In the world of Massachusetts politics, Doug Rubin has quietly become the man to see. Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Kennedy III, and a parade of other new-generation progressives have all sought out the unassuming strategist to guide them into office. But can Rubin—known for his willingness to do the unglamorous work that’s required to win—build the state’s next great Democratic dynasty?
IT’S A SWELTERING SUNDAY in June, and Felix Arroyo is standing near the entrance to Villa Victoria, the South End housing project where he grew up. Dressed in a shirt and tie despite the heat, Arroyo is sweaty and exultant. He’s just finished his official campaign kickoff, and hundreds of his supporters are still basking in the afterglow, exhilarated at the prospect of electing Boston’s first Latino mayor.
Arroyo still has miles to go before he can get there, but he’s already won at least one contest: the so-called Northwind Primary. Rubin is so in demand that close to half of Boston’s 12 mayoral candidates tried to enlist the help of him and his team. Arroyo is the lucky winner. Watching him at Villa Victoria, it’s easy to see why: Arroyo is charismatic and, thanks to his years as an organizer for SEIU Local 615, adept at grassroots politics. Like Warren and Patrick before him, he’s a progressive candidate who should thrive electorally in communities of color.
Of course, Arroyo is hardly a shoo-in. As one of 12 candidates, he faces dauntingly long odds—and there’s doubt that he can raise enough money. As ever, though, Rubin’s decision to join Arroyo’s campaign was shrewd: If he wins, Rubin will look like a genius. But if he doesn’t, defeat in such a big field will be relatively easy to explain away.
Rubin’s decision to shake up the 2014 governor’s race carries bigger risks. Many people had assumed he would follow political-consultant protocol and work with state Treasurer Steve Grossman, who hired Rubin for his successful 2010 campaign and has coveted the corner office for years. But now Rubin and Grossman have parted ways in what Rubin insists was an amicable split. “Both he and I just kind of decided that it was better for him to move in a different direction,” Rubin says.
And, perhaps, better for Rubin as well. Over the summer, rumors swirled among Boston’s political set that Rubin would work for the gubernatorial campaign of Dan Wolf, the state senator and Cape Air founder and CEO. In a field of prospective candidates that’s packed with political insiders, from Grossman to Attorney General Martha Coakley to Congressman Michael Capuano, the witty and charismatic Wolf has an appealing private-sector background and—key for Rubin—a knack for injecting values into political discourse.
But in early August, the State Ethics Commission ruled that Wolf’s stake in Cape Air and the company’s business with Massport constitutes a conflict of interest that makes him ineligible to run for governor. (After we published the print edition of this story, Wolf announced that he would suspend his campaign and resign from the Senate.) Rubin, for his part, stressed that he’s yet to commit to a candidate.
When he does—whether it’s to Wolf or someone else—we’ll know what to expect. Rubin’s gubernatorial choice will court the Democratic grassroots with obsessive zeal, honing his or her candidacy at under-the-radar events across Massachusetts with a pitch that blends wonky policy talk with moral exhortations. Slowly but surely, the campaign message will be distilled into a handful of catch phrases you can’t forget, even if you want to. The media won’t be frozen out—but it’ll get less attention than the volunteer army Rubin’s candidate is assembling around the state. And when the candidate feels frustrated—discouraged by low poll numbers, perhaps, or angered by bad press—Rubin will ease the pain. You’re running for the right reasons, he’ll say. Be yourself, stay the course. It worked for Governor Patrick and Senator Warren—and it’ll work for you, too.
WHEN RUBIN AND I sat down at Northwind’s headquarters, the space around him looked and felt unsettled. The firm had recently moved from a nearby office half the size, and the smell of new carpet lingered. Other than an oversize chessboard near the front entrance—an object that, for obvious reasons, Northwind has turned into a sort of informal icon—there were few decorations of any kind.
The walls in Rubin’s own office, though, were already decked out with relics that traced the course of his career. There was a black-and-white “Tim for Treasurer” poster, front pages celebrating Patrick’s nomination in 2006, an Elizabeth Warren sign from last year’s race. Most striking, perhaps, was a framed note written by Patrick in January 2007, the first month of his governorship. “Dear Doug,” it read. “Thank you for anchoring our team, for your strategic vision, and for your friendship. What an extraordinary movement we built, none of it possible or as vital without you.”
Rubin has focused lately on growing his list of corporate clients, and his high-powered wall decorations deliver a clear message to any executives passing through his office these days: He is connected. In 2012, the firm’s lobbying revenue totaled $623,000, according to state filings. And Rubin says that total revenues are growing by 50 percent annually. If he manages to elect Patrick’s successor, there’s no telling how big those numbers could get.
Of course, all this private-sector success has the potential to undercut the idealism that’s become Rubin’s political calling card. After helping Grossman become treasurer in 2010, for example, Rubin signed on as a lobbyist for the gaming firm Gtech. The company has lucrative contracts with the state lottery—which Grossman now oversees. While Rubin told the Globe that he’d never lobby Grossman on Gtech’s behalf, the move felt a bit like what Patrick, during his first run for governor, derisively dubbed “Beacon Hill business as usual.”
But Rubin insists that his dual allegiances—to the politicians he’s elected, and to the corporate clients he represents—can be reconciled with a clean conscience. When it comes to lobbying the Patrick administration, for instance, “We wouldn’t take on any client if they weren’t advocating something the administration was already supportive of,” he says.
The good news for Rubin and his colleagues is that there are plenty of deep-pocketed industries—healthcare, renewable energy, gaming—whose private interests jibe with prevailing Democratic policy in Massachusetts today.
The better news, for Rubin at least, is that the Northwind Strategies office seems secure in its place as one of the state’s ultimate hubs of power. Politicians campaign for the right to be a Northwind candidate, and the corporate clients follow them through the door, knowing influence when they see it. It’s not necessarily what springs to mind when you hear the phrase “grassroots politics,” but it’s a hell of a system. And Rubin built it himself, from the ground up.