of people waited to get through. “So this here is basically a lock,” Kerry said. “They come up, you let them through, and then they go out? It’s pretty neat.” He waved to the people in the boat, then killed another fly. “It’s pretty neat.”

With the tour concluded, a cameraman from Fox 25 asked Kerry what he was doing in Lowell. He responded, “I’m, you know, doing the work of a senator.”

 

Lowell (or “Lowell, Massachusetts,” as Kerry called it later that same day while visiting Lawrence, Massachusetts, virtually next door) constituted the kickoff of the “Kerry on Your Corner” tour, in which the senator, facing his first Democratic primary challenge in 24 years, struck out for the low-rent territories to try to debunk the widely held belief that he loathes this sort of thing and, more important, has pretty much just lost interest in the commonwealth, and maybe even his job. Like J.Lo’s “Jenny from the Block,” “Kerry on Your Corner” was conceived as an emergency triage maneuver meant to reestablish street cred left badly frayed by too much jet-setting.

There are a number of intersecting narratives that have planted John Kerry on Your Corner these days, besides the one and a quarter runs for president. (Remember: Until his bombed joke about dumb troops, he was a potential candidate for ’08.) Ted Kennedy has shown a glint of mortality, raising the specter of a senior Senator John Kerry, which worries those forever strafing him for being out of touch and dismal with constituent services. That worry could be alleviated if voters felt assured Kerry would actually stick around and grow into the kind of lion they’ve become accustomed to, but that’s far from certain. “It is the worst-kept secret in Democratic Massachusetts politics, and United States politics,” observes one Massachusetts Democratic strategist, “that if Barack Obama wins, Kerry would like one of two jobs: secretary of state or secretary of defense. What people don’t understand is that he’s really got a shot at one, or both.”

That’s good for Kerry, and perhaps even for the country (he’d make a fine secretary of state), but it also leaves the senator—never accused of being a font of enthusiasm—acutely susceptible to the dreaded Volpe Effect. John Volpe was a former Republican governor of Massachusetts and failed presidential candidate who went on to become secretary of transportation under Richard Nixon and ambassador to the Vatican under Gerald Ford. When the Ford administration ended, Volpe came back to Massachusetts. Sometime afterward, he was at a party that was also attended by a young Michael Goldman, now a Democratic political consultant and adviser to Governor Deval Patrick. A man came up to Volpe and asked him when he was going to run for governor again. “I’ll never forget this,” says Goldman. “Volpe said, ‘You know, when I was governor, I used to spend a lot of time thinking about Uxbridge. And then when I was secretary of transportation, I had to worry about all 50 states, not just a town in Massachusetts. Then I became ambassador to the Vatican, and I had to wonder about how what we did affected the whole world.

“‘I don’t think I can get that excited about going back to worrying about Uxbridge.'”

But the fear that Kerry can no longer maintain an appropriate level of shrieking exhilaration over the prospects of Uxbridge and its ilk is only the beginning of his troubles. Add to it the litany of grievances involving his campaign trail wishy-washiness on gay marriage, his war vote, and what ardent local Hillary fans see as a premature and opportunistic endorsement of Obama, and you’ve got a minor groundswell of Massachusetts Democratic delegates who, even if they don’t want Kerry out of office, would very much like to see him sweat a little. It’s an urge that only intensified after Kerry went considerably over the allotted 15 minutes during his speech at the June state Democratic convention in Lowell. Twenty-seven minutes after it began, says a pro-Kerry delegate, “a lot of party activists were like, ‘Fuck you, we’ll put the other guy on the ticket.'”

And that’s what they did. Those activists and their allies—amounting to nearly a quarter of the delegates—cast their votes for a shaggy-looking criminal-defense lawyer from Gloucester named Ed O’Reilly, giving him well over the 15 percent needed to get on the ballot for this month’s Democratic primary. It was a virtual mandate to go ruin the senator’s summer, before Republican candidate Jeff Beatty goes and ruins his fall.
Hence: Kerry on Your Corner.

 

Before he became a pain in Kerry’s ass, Ed O’Reilly was a firefighter, a prison guard, a lobsterman, a Gloucester city councilor, a substance abuser who’d lost everything, an American Red Cross award recipient (for saving “some people” from drowning in the Atlantic), and a 25-year criminal-defense attorney specializing in DUI cases. He chose that practice because, he will tell you unabashedly even though you’re clearly writing it down, many drunk drivers come from higher up the socioeconomic ladder, meaning “they can pay,” unlike burglars and drug dealers.

O’Reilly is stocky, with longish curly salt-and-pepper hair, a splotchy complexion, and teeth that protrude slightly, giving him a Kennedy-cousin-esque profile. A longtime Kerry supporter and donor, he became so upset with the senator’s position on the war that he sold off his law firm last year to run for the seat, plowing upward of $200,000 of his own money, he says, into the effort. His lust for this business is all-consuming. He’s hyper, garrulous, and funny, a hustler. His girlfriend of 14 years calls him “Captain Chaos.” Working an Elks hall in Gloucester before a speech to a group of Rotarians, O’Reilly estimated he’s done 400 campaign events so far, even crashing some of Kerry’s. He’s been on CNN with Wolf Blitzer and on Fox News with Brit Hume. “Day in and day out, I do this,” he said. “This is all I do.” He said he’d stayed up until 4 a.m. the night before, “typing.” “Sometimes I get keyed up and just start typing.”

O’Reilly’s critiques of Kerry are well worn. “John Kerry lives in another world; he just visits our world,” he says. His speech to the Gloucester Rotary was a rambling affair that, while it had the hometown audience in stitches, lacked what you might call ballast. He hadn’t really prepared for it. But then, O’Reilly hadn’t really prepared for his big convention speech, either. He just winged it, and let Kerry bury himself. “I learned as a lawyer, if someone keeps talking, let ‘im go! These people are sitting there bored stiff. Let ‘im go!”

In other words, O’Reilly is the perfect instrument for Massachusetts Dems looking to exact a mild dose of revenge against Kerry: too rough around the edges to actually win, but possessed of the kind of relentless hustle that has made it impossible for Kerry not to respond.

 

The senator was running late again as he arrived in Lawrence, Massachusetts, for the second leg of his “Kerry on Your Corner” tour. The venue this time was the Cedar Crest Restaurant, a storied establishment owned and operated by a former mayor of the city. It’s the sort of place that boasts the unique combination of dark wood walls and yellow-tinted glass light fixtures that is like catnip to extremely old people; indeed, several groups of extremely old people noiselessly ate lunch in the corners during the event.

The back room was stocked with more old people, as well as some local political activists, pols, state workers, and seriously resentful-looking children. A couple of IBEW union guys were hanging around outside. When Kerry showed up, there was again that buzz, but it was killed mere minutes into a brutally lifeless Q & A session that sent a few attendees inching for the door. Throughout, Kerry dutifully fielded questions, though he also constantly shifted in his seat, furiously playing with his wedding ring. One line in my notes reads simply: “Immense, almost unbearable lassitude.”

An older guy stood up to ask a question. “Senator,” he said, “people all over are just losing their faith in the fairness of the federal government. Now, you understand all the big problems, but can you please do something about earmarks?”

After a few moments of silence, Kerry replied, “Well.” Pause. “What do you mean by that, ‘do something about earmarks’?”

“The people in the House and the Senate who just slip their private bills in without ever seeing a vote, statues for their hometown park or whatever.”

“Well,” said Kerry, “we have a law now, we’re not allowed to do—we still have earmarks. I’m going to be very up-front with you. I do not want to get rid of earmarks completely.”

The guy responded to this information with an expression of utter disdain, as if to say, What are you, a moron? Earmarks! Said Kerry, “No, sir, I do not.” He went on to explain how funding works for local projects, stressing the need for transparency and the appropriate agency approvals. But the man very clearly wasn’t having it. In all likelihood he would go back home and inform his friends how Senator Kerry has no problem with congressmen from Alaska shoveling their hard-earned tax dollars into the garbage. Maybe he’d throw a few anonymous comments involving windsurfing or France up on the
Herald‘s website for good measure.

Let’s pause here. Put yourself in John Kerry’s shoes for a moment: Four years ago he was the toast of half the nation. He was giving rousing(ish) speeches to arenas filled with supporters. He was standing at the podium at the Fleet Center, balloons raining down around him, people screaming his name over thundering strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender.” He got that close to being the most powerful man in the world. And now, in this grim room, in this grim town, he has to sit here and field dumb questions from Talk Radio Nation, and a handful of other people lazing around like bags of feed. It’s hard to blame him for being listless. I’d be suicidal.

 

But then, understandable and acceptable are two different things. Which brings us to stop three on the Corner tour: a Dunkin’ Donuts in Framingham. Again, Kerry was 45 minutes late, leaving dozens of supporters to roast in the sun. This time the crowd got to spar a bit with a pair of middle-aged twin brothers, Jim and Joe Rizoli, who kept shoving a camcorder in their faces and accusing them of destroying America with their sordid lust for undocumented immigration. One of the Rizolis promised to confront the Insufficiently Patriotic senator, then air the exchange on his public-access show, Illegal Immigration Chat (to the presumed delight of several other sets of Framingham-based middle-aged twin brothers who might want to try spending less time together). As it happened, the Rizolis should’ve tried Lowell instead. In Framingham, the Dunkies was so mobbed, they were unable to properly buttonhole Kerry.

When the senator did show up, he was energized, natural, working the crowd with panache. People were drawn to him. “Hey, man,” he said, jabbing one in the shoulder. “How you doin’? Nice to see you.” A guy in a spandex cycling getup stood by the door. “Looks like he’s riding a bike, that’s my man.” Kerry went inside, climbed on a chair, and said, “I bring you exciting news. As of today there’s only 137 more days of George Bush,” to torrents of applause. He gave a good speech, punching at the air, stressing the importance of the presidential election and winning more Senate seats to break the gridlock on healthcare, energy, education, and everything else that presently sucks. “What’s happened?” he asked. “I’ll tell you what’s happened: The most greedy, self-centered, mean-spirited group of people I’ve ever seen have been wielding the levers of power, and as a result the wealthiest people in America are getting wealthier and wealthier, and people struggling to get into the middle class are having a harder and harder time. We can change that, folks. Believe me, we can change that.” In an attempt at further de-Volpefication, he added, “I need your help in these next weeks. I never take anything for granted, I don’t care what anybody says. You go out and you work. You remember to ask people for their votes, their time, and their effort.”

The Dunkin’ Donuts franchise was on Concord Street, which is strewn with tidy bundles of political capital. It’s like Pac-Man for visiting pols. Before leaving Framingham, Kerry got to hit the independent bank next door, pause to say hello to an old vet sitting in a lawn chair across the street, visit the proprietors of a Brazilian deli and an Asian market, stand thoughtfully before a war memorial, and drop by a police station.

Along the way, a fat, sneering, toothless man in a soiled wife-beater started pointing at Kerry and yelling, “Bush! I’m a Bush man!” A true dead-ender. “Well,” Kerry said, mildly annoyed, without turning around, “he brought you a great economy.” Everyone laughed.

It was the kind of performance that may cast some light on the strange phenomenon of John Kerry for those who often wonder aloud how this same man came to be a long-serving senator and a near-miss candidate for the White House. Kerry looked good, and people were happy to see him so engaged and energetic. But being happy that a candidate appears to care is like being excited that the toilet flushed or the stairs didn’t collapse as you went up them. It’s the mark of something critical having gone wrong. However well Kerry did that day, and however intense his recent flurry of activity in the Senate on energy costs, housing issues, and nanotech research, and however hard his staff is working to reach out to primary voters and party swells, and however badly he trounces Ed O’Reilly in the primary, the question of whether he’s really in this for the long run will linger.

At the Framingham police station, Kerry told me that all the talk of his getting a cabinet job is “pure speculation,” and that “my plan is to be a senator, and that’s what I’m going to do.” Asked if he would say categorically that he’d decline such a position if offered, Kerry executed the standard dodge. “I can say categorically that I’m not asking for a job, and I don’t think anybody’s going to offer me one,” he said. “I’m not running for anything else but senator.” And if he were Framingham’s garbage commissioner, he would be obligated not just to conceal his higher political ambitions, but to also go around telling people that sometimes he positively buries his face in cans of rotting trash, because the bouquet of spent diapers and decaying produce reminds him precisely how good he has it.

Time will tell. In the meantime, Ed O’Reilly’s not wasting any chances to raise doubts. “[Kerry] should put up $2 million now to pay for the special election,” O’Reilly suggested, standing in the sweltering parking lot outside the Elks hall in Gloucester before heading to his next event. “The Massachusetts taxpayers should not have to foot the bill in February to fill his seat. Right now, he’s running for secretary of state.”

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