One Quality, Two Big Wins

Maura Healey and Seth Moulton pulled off upsets thanks, in part, to one thing: gumption.

Photo via Associated Press

Photo via Associated Press

I’ll tell you what: Maura Healey’s got gumption.

After considerable thought, I’ve found the word for it; that appealing quality that struck me from the first time I met her and she immediately teased me about a minor gaffe I confessed to on Twitter. (I had mistaken Middlesex DA Marian Ryan for her.) Gumption is what you need to run for statewide office as an unknown against a well-connected and popular established politician, simply because you think you can do the job well. You need gumption to go toe-to-toe, unflinching—but not mean-spirited—against that popular pol.

And you need a lot of it to respond to the popular Governor’s endorsement of your opponent by criticizing him as part of the establishment you’re glad to be lined up against.

Healey beat Warren Tolman on Tuesday for the Democratic Party’s endorsement in the race for Attorney General. She didn’t just beat him; she throttled him. She smashed him from Pittsfield to Provincetown, letting him win only his hometown and a handful of other hamlets. She ran him over, backed up, then ran over him again.

Gumption is a tough quality to pull off, politically. Miss it just slightly, and you end up with something terribly unappealing: pettiness, anger, spite, presumption, naivete, egotism, bullying, or disrespect, depending on the direction of the miscalculation.

But when it works, it’s a damn appealing quality. Seth Moulton won the 6th congressional primary with it.

Moulton had the gumption to enter himself in an election against an incumbent of his own party, simply because he thought he could do the job well. Like Healey, he had the gumption to challenge his opponent, John Tierney, in direct, sometimes very sharp and—gasp—possibly unfair ways. And, like Healey, he was able to do it in a way that came off as strong and willing to stand up to the opponent, not off-putting in any of a dozen potential ways.

It helps, when trying to win on gumption, to have a good foil. It has to feel to observers that you’re punching up, not punching down, that is, you’re fighting Goliath, not bullying little David.

Healey had such a foe in Tolman, whose response to every inroad by Healey was to trot out ever more establishment powers to take arms beside him, up to and including Governor Deval Patrick. And, in an indicative moment late in the campaign, Tolman responded to her gumption—in the form of pestering, accusative questions at a Boston Globe forum—by calling her attacks “unbecoming.” The widely circulated remark, for which Tolman later apologized, may not have indicated sexism as was charged. But it did seem to show Tolman dismissing her gumption as an impudent intrusion along his path to coronation. It was Goliath chiding David to put away his little sling. Who doesn’t root for the kid with the sling at that point?

In Moulton’s case, the foil was greater by a hundred-fold. Tierney has spent the past four years treating with contempt all those who want him to explain certain odd aspects of the scandal that, fairly or not, sent his wife to prison. That attitude, combined with the infuriating sanctity with which the Massachusetts Democratic establishment genuflect at the Altar of The Sacred Incumbent, ensured that Tierney would treat Moulton’s gumption in much the same way Lou Grant famously responded to Mary Richards’ spunk.

Deval Patrick had gumption when he ran for governor against the entire dismissive party, which had circled the wagons around Tom Reilly. I think a lot of people saw gumption in Elizabeth Warren when she debated a sneering Senator Scott Brown. Gumption often seems lacking in Martha Coakley, among others. It’s a hard thing to fake; to a large extent, you’ve either got it or you don’t. Moulton’s got some. And Healey’s got tons.