A Party of Asses

With Scott Brown's reelection campaign gathering momentum, Democrats around here are stuck in a haze of nostalgia and complacency.

By Eileen McNamara | Boston Magazine |
Illustration by Shout

Illustration by Shout

Senators from New York and Nevada are urging Harvard’s Elizabeth Warren to take on Senator Scott Brown in 2012. Howard Dean’s former presidential campaign manager is working for Democrat Bob Massie, who’s already announced that he’s in the race for Brown’s seat. And throughout the country, City Year veterans are signing up for still another challenger, Alan Khazei, one of the state’s most progressive Democrats.

Liberals from across the nation, in other words, are filling the leadership vacuum created by a calcified Democratic Party establishment in Massachusetts that, in the run-up to next year’s Senate race, is crippled by nostalgia and petty corruption. While local Democrats spent the past six months celebrating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and dreaming of a Senate run by Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the late Ted Kennedy’s transparently unwilling widow, Brown was amassing $8 million to flatten whichever candidate the Democratic Party finally, tepidly, gets around to embracing.

It’s true that the numerically challenged Republicans in Massachusetts are in perpetual trouble. But the GOP’s weakness in the Bay State has undermined its enemy’s house, as well. The lack of competition in Massachusetts has bred complacency on Capitol Hill, where Democrats receive the equivalent of lifetime tenure, and fraud on Beacon Hill.

If Massachusetts Democrats would stop looking over their shoulders in search of another Kennedy in the wings — is there time for Maria Shriver to establish residency in Hyannis Port and snag the sympathy vote? — they might see the local talent attracting national attention that has sprung up in spite of them, the sort of talent that could beat Scott Brown in 2012.

Rather than local party officials, for example, it’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Conference vice chair Senator Chuck Schumer who have tried to recruit the straight-talking Warren to challenge Brown. They know Massachusetts voters would embrace her fight for consumers against duplicitous banks and mortgage brokers. Republicans have been blocking Warren’s appointment as director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they know she would do what the job requires: regulate the financial institutions that brought this country to the edge of depression. Working people are desperate for a political champion with Warren’s intelligence and energy. But state Democratic leaders have taken no notice.

Months after bloggers at the local site Blue Mass Group and those at the national political blog the Daily Kos launched a “Draft Elizabeth Warren” movement — and one day after Warren, the special adviser to the president, electrified liberals by standing up to Republican Congressional bullying — John Walsh, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, told the State House News Service,
“I really don’t know her other than seeing her on TV.”

You need to get out more, John. Members of Warren’s national fan club have checkbooks.

Only in stagnant Massachusetts could Democratic leaders like Walsh fail to grasp Warren’s prospects — even as her politics line up with the party’s heralded elite. Warren was warning of the dangers of cheap credit and predatory lending practices years before the financial services sector imploded in 2008. Her more than decade-long denunciation of financial practices that favor the rich at the expense of working people echoes Ted Kennedy’s long career of championing the little guy. Her ferocity on this score is especially reminiscent of Kennedy’s futile but energetic fight in 2005 against a sweeping bankruptcy bill, backed by the credit card industry, that punished families forced to use credit cards to pay their medical bills but preserved loopholes for corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

But, hey, John Walsh doesn’t know her. So he and the rest of the party luminaries have barely acknowledged Warren or the other bright, if politically untested, candidates who are standing right in front of them.

Why, for instance, the lukewarm response to Setti Warren? Senator John Kerry called the Newton mayor and former Washington aide to both Kerry and Bill Clinton “a very close friend and enormously capable and determined public servant.” I am sure Setti thinks you’re swell, too, Senator. But will you be offering the financial and organizational support he needs to win?

Barney Frank is put out by Setti’s presumptuousness at running only 16 months after being elected mayor. “The timing is bad,” said Frank, who has stayed in his own job in the U.S. House for 30 years, only four fewer than Ed Markey, the longest-serving member of an aging Massachusetts delegation. Is retiring in office their idea of good timing?

From the clubby confines of Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill to the increasingly familiar federal courtrooms on Fan Pier, one-party dominance in Massachusetts has too often meant that mediocrity and mendacity rule: Little competition for one’s seat means an easy route to reelection for Massachusetts Democrats, which invites laziness in a politician and, in turn, corruption.

Consider the case against former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, the third consecutive Massachusetts House speaker to be convicted of federal charges. The trial was as illustrative of the pervasive culture of go-along-get-along capitulation on Beacon Hill as it was of the money-lusting venality of one man. Yes, the testimony that DiMasi received kickbacks after securing a multimillion-dollar state contract for a Burlington software company was damning — but so were the admissions of Leslie Kirwan, the former state secretary of administration and finance. Kirwan testified that she initially opposed the deal with the software company on grounds that it was too big for the state’s needs and too expensive for its wallet. But she signed off on the contract anyway, she said, bowing to relentless pressure from DiMasi. She even wrote in an e-mail afterward that she hoped “the big guy down the hall is happy.” Didn’t Kirwan work for a governor who ran on the promise to upend just that kind of back-scratching in state government? Instead, Deval Patrick and his team played ball with the hacks he had promised to bring to heel.

News reports missed the point when they qualified the coverage of Patrick’s testimony in the DiMasi trial with the disclaimer that the governor was not implicated in the kickback scheme. The stink of accommodating business as usual is all over Patrick. His promise to “change the culture of Beacon Hill” was just so much Democratic campaign rhetoric. It was no different than Republican Bill Weld characterizing Bill Bulger and Beacon Hill as “rotten to the core” in 1990, just before he was elected governor and aligned himself with the very legislative leaders he had vilified during his campaign.

No wonder voters are cynical.

Which brings us back to the 2012 Senate race that the Democratic establishment in Massachusetts seems hell-bent on losing to a guy who was for gutting Medicare before he was against it. Teddy Jr. is not moving to Massachusetts from Connecticut. Caroline is not registering to vote on Martha’s Vineyard. It is time for Democrats in Massachusetts to move on, to embrace the talent that might actually rise to the challenges of this century, not the last. Poor and working people have never needed a champion in the Senate more.

In the end, after her bruising rounds with Congressional Republicans regarding consumer protection, Elizabeth Warren may choose to return to her Cambridge classroom. (Women need to be asked to run for office an average of six times before they agree, according to Jennifer Lawless, coauthor of It Still Takes a Candidate. Men need to be asked only once, which might help explain the difference between the political calculations of Elizabeth Warren and Setti Warren.)

If the Democrats do unseat Brown, it will be in spite of party leaders in Massachusetts. Barring a change in attitude, next fall they won’t be turning out the vote for a candidate they identified early and supported wholeheartedly. You’re more likely to find them hanging out at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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