Clean Sweep: Doug Rubin

In the world of Massachusetts politics, 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?

doug rubin

Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

It’s May 1, the morning after the primaries in the race for John Kerry’s old Senate seat, and the lobby of the Omni Parker House is packed with sleep-deprived, overeager Massachusetts Democrats. Ed Markey just topped his fellow congressman Stephen Lynch in a race filled with questionably sincere professions of admiration and respect between the candidates. Now, in a hallowed ritual, the Democratic establishment has turned out to show, with extra-wide smiles and extra-loud greetings, that any intramural bad blood is already forgotten.

The function room next door to the lobby is a welcome sanctuary from the forced cheeriness. In a few minutes, Markey, Lynch, and other Democratic bigwigs will take the stage, but for now, the floor is nearly empty. There are a handful of journalists milling about, along with a few antisocial Democrats—and, unexpectedly, consultant Doug Rubin, who is the closest thing Massachusetts Democrats have right now to an indispensable man.

Rubin’s ascendance began in 2002, when he mapped out a path for Tim Cahill, a former Quincy café owner, to become state treasurer. A few years later, he helped launch the political career of Deval Patrick and became his right-hand man. Last fall, he reached new heights, shepherding Joe Kennedy III, the Kennedy clan’s political heir apparent, into Congress while also calling the shots for Elizabeth Warren as she drummed Scott Brown out of the Senate.

At this moment, though, Rubin doesn’t look the part of kingmaker. As the keyed-up crowd drifts in from next door, the 45-year-old hovers on the margins, his expression inscrutable. With his perennial tan, slicked-back gray hair, and angular face, he’s a striking physical presence—but he carries himself with a gentleness that’s almost delicate. The best-known political consultants seem to swagger through the world: Think of the dandyish Democrat Bob Shrum, or the insufferably cocky Romneyite Stuart Stevens. Here, Rubin looks genuinely introverted—like he’s hoping no one notices him at all.

Then John Marttila, Markey’s longtime adviser, approaches and murmurs in Rubin’s ear—and Rubin’s whole affect changes. Smiling broadly, he places himself at Marttila’s service. “You tell us—whatever you need!” Rubin says. “Licking envelopes—whatever you need.”

Of course, as everyone in the room knows, the remark is absurd—Rubin’s envelope-stuffing days are clearly gone for good. Yet there’s something apt about his offer, because he knows firsthand how important every facet of a campaign is. Whether it’s dispatching volunteers to a particular neighborhood, or keeping the media at bay until the right moment, or distilling a candidate’s message into one memorable phrase, he’s become a master of playing the right key. But Rubin has another set of strengths, more subtle and psychological, that are just as valuable to his candidates. His method defies easy description, but it works. And we’d better understand it, since it’s shaping the future of Massachusetts politics.