As the Massachusetts Democratic Party heads to Worcester this weekend to figure out who has enough delegates to run for governor in the fall, three wanna-bes are hoping for a campaign kick start — or at least no abrupt ending. To earn a spot on the September 19 primary ballot, each must receive at least 15 percent of the delegates’ votes. Deval Patrick is widely expected to win the delegate vote handily. Chris Gabrieli and Thomas Reilly will likely ﬁnd themselves in a dogﬁght for second place.
Pundits are fascinated by this battle for delegates’ votes. But should voters care about such political machinations?
In a word, yes — especially since a Democrat has a good chance of winning come November (perhaps the best chance since 1990). Here are three admittedly subjective, shoot-from-the-hip snapshots of the three Democratic candidates for governor. We throw them out there at this critical campaign juncture to help you take the measure of these men amid the din of political technicalities and the blur of the PR horserace.
Chris Gabrieli: The great Democratic hope?
Chris Gabrieli finds himself in a strange sort of political limbo as he heads into this weekend’s state Democratic convention. There’s a real chance he won’t get the requisite support (from 15 percent of the convention’s delegates) to secure a spot on September’s primary ballot, so his bid to be governor could be over Saturday night. But if Gabrieli does make it to 15 percent — even if it’s by the slimmest of margins — he’ll be the new Democratic front-runner in the race for governor.
If you’re a supporter of Gabrieli’s Democratic rivals, this might seem unjust. Whatever you think of Tom Reilly’s lunch-bucket-Democrat shtick, the attorney general labored long and hard to raise more than $4 million, corral the support of key Democrats around Massachusetts, and establish himself (temporarily) as the presumptive Democratic nominee. There’s also Deval Patrick, who has used his year and a half as a candidate to traverse the state, assemble a massive grassroots operation, and position himself to win the convention’s endorsement on Saturday.
And then there’s Gabrieli. After Reilly nixed an almost-done deal that would have made Gabrieli his running mate earlier this year, the Beacon Hill resident and 2002 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor nursed his wounds and let his fans talk him into running for the top job. Then he spent more than $2 million of his considerable fortune on a slew of TV ads that drove his poll numbers up impressively. It was a case study in the power of money in politics — and it worked: now, delegates inclined to keep him off the ballot at the convention have to wonder if they’d be screwing up the chance to send up the Democrat most capable of beating Republican nominee Kerry Healey this fall.
Resentment aside, though, Democrats irked by Gabrieli’s late entrance need to realize that his strengths extend beyond his deep pockets. First and foremost, Gabrieli is a policy-minded civic leader who likes getting things done, and willingly spends his own money to do so — for example, by founding the educational nonprofit Massachusetts 2020. True, he’s a two-time loser in big races (in ’98, for the congressional seat currently occupied by Mike Capuano, and as Shannon O’Brien’s understudy four years ago). But these defeats seem to have imbued Gabrieli with a keen sense of what it’s going to take for the Democrats to break the 16-year Republican-governor streak this time around — a shrewder sense, perhaps, than his two opponents.
Take the umbrella of issues involving illegal immigration. Earlier this year, Reilly backed a bill that would have allowed children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state schools; Patrick has said he’d support a bill that would give driver’s licenses to immigrants here illegally. But Gabrieli — whose parents emigrated from Hungary — says he opposes both measures, and has made a point of speaking sternly on immigration issues. (One example, from a CBS-4 debate sponsored by Jon Keller: “I think we have to be very careful and [make] very clear to people, as Democrats: we are not in favor of illegal behavior, we’re not in support of people violating laws. That’s not why we have those laws. Citizenship should mean something.”)
Many Democrats will disagree with Gabrieli on this point. But the fact is, Kerry Healey and the Republicans have pegged illegal immigration as a winning issue in this election — and right now, Gabrieli looks like the only Democrat capable of neutralizing the issue in the general-election campaign. If this seems like cynical calculation, bear in mind that Gabrieli would likely run a more immigrant-friendly administration, for legals and illegals alike, than Healey would. (Bear in mind, too, that more centrist suburbanites than illegal immigrants vote.)
What’s more, Gabrieli does a better job than his Democratic opponents of arguing that Massachusetts needs a governor who can work with the legislature, not just against it. If the Democrats are going to retake the Corner Office, this particular point needs to be pounded into the heads of the independent voters who elected Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney. And since Gabrieli isn’t a veteran pol with an Irish surname (unlike Reilly) and hasn’t hinted that the income tax might need to be raised (unlike Patrick), he could be a perfect messenger.
There’s one point worth pondering: if Gabrieli is elected, might he discover — when battling with the legislature, constrained by the state’s budget, and subjected to the unceasing scrutiny of the Boston media — that he longs for his days as a civic do-gooder, answerable only to himself? After all, everyone loves you when you’re using your own cash to serve the public good. But running Massachusetts promises to be a bit rougher on the ego.
- Adam Reilly