The Secrets of Their Successors

To get from Beacon Hill to Gatehouse Media’s community newspaper office in Needham, you have to strike out on the Mass. Pike, trundle south on I-95, then fight through the notorious Highland Avenue traffic, past the Petco and Staples stores. It’s a half-hour trip, which is fine if you’re in the market for some cat litter or a bulk supply of paper clips, but an indisputable hassle if you’re on your way to face a brigade of reporters assembled from Gatehouse’s collection of small weekly papers, which include the likes of the Needham Times, Newton Tab, and Wellesley Townsman. And if you’re coming from the State House, where ready-to-listen Globe and Herald scribes are always within spittle distance for Beacon Hill’s prodigious lip-flappers, schlepping so far to chat with the press seems a particular chore.

Nevertheless, there was state Treasurer Tim Cahill one sunny midsummer afternoon, sitting at the head of a dark table in an unadorned conference room. Dressed crisply in a white shirt with a yellow and black checked tie, he seemed positively enthusiastic as he fielded questions on the ins and outs of public school construction. (The topic has become a hobbyhorse for Cahill, who as part of his duties oversees all school building in the state.) Whenever he grew frustrated, he waved open palms in the air; when he wished to convey disappointment, he propped his elbows on the table and clasped his hands; and when he wanted to be emphatic, he executed a sort of air karate chop. Hands don’t talk like that unless you’re engaged, and Newton Tab editor Greg Reibman, for one, was impressed with Cahill’s performance. "I liked that when he didn’t know something, he told us he didn’t know it," Reibman said. "Which is fairly refreshing."

Between his constant gesticulating and his bright blond locks (always parted neatly on the right), Cahill comes off a bit like a grownup Dennis the Menace, if as Dennis reached maturity he hired a tailor and discovered the wonders of hair gel. Certainly, Cahill shares the cartoon character’s penchant for attention-grabbing mischief. Rather than quietly pushing from behind the scenes, the second-term treasurer has launched an unabashed crusade against ultradeluxe public schools, with the ostensible—and laudable—goal of saving taxpayer money. The other purpose of his efforts, of course, is to construct a reputation as a straight-talking, problem-solving knight in shining armor who’s looking out for your hard-earned money. More to the point, it’s to look like someone you’d want to vote for.

Cahill, a Quincy Democrat, worked his way up from city councilor and Norfolk County treasurer to his state treasurer’s post in 2003. Many say he’s long hoped for a higher office—and now it looks like he may have plenty of opportunity. If circumstances align, Massachusetts may be on the verge of an unprecedented political shakeup. This spring’s announcement of Senator Ted Kennedy’s brain cancer, combined with persistent rumors that Governor Deval Patrick and Senator John Kerry might take posts in a possible Obama administration (Patrick perhaps as attorney general and Kerry as a potential secretary of state), could mean as many as three vacancies atop the Massachusetts political ladder. It’s been over a century and a half since two Senate seats have had to be filled in the same year—the famed Daniel Webster and the not-so-famed John Davis both joined the chamber in 1845—but even then George Briggs was safely serving the second of his seven years as governor.

All this means that any politician with an eye on one of those spots had better be ready. The trick is not appearing to be too ready. It’d be bad enough to get caught plotting behind Kerry’s or Patrick’s back, but to come off as a vulture circling above Kennedy’s Senate seat would be the height of impropriety. Aside from angering Kennedy or turning off voters, that kind of overeagerness could alienate the assorted fundraisers, strategists, and kingmakers who inhabit the Massachusetts political apparatus. Lose them, and suddenly raising the cash and building the network necessary for a successful campaign becomes a lot more difficult.

Though the task before them is a thorny one, state officials able to kindle their political fires without giving off smoke stand to reap greater rewards than ever before. That’s largely because when the Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006, our most powerful congressmen traded years of minority-party impotence for plum committee appointments, making them more influential in their current roles than they could be as newbie senators. Barney Frank, for instance, chairs the House Financial Services Committee (busy sorting out that little credit crisis) and Ed Markey heads up a new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (also dealing with a few pressing matters). With those heavyweights likely—though, admittedly, not certainly—content to stay put, the door is open for relative newcomers like Cahill, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray.
"None of these candidates have said to me, ‘This is what I’m thinking about doing,’" says Democratic fundraiser extraordinaire Steve Grossman. "But nevertheless, they are out there raising money, building a war chest, building relationships, appearing at events, staying in the mix."

For Cahill, staying in the mix has meant mixing it up, but truth is, there are plenty of ways to skin this cat—and the strategies of his most active rivals in this not-yet-a-campaign hint not only at how they’ll present themselves to voters when the time comes, but also where battle lines will be drawn when the skirmishing breaks out into the open.