Warren Tolman Makes an ‘Unbecoming’ Comment

Tolman is hardly in a position where he can take comfort in knowing that he didn't just alienate women voters.

Warren Tolman has a legitimately strong record and platform on what we usually call “women’s issues.” So does Steve Grossman, incidentally—that and a couple million dollars can get you maybe 40 percent of the women’s vote in a Democratic primary against a strong female opponent. And, since women make up some 60 percent of Democratic primary voters around here, that’s a real problem.

And when you’ve got that problem, you need to avoid exacerbating it.

Tolman made that mistake on Tuesday in a live-streamed debate at the Boston Globe. When Maura Healey pestered him a little too much with interruptions and accusations, he said: “Maura, it’s just unbecoming.”

Now, I’m here to do a political analysis, but let me just pause to make a few contextual points. First, it was a small, barely noticed utterance toward the tail end of a contentious debate, in which Healey was pretty deliberately pushing Tolman’s buttons in an aggressive and somewhat obnoxious manner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; politics ain’t bean-bag, as they say, and neither is being Attorney General. But it’s worth noting that someone with an average level of sexism for a man of Tolman’s age might have blurted out something far, far worse.

It’s also worth noting that, judging from my conversations with women about this, not all automatically take it as sexist and patronizing.

But, to return to the political analysis, Tolman is hardly in a position where he can take comfort from the knowledge that there are plenty of women voters he didn’t just alienate.

The Healey campaign clearly sees this as a cudgel; they have beaten the drum heavily to draw attention to what otherwise would have probably slipped by without much notice—with help from EMILY’s List, the national group that has endorsed Healey.

It’s too early, at this writing, to say whether “unbecoming” will draw enough media attention to penetrate the broader primary electorate. But at the least it is reaching an audience of politically engaged women, including many Martha Coakley voters who might now be more likely to select Healey in the down-ballot race.

If the increased media attention does come, it will likely also educate a bunch of primary voters to Healey’s accusations that led to his uttering the word. Those charges, relating to whether he was a lobbyist and other aspects of his work, might not be entirely fair, but they will leave an impression Tolman doesn’t need.

I would also suggest that the episode also plays perfectly into a dichotomy the Healey campaign has been trying to establish all campaign long: that she is the fresh, new candidate; and Tolman is the old-school, tired retread.

And I mean, sexism aside, who says “unbecoming” these days?

The controversy over the word is, itself, harkens back to a previous election. In 2002, Mitt Romney took heat for calling Shannon O’Brien’s behavior “unbecoming” in a debate. Coincidentally, that was the year Tolman ran for governor, losing to O’Brien in the primary.

The controversy didn’t ultimately hurt Romney, at least in my reading of that election. But that was not only a different time, but a very different race—a general election rather than a woman-heavy Democratic primary. It was also a different opponent; Romney’s “unbecoming” came amid a full-court press of attacks to make Shannon seem like a weak, unprepared leader. In that context, the over-reaction to his use of the word—by other Democrats; O’Brien brushed it aside—only reinforced that image of weakness. (O’Brien still won by an estimated nine percentage points among women in that election, but that was far less than her earlier polling lead along gender lines.)

O’Brien, now supporting Tolman in the Attorney General’s race, has come to his defense, telling the State House News Service today that the word should give no offense.

She also cautioned Healey against making too much hay over it. I would agree with that proscription. As in O’Brien’s case, the voting public tends to see an unappealing frailty in a candidate whose surrogates fight too hard in her defense, especially over minor injuries. Women included.

Given EMILY’s List’s track record, I’d put the odds at about 50-50 of them ultimately causing more harm to Healey than to Tolman. [Correction: Although I sometimes criticize EMILY’s List’s tactics, the group’s record of electoral success in Massachusetts is quite good.] But, if they can keep themselves reasonably reined in once the media gets its teeth into the story, this could do real harm to Tolman’s chances.

That might not be fair, but since when is politics fair?

If politics were fair, people would judge these two exceptionally interesting and thoughtful candidates by the substance of their records and their plans for the office. If you want make that sort of judgment, I suggest you give a listen to the two podcasts at WGBH in which I participated in discussions with Healey and Tolman, as part of our Scrum series.