A Confederacy of Donkeys

This is supposed to be the year the Democrats reclaim the governor’s office. But the bungling going on behind the scenes makes it clear they haven’t learned from past mistakes—and the people “helping” them aren’t exactly making things better.

Things might get ugly here.

I’ve been on the Chris Gabrieli campaign bus for half an hour—which is 29 minutes too long. We’re on our way to a diner, where Gabrieli will do the grip-and-grin thing. Right now, he’s talking about income tax. Or maybe stem cell research. Or healthcare. I honestly have no idea. I’m trying to make eye contact and take notes at the same time, but it’s hard because my stomach isn’t cooperating. We’re only driving to Brockton, but we might as well be sailing to Nova Scotia on the USS Disaster.

“Everyone gets sick their first time on the bus,” says Becky Deusser, the campaign’s deputy press secretary, with wholly inappropriate perkiness.

It’s my fault. I got the idea of hitching a ride while stuck in traffic on the Mass. Pike around Memorial Day. That’s where I first saw Gabrieli’s campaign bus. The Pike was jammed, which seemed like a fantastic advertising opportunity: a bus with “Gabrieli” plastered all over it, surrounded by people with nothing to do but honk and stare. Except the driver wouldn’t let anyone over. Like the rest of the Massholes, he kept inching along, refusing to give ground as the lanes bottlenecked just beyond the I-95 tollbooth. That’s bad strategy. Gabrieli should have ordered the driver to put it in park and let everyone over. Hell, he should have gotten out of the bus and waved them by himself—that’s hundreds of potential votes right there.

But then, Gabrieli often makes questionable decisions. In late July, he chose to “work” at Mike’s Pastry in the North End. The multimillionaire said he was protesting Governor Romney’s objection to a minimum-wage hike, but it appeared that he was protesting against good taste. My favorite ill-conceived stunt, though, came after Gabrieli barely qualified for this month’s primary. He received 15.36 percent of the vote at the state convention in June (a hair above the 15 percent minimum), then publicly announced his campaign spending limit as—ha ha!—$15.36 million. Other than Gabs, no one laughed. Some observers slammed him for being so cavalier with his wealth. I just want to know what he’s doing with all that money. For 15 mil, Gabrieli could have afforded serious transportation—something pimped. Instead, I’m on a short bus with no shocks, trying desperately to avoid unloading my breakfast while finding an answer to the question that has perplexed and maddened Democrats for a decade and a half: When will they reclaim the governorship?

In one of the most reliably blue states, the Dems have been banished from the corner office since 1990, suffering the indignity of watching Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci, and Bill Weld govern the Commonwealth. For 16 years, the Democrats have existed in a kind of alternate universe—akin to being in Texas and finding that everyone has eschewed pickup trucks and chicken fried steak for hybrid Hondas and lobster rolls. But this, the Democrats say, is the year order is restored, the year voters return them to power.

“People want a Dem first, then a Dem outsider, then a Republican,” one longtime Democratic strategist tells me. Right, then it should be a given that whoever emerges from the primary will smash Kerry Healey. All the Democrats are absolutely confident of this—overconfident, perhaps. Because the pieces may be lined up for a victory—a long hiatus coupled with an overall disillusionment with the Republicans stemming from the Iraq war, soaring gas prices, and other hot-button issues—but issues alone don’t guarantee the spoils. Once again, the Dems have put the cart before the donkey.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats have lost gubernatorial races, at least in part, because voters want a balance to the left-dominated legislature. That’s probably giving the masses too much credit. Politics, especially campaign politics, is largely theater. For a while, before he started doing things like calling the Big Dig a “tar baby,” Romney played his part well. He had a cool-guy vibe. He was confident. He had nice hair. It worked. With the Massachusetts Democrats, the political drama usually degenerates into farce (Shannon O’Brien asking a debate moderator in 2002 if he wanted to see her tattoo) or outright horror (John Silber snapping at Natalie Jacobson during a 1990 television interview). The Dems may have the edge on policy around here, but when it comes to image, they’ve been dismal.

Judging by the candidates’ performances so far, this year’s election looks like a rerun. Like their predecessors, the latest batch of Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls—Attorney General Tom Reilly, former Clinton staffer Deval Patrick, and zany millionaire Chris Gabrieli—have often approached the level of slapstick. Party officials, meanwhile, have done everything but squirt water from flowers or balance balls on their noses. It’s starting to piss people off. More and more, you hear veteran Democrats deriding their own pooh-bahs.

“Their campaigns are run by wonks,” says one Democratic political consultant. “They never learned from Ronald Reagan. It’s the pictures that matter. The Democrats think it’s about issues. I don’t know why they’re missing it, but they have for a while.”

In a way, Gabrieli’s rickety campaign bus serves as a symbol for the party as a whole—lots of good intentions, but not a barf bag in sight when you need one.

The first step toward kicking any bad habit is to admit you have a problem. So there may be a glimmer of hope in the fact that the Democrats are starting to question their chronic inability to reclaim the corner office. “The Dems win everything else in this state,” says John Walsh, Deval Patrick’s campaign manager. “Councilors. Mayor. Representatives. Everything. Then, when we get to the gubernatorial race, people say you can’t run that race. You can’t win the same way you win state rep. But why can’t you? I ask, but no one ever has a good reason.”

Here’s one: media. You don’t have to dazzle TV audiences to be elected to the school board in Belchertown, the statewide press doesn’t cover the battle for register of deeds in Barnstable, and nobody pays attention to the race for county office, unless it’s Hazzard County and Boss Hogg is running against them Duke boys. The difference between the gubernatorial race and others is the difference between the NBA and a half-court pickup game, between large scale and small, between relevance and Who Cares? In the gubernatorial race, because of the media scrutiny it invites, everything is magnified—and, in the case of the Dems, what becomes blatantly obvious is their inability to engage voters.

In 1994, state Representative Mark Roosevelt, then a candidate for governor, established himself as the reigning champion of PR boners. When asked by a reporter why he’d applied for the customary $5 per diem in travel expenses when he lived in a townhouse just a short walk from the State House, Roosevelt effectively ended his chances of winning any office that year except, possibly, at the Department of Rude. “I take it because I’m entitled to it, and I deserve it,” he snapped. “To be honest, I find that an insulting question.”

Now, Tom Reilly seems intent on setting new records for campaign-related disasters. At the beginning of the year, the then frontrunner made mistake after glaring mistake. The poor bastard couldn’t get out of his own way. First, Reilly flirted with Gabrieli as a running mate. After dropping Gabs, he picked state Representative Marie St. Fleur, then unpicked her the next day after it emerged that she hadn’t fully paid her taxes or settled outstanding loans. While everyone was trying to figure out why St. Fleur wasn’t properly vetted, Gabs announced a gubernatorial bid of his own. Ouch. Before that, in front of nearly every media outlet in the state, Reilly said: Politics is “not my strong suit.” The candidate may have thought he was being clever—the non-politician politician would surely be a hit with the voters. At the time, though, with Patrick gaining momentum, Reilly needed to rally party diehards behind him. Saying politics is “not my strong suit” in the middle of a political campaign was probably not the best way to go about it.

In part, Reilly’s blunders can be attributed to his notorious independent streak—the fact that he refuses to listen to those who do understand campaigns. “He gets some very good advice, but at the end of the day, Tom Reilly created these problems—these are his wounds,” says Steve Grossman, one of Reilly’s earliest supporters and a former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate. “Tom sweats the details. I want a governor who sweats the details. But in a political campaign, you have to let your colleagues worry about the politics. You have to be seen as empathetic, as someone people want to lead them. It’s hard to do that. You need help.”

Apparently, some need more help than others. “He just doesn’t get it,” says one longtime party player, adding that Reilly doesn’t have the excuse of inexperience to fall back on. “Let’s say I’m a professional poker player and you’re a pro poker player. Last year you made $340,000, and I made 34 bucks. We’re both pros; I just suck at it. When he says he’s a novice, that’s not the truth. He should have said, ‘I’ve been doing this for 14 years or whatever but I still suck.’ There are tailors who are terrible at sewing clothes, gamblers who can’t make money, and pols who aren’t any good. It’s that simple.”

It’s too bad, because in person Reilly is likable. At times, he even comes tantalizingly close to being witty. In July, during an event at a supporter’s house in Revere, he looked capable and comfortable. When one old woman loudly remarked that there were a lot of good-looking men in attendance, Reilly immediately turned to me and said: “She didn’t mean you, Gonzalez.” It was a good moment for Reilly. He has those sometimes. But always when the camera isn’t on. When the flashbulbs pop and the tape recorders are in his face, he usually bombs.

Reilly’s early errors established an odd (if familiar) tone for a Democratic primary that has teetered somewhere between painfully funny and just painful. And yet party regulars were oblivious to the absurdity unfolding around them—actually, oblivious to pretty much everything. During the first televised debate, which was held at Harvard’s Escher-esque Forum, I overheard an exchange between state Senator Steven Baddour (a Reilly supporter) and Gabrieli press secretary Dan Cence.

Baddour: At the end of the day, Patrick can’t win. He’s a flash in the pan—he’s already popped.

Cence: He’s got a lot of signs out front.

Baddour: That’s all he’s got. And signs don’t vote.

(Patrick, of course, soon established himself as the party favorite.)

Baddour’s wrong-headed political analysis ended up being the highlight of the evening. The best debates are scrappy affairs, full of ducking and sucker punching, a flurry of accusations, blood, and snot. This one was more of a dance—a slow, arthritic waltz. “The reality is, they’re fairly close on issues,” one campaign staffer said afterwards. “And they’re all pretty reasonable.”

After hearing them blather for an hour, it occurred to me that there might be another reason the candidates didn’t pick up the oratorical pace: They’re no good at it. Patrick came closest to punchy rhetoric by declaring that certain officials (read: Reilly/Romney/Healey) have displayed a “breathtaking” lack of curiosity about how Big Dig money was spent. And most threw a few predictable sissy shots at Healey. But that was basically it. No wonder the guy two rows up (a Patrick volunteer) kept nodding off. Actually, he wasn’t nodding off: He was sleeping. I was tempted to shoot a spitball at him, but then I realized he had the right idea and let him be.

You can take the energy thing too far. On his bus, Gabrieli was so animated, I thought he was on something. He’s a tall man—if you put Patrick on Reilly’s shoulders, they might be able to defend Gabrieli in the low post—and he appeared uncomfortable folding his lanky frame between the small on-board table and seat. He kept shifting in his politician’s uniform (gray suit, crisp white shirt, red striped tie), and he waved his hands in sweeping motions, as if he couldn’t calm down because there were so many interesting things percolating inside him. The performance was disorienting and, ultimately, disappointing—like sitting down at one of those new multimedia slot machines with the lights and bells and whistles, the ones that clatter like you’ve hit the jackpot when they pay out 37 cents.

A short time in Gabrieli’s presence revealed that he had little to say—or, rather, quite a lot to say with little effect. Here’s a blurb from his website under the Meet Chris section: “It’s hard to sum up Chris Gabrieli with one word, but if you had to, you’d probably go with results.” Actually, I’d probably go with redundant. During our conversation, he used the word “results” about 20 times, mainly in several flurries in which he spoke at least seven times about “getting results,” four times about goals being “different than results,” and, my favorite, five times in which he used the word results in relation to his own results—as in, “These results are real results.” All of which resulted in me hating results.

It quickly became apparent that Gabrieli was reliant on his aides, not just to provide him with talking points (if not a few synonyms), but to keep up the appearance that he was a viable candidate. During the state convention, his staff managed to get a horde of people to surround the campaign booth by handing out soft pretzels and T-shirts with “Reverse the curse, 1986–2006” in the distinctive Red Sox lettering. A lot of people were wearing them, suggesting that he had more backers than I’d thought. So I asked a woman about the candidate, about why she supported him and what she thought his chances were. She just stared blankly.

“Oh, you mean Gabrieli?” she said finally, bits of pretzel flecking her mouth. “No, I just like the T-shirt.”

Worcester, for those who haven’t been, is like postwar Germany, only with less rubble and more chain restaurants. This, of course, was where the Democrats held their state convention. The tacit message of convening there—the state’s near geographic midpoint—was that the Democrats aren’t just the party of the Boston liberal elite. They’re the party of Springfield and Pittsfield and Westfield and all the other Fields out there. In theory, that wasn’t such a bad idea. In practice, it was awful, because putting the convention in Worcester meant people had to go to Worcester.

On the first night, the Dems held a rally to energize delegates. The main attraction was a speech by Ted Kennedy. That was a smart move; apart from simply being a Kennedy, he’s good at whipping Democrats into a self-confident lather while just whipping Republicans. Not so smart was the party’s decision to dust off former presidential hopeful George McGovern. Many delegates remarked how fabulous it was to welcome the former senator from South Dakota, now well into his eighties. He is, after all, a man whose progressive bona fides are unimpeachable. But here’s the thing: You don’t get George McGovern, champion of the bra-burning, peace-loving left, without also getting George McGovern, abject failure and Nixon footstool.

“Look, if you want to criticize us for putting McGovern up there, go ahead,” said Phil Johnston, the Democratic Party chair since late 2000. “It’s not like voters were paying rapt attention to what he was saying.” No surprise there. At one point, having droned on for what seemed like days, McGovern said, “I hope I live long enough to…” Before he could complete the thought, Andy Miller, the blogger behind Massrevolutionnow.com, quipped, “…finish this speech?”

Things took a turn for the truly weird and unfortunate when McGovern tried to advocate on behalf of gay marriage. First, he made a point of informing the crowd that he was heterosexual, then somehow segued into this: “[Clinton] had fallen under the allure of a female intern, yielding to this ancient temptation, as even the great psalmist of the Bible, King David, had done…” Which still wasn’t the craziest thing he said. No, that came when McGovern transitioned from Clinton’s loins to a screed about how shepherds in the South Dakota hills “lay down with sheep.”

Incredibly, no one in party leadership had checked what the old man was going to say. “Oh, oohhh,” Johnston kept saying as I read McGovern’s bestiality rant to him. “I didn’t know that. That’s very interesting. I had no idea he said that.” The incident pointed, once more, to what may be the biggest hurdle facing all three candidates: Some of the people ostensibly working on their behalf are clueless.

Fact is, you could have JFK and FDR rolled into one—if the party machinery is missing a few springs, then the best candidates will end up looking bad. (It’s one advantage the Republicans have enjoyed for so long—there’s no real state party here to malfunction.) It’s like being part of a family: When the parents are glue sniffers, it doesn’t really matter if the kids are cute.

The next morning, after everyone had showered away their McGovern residue, Patrick’s camp held a breakfast for the press at Worcester’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. His aides were in fine form, grinning over their Danishes and answering questions with aplomb. Patrick had dominated the February caucuses so thoroughly, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d win the party’s nomination. “We want to stand on Howard Dean’s shoulders. He motivated people,” said Walsh, the campaign manager, which, frankly, isn’t the most auspicious goal considering that Dean’s shoulders are mostly remembered for heaving in a hysterical, internationally televised meltdown. Walsh did say, though, that “hopefully we’ve learned from his mistakes,” and that “we hope to take the best from Dean and Kerry.”

That’s fine, but let’s not forget that these guys lost. Anyway, despite the awkward comparison, Patrick is no Dean or Kerry. Although he had never before run for office, Patrick performed markedly better than the other two Democratic gubernatorial candidates. His speeches invariably had rhythm and pitch, and the audiences all but held up lighters in response. In person, he can be charming. When I met Patrick at his campaign office, he rushed over to my chair, offered a strong handshake and said, “Gonz!”—the nickname used by my friends. Politicians and journalists often try to sweet-talk each other—it’s an occupational necessity. The trick is getting what you need without tipping off the other person. Like pickpockets, some are better than others. Before his campaign is over, Patrick will have lifted a lot of wallets.

Over the summer, as Patrick cemented his position as frontrunner, the time seemed right for the candidates to attack each other. Of course, there was plenty for them to lash out at: Patrick for having been in bed with accused predatory moneylender Ameriquest, Reilly for his lack of oversight on the Big Dig, Gabrieli for being a Big Bird–doppelgänger trying to buy the governorship. Didn’t happen. Instead, when the first campaign TV ads aired in late July, the candidates adopted the tone that had marked the debates—toothless and forgettable (Tom Reilly = hard worker, Chris Gabrieli = “results”).

Worse than the candidates’ spineless ads, though, was the party’s attempt to preemptively sterilize their messages. In early July, before any of the candidates were advertising in earnest on television, Phil Johnston, a one-time Dukakis aide, brought the presidential failure out of retirement (stop me if this sounds familiar) to publicly urge the gubernatorial candidates not to go negative. It was a strange move—as if the candidates were children, incapable of behaving themselves unless Daddy Phil and Grandpa Mike doled out the discipline—made even stranger by the fact that, at the time, the candidates had yet to attack each other.

“It’s bullshit,” says one prominent Democrat. “It’s the stupidest thing in the world. That’s the single dumbest thing I’ve ever seen someone do as party chair. That’s just Johnston and Dukakis trying to make themselves relevant. That’s Mike being angry about ’88. You blew the campaign. Get over it.”

When I mention the backlash to Johnston, he seems genuinely surprised. Part of the reason the Democrats have lost gubernatorial races in the past, he says, is because the primaries were often so contentious that whoever won emerged too crippled to win the general election. Fair enough. But, again, at the time this story went to press, that kind of open rancor didn’t exist. And even if it had, candidates don’t want to be neutered by their party, and they certainly don’t want it to happen in full view of the state’s voters.

The opposition, naturally, watched the debacle unfold with glee. “Can you imagine, you’re in the campaign and you get a note publicly from the party saying, tsk tsk?” says Barbara Anderson, executive director of the far right-wing Citizens for Limited Taxation. “For them to do something so incredibly politically stupid is mind-boggling. The party should be keeping the candidates from embarrassing themselves, but they should be doing it quietly. That’s the important part. It shows how out of touch they are. That’s why they lose. They just don’t get it.”

When I first heard the rumor, I was eating an omelet at the Omni Parker House. I heard it again at the convention. I heard it a bunch. Apparently, there are darker forces at work here than mere ineptitude. Apparently, a number of influential Democrats (among them Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Sal DiMasi) hedged their bets. If Reilly wins the governorship, the big players can say they backed him when it mattered. If Gabrieli wins, they can say they helped him get on the ballot. But—and here’s where it gets sinister—if the Democratic candidates lose, that’s fine, too. Maybe better. Because it keeps the party’s current hierarchical order intact. It’s like a combination of Machiavelli and Max Bialystock—a process of self-promotion through inspired failure.

“They don’t want a Democratic governor,” one veteran State House observer says. “Unless they’re looking for a job, they want a Republican. They want the fight. They want to stay in power and fight.” What scares these people the most, the source adds, is someone with charisma, someone with national appeal, someone who can dilute their power and steal their spotlight—someone who’s not Gabrieli or Reilly. “If Patrick wins, he’ll be on the cover of Time with all the other big winners. He’d be the face of the party. Everyone would forget about the others. The power brokers don’t like it.”

Even without the conspiracy theories, Patrick faces resistance from within the ranks. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the Democratic Party here is entrenched and regimented. There are backs to pat and factions to appease. The party apparatchiks demand respect for the process. They want a candidate who’s paid his dues, not some “flash in the pan” who talks his way to the front of the pack. If Patrick wins the election, the old guard will say they loved him from the start. In reality, it’s Reilly they wanted. That’s the way things work in this state. The Democrats favor guys who wait their turn and toil in relative obscurity until called upon.

“Tom Reilly is the Bob Dole of this year’s race,” says a veteran of several Democratic gubernatorial campaigns. “Sure, he’s cranky. Sure, he doesn’t present well. But it’s his turn.” The Republicans, he adds, have learned from their mistakes—unlike the Dems, they will happily rally around a promising newcomer. “They don’t give a shit about paying dues.” And here’s the important thing: Neither do the voters. What they do give a shit about is finding a candidate who can inspire them—or, at least, a candidate who doesn’t make their eyes glaze over.

If Patrick does win the primary, it will be due in part to the fact that, more than all the Democratic candidates over the past 16 years, he understands this; Patrick appreciates the value of style as well as substance. He appreciates packaging, even though he claims to hate packaging (which, yes, is a part of his packaging).

In July, as Patrick worked the room at an Elks lodge in Everett, an older woman came over to say hello. Her name was Patricia, and she had a big tuft of silver hair and friendly eyes. She was thrilled to be so close to the candidate and told him so, told him that he had her vote, told him that she had heard him speak and had fallen in love with what he had to say.

“Tell me,” Patrick said, touching her arm, “what was it you liked so much?”

The woman thought for a second, then, with a mostly toothless smile, said: “You know, I don’t really remember. I just liked the way you said it.”