Return of the Mommy

Acting Governor Jane Swift has barely finished serving up her first State of the State address when the 2002 race for governor breaks out into some brisk early-season eye-gouging and groin-kicking. Swift's address is seasoned with legislature-bashing and pro-tax-cut rhetoric but short on fresh ideas for improving the state's recessionary economy. And the vultures are not merely circling: They're drooling on the marble floor outside the House chamber. Salivating at the prospect of their best shot to regain the governor's office since they lost it in 1990, the Democrats are ready to carve.

It's not hard for Swift's enemies to figure out where the jugular is. Her speech is a predictable parade of standard-issue ideas for addressing soaring job losses in struggling regions of the state. Tax credits for business. Worker training. Adult education. And the Swift administration's supply-side Rosetta Stone: preserving the income-tax cut passed in a 2000 voter referendum. “It is essential to easing the burden on struggling families and putting us on the road to recovery,” Swift insists.

In short, no fresh ideas for improving the state's recessionary economy. And the Democrats are anxious to feed. Outside the chamber, party chair Phil Johnston is alternately characterizing Swift as incoherent, dull-witted, and just plain crazy. “It didn't even present a coherent vision of the economic future of the state,” huffs Johnston, wearing the pained look of disdain that always darkens the brow of former Dukakis administration cabinet officials when they discuss the antics of the Republicans who succeeded him. “I didn't see a lot of innovation or vision,” scoffs former state Senator Warren Tolman, a candidate for governor whose major display of vision to date has been to base his candidacy on an election-reform agenda that barely registers in polls. Adds another candidate, Senate President Tom Birmingham, a State House insider whose campaign bank account far outstrips his name recognition: “Her straightjacketed commitment to the tax cut may cause shortfalls to education and healthcare.”

Somewhat less aggressive is state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, who made her name denouncing mismanagement by Republicans like former Treasurer Joe Malone and Big Dig chief Jim Kerasiotes. She seems content with the prospect of an economically stressed, angry electorate stripping away whatever flesh might be left on Swift after the other Democrats finish with her. “The people of Massachusetts that are struggling to find jobs and affordable and acceptable healthcare are going to be looking to see what she actually does for them,” says O'Brien. “That is how she is going to be judged.”

True enough. But that's only half the story. Swift is not the only candidate who'll be under the microscope of financially stressed voters over the next eight months. And if the early going is any guide, they might not like what the major Democratic contenders are serving up any more than they're attracted to Swift's reheated leftovers. With the unemployment rate now nearly double that of a year ago, economic anxiety is the 600-pound gorilla of the campaign. But while the poor still struggle to make it in Massachusetts, it's not their economic stress that's key to the outcome. It's the toll this recession has taken on the middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites who prospered during the high-tech boom times and have been steamrolled by the bust. They're laid off, pissed off, and looking for a candidate who offers hope.

The dirty little secret of the 2002 governor's race is that few of the Democrats are addressing this group in more than token fashion. And if that doesn't change, January 2003 could bring a sight to the House chamber that now seems inconceivable to the vultures in the marble hallway: the Return of the Mommy, in the tattered person of Jane Swift, risen from the political grave to claim her own four years in the corner office.

“This isn't 1990,” observes Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who ran unsuccessfully for treasurer 12 years ago in a time of soaring unemployment and social meltdown in the state's urban areas (and was himself a candidate for governor until he pulled out in January). This time around, the recession “is hitting people who have fairly high incomes and professional backgrounds,” he says.

“It's those unenrolled voters living between routes 128 and 495,” says Democratic campaign strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “Lots of them are unemployed now, and those people vote. They are the difference between winning and losing.”

The suburban communities of eastern Massachusetts have experienced the greatest rise in unemployment in the state, according to Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, which reports increases of up to 87 percent in the number of suburban jobless.

Those bracing statistics include people like 46-year-old Craig Michaelsen, laid off last year from his $80,000-a-year software job. Michaelsen, who now has no healthcare coverage, worries about the scarcity of jobs at comparable salaries, and looks to the gubernatorial candidates for a measure of hope — so far, in vain. “I'd certainly be interested in hearing from the candidates, but I don't believe I've heard anything about my situation,” he says.

No wonder. The economic condition of voters like Michaelsen wasn't much of a priority during the boom years. Not that candidates didn't assiduously court the 128-to-495 SUV crowd on such issues as abortion rights, education, and the environment. These leafy, vote-rich precincts have helped decide statewide elections for at least a quarter of a century. (In 1990, Middlesex County alone accounted for a full 25 percent of all ballots cast for governor; without the 61,000-vote margin its voters gave Bill Weld, eat-your-peas martinet John Silber would likely have become governor, and all underwear in the commonwealth would have to be washed daily and worn on the outside, so the state could check that it was clean.)

Nonetheless, when the suburban swing vote was enjoying fat economic times, Beacon Hill dialogue on economic affairs understandably focused on the pressing needs of the low-income, urban unemployed. Democrats and Republicans alike learned to genuflect at the altar of job training and workforce development. To Swift, the recession reinforces “the importance of adult education and job training.” Boasts Birmingham: “A lot of people will talk about worker retraining, but I haven't just talked the talk. I've walked the walk.”

But to many of the new jobless, worker retraining is beside the point. “Those dislocated workers who already have strong human capital traits, including more formal schooling, do not benefit as much from participation in these training programs,” notes the Center for Labor Market Studies. “These individuals were better served by intensive job-search assistance programs.”

In other words, don't give highly skilled, well-schooled professionals a song and dance about adult education and lifelong learning. Just get them a headhunter, stat. But the Democratic candidates so eager to fault Swift for pedestrian vision are notably short on ideas of their own.

I can't make your company hire you back,” admits former national and state Democratic party chair Steve Grossman, an also-ran in most early campaign polls. Grossman's campaign emphasizes his status as the lone businessman in the Democratic field, but his listless response to the issue of suburban unemployment doesn't promise to leave him any less lonesome. “I can hopefully provide tax credits to give you training, assistance with the mortgage to tide you over, and create a sense of confidence that there's a chief executive in place who knows what they're doing,” he says.

O'Brien, another candidate who stresses her managerial expertise, sounds like a female Grossman. “The one thing when I talk to businesspeople that they're looking for is stability and predictability,” she offers. O'Brien says she'd promote this image by cutting administrative budgets across state government, consolidating economic development efforts, and extending tax credits. Yes, she's for worker retraining, too. But specific help in the short term for the likes of Michaelsen? “A lot of the stuff we're talking about doesn't necessarily apply,” she concedes. “I don't know if I have an answer to that immediate question.”

Tolman, consistent with his noble-but-futile effort to start a fire of reformist zeal among the cynical electorate, thinks the suburban jobless want more than a calm, cost-conscious hand on the rudder. “My general theme about shaking up the system and stopping the business-as-usual approach appeals to them because they're tired of the status quo,” he says. Nonetheless, he does have specific ideas for helping these white-collar unemployed: job training, and matching community-college offerings with specific private-sector employment needs.

Then there's Birmingham, intent on becoming the candidate of organized labor and the working poor. Of all the candidates, he has the most trouble shifting gears from the training-and-tax-credit mantra to the unique needs of the suburban unemployed. “I was happy to see the epiphany Jane Swift experienced when she made my proposal the centerpiece of her workforce training package,” he says. “We prosper when we invest in our human capital.”

Unfortunately, as the aforementioned Mike Dukakis might attest, candidates who lard their pitches with terms like “human capital” usually wind up watching the inauguration on TV. No wonder Michaelsen and the scores of other voters like him are still waiting for someone to catch their eye. It's a situation that breathes hope, however meager, into the campaign of Brandeis professor and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Reich has already moved to the left of the pack by advocating a tax hike on capital gains and more spending on unemployment insurance. Otherwise, his ideas for economic recovery echo those of his competitors. But no one save Reich has the nerve to declare, as he did in a New York Times column, that “business is in complete control of the machinery of government….The backlash against business may be thunderous.”

It's high-toned populist punditry, but at a time when ruthless behavior by the likes of Enron and Polaroid are a coda to the anxiety of the newly unemployed, it resonates. “I do recall Reich talking about corporations and how they deal with workers,” says Michaelsen. “He was consistent with the way that I was thinking, and I liked hearing that.”

In a measure of the potential political threat posed by Reich, other Democrats have already started pointing out his affinity for tax hikes. “Sticking my hand in that wallet at the first sign of trouble, that, to me, is poor judgment,” says Grossman. Talking tax hikes right out of the box may not be very smart politics, says Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan, whose Fifth Congressional District includes the Middlesex County heartland of the newly unemployed professionals. “I wouldn't say they're antitax, but you'd better not raise their taxes either,” he says.

Which brings us back to that unelected, beleaguered roadkill lurching through her State of the State speech before all those salivating Democrats. Whatever valid doubts may be festering about Jane Swift's competence and vision, no candidate will be more protective of the income-tax rollback or more adamantly opposed to new taxes than she. And as the stressed-out professionals of suburban eastern Massachusetts grope for a choice in this crowded field, there's every reason to think they'll give serious consideration to voting Republican, as so many have over the past dozen years.

“We've never had unemployment hit that demographic in the way it is now,” observes Marsh, the Democratic consultant. “They are the original free agents who are looking for anybody, no matter what party, to help them get out of a situation they have never been in.” Most are registered as unenrolled voters, following a statewide trend of shunning party affiliation. Even the likes of Michaelsen, a registered Democrat who's never voted Republican, is up for grabs. “[Swift] seems to be presenting herself fairly well,” he says. “I have not ruled her out.”

Consider that a warning shot over the heads of a Democratic field struggling to reconcile its emphasis on urban, blue-collar angst with the need to address this politically pivotal group of sudden have-nots in the suburbs. The Democrat who reconciles that struggle the best will likely be the party nominee in September. And then, as Galvin notes, the real struggle begins. “Anybody who underestimates Jane Swift,” he says, “is a fool.”