Coakley Brings Tell-Tale Signs To Democratic Convention

The biggest gubernatorial buzz at Saturday’s Massachusetts Democratic Convention was not about the two newly-declared candidates, state Treasurer Steve Grossman and state senator Dan Wolf; or the two previously-declared candidates, executives Joe Avellone and Don Berwick; but about an undeclared candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Delegates and other attendees were greeted as they drove into the Tsongas Arena complex by several very large Coakley signs, dwarfing those carried by other sign-holders, bearing her name and website address but — conspicuously — no specific office. The display was interpreted, pretty unanimously, as a de facto declaration of her candidacy for the corner office.

Reactions were far from universally approving. Resentment still runs high among many state Democratic activists from the 2009-’10 US Senate special election debacle. Her apparent reversal after a year-plus of claiming to have no intention of running for governor rankles feathers. Plus, a considerable number of party insiders believe she would fare poorly in a general-election match-up with expected Republican nominee Charlie Baker.

Nevertheless, Coakley does have some backing in pockets of these party activists. The hall responded well to her speech. And few doubt that she would start the race as the clear frontrunner.

In the shadow of this Coakley factor, none of the four actual candidates seemed to change the playing field. Quite a few people I spoke with were a bit baffled by Grossman’s speech, which focused entirely on advocating for a paid family-leave law — a popular idea among these folks to be sure, but hardly a major differentiator among the party’s candidates, and awfully narrow for an announcement speech he had built up attention for during the week. Grossman brought a strong presence with him to the convention (and the party scene Friday night), and has a dedicated core of supporters, but the majority remain awfully indifferent to his appeal.

Wolf gave a pretty good speech, and there seems to be widespread, but not intense, interest in him among these activists. Berwick seemed well-received, but got nothing close to the game-changing moment Deval Patrick had at the 2005 convention. And the silence during Avellone’s speech suggests that his campaign might not survive the calendar year.

Meanwhile, a presumption seems to have fallen over these Democratic insiders that Congressman Mike Capuano — who told me he will make his decision about running for governor next month — has already decided to stay put in Washington. They assume that Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, who was working the convention hard, will then enter the race. They’re not seeing much likelihood of other major players.

One might think, and the gubernatorial hopefuls hope, that the sense of a clearly defined field would stir these key activists to start focusing hard on the choice, so as to pick a favorite in the coming months. Bear in mind, a gubernatorial race is unlike anything else for state party insiders; it’s not just about the ideology, it’s also about the many, many, many, many jobs that an administration hires and appoints. The governor’s race matters to these people.

Nevertheless, aside from those who have a clear favorite among the field of Avellone, Berwick, Coakley, Curtatone, Grossman, and Wolf, the sense was that these Democrats have so many other political campaigns to get involved in, they are actually somewhat satisfied to wait a while before trying to sort out the top-of-ticket situation.

They’ve got friends running in municipal elections — especially anyone who lives in or near the mayoral mayhem in Boston. They’re ready to take sides in the special election for Ed Markey’s congressional seat. (All five Democratic candidates were there working the crowd hard.) They’ve got friends and allies looking at running for the open slot for Lieutenant Governor (Steve Kerrigan and Mike Lake both have ardent supporters; Richard Sullivan says he’s looking at it; Hank Naughton seems almost certain to run; plenty of others are sizing it up) ; or the open slot for Treasurer (state senator Barry Finegold seems ready to go, among others); or the apparently open slot for Attorney General; or the possible open slot for Secretary of State (Bill Galvin confirmed to me that he is interested in running for AG if Coakley runs for governor).

So, even though the gubernatorial field of Democrats seemed to come much closer to settling Saturday, it might remain sleepy for quite a while. At some point, of course, it will pick up steam — as the candidates try building support to clear the 15% ballot-qualifying hurdle at next year’s convention.