Democrats will drown in the blue wave if they don’t understand where it comes from.
Heading into the Massachusetts Democratic Convention, there is a sea of discontent with establishment Democrats, which activists propose to fix with more progressive ideology. Yet if ideology was all that mattered, why is Republican Governor Charlie Baker so popular with Democrats? With a 65% approval rating, we need to ask if 2/3 of Democrats have abandoned their ideology or if there is something else at play. Something that matters so much that Massachusetts, the bluest state in the nation, has the most popular governor in the nation. The solution to Baker’s popularity isn’t ideological purity. The choice isn’t even between Progressives and Centrists; instead, it is between constitutional ideals and an autocratic approach to governing. There are indeed sellouts within the Democratic Party, but their lack of integrity is not tied to their policies; it is tied to a culture of protecting oneself at any cost. To win over voters, the Democratic Party needs to learn from Charlie Baker. To win, Democrats need to address the trust gap.
Primary candidates speaking Saturday morning are tripping over themselves to seize the title “most progressive”, with gubernatorial candidate Bob Massie touting the Our Revolution Middlesex County endorsement and opponent Jay Gonzalez the nod from Progressive Massachusetts. According to Politico reporter Lauren Dezenski, at a recent primary debate, Massie differentiated himself from his opponent, who was Secretary of Administration & Finance under former Governor Deval Patrick, by saying “that he was not a government insider who just wants to go back to the Patrick days”. Recently, I was at a meeting of the Cambridge Ward 6 committee where candidate Donna Patalano said she hesitated to even use the word ‘progressive’ to describe herself because “everyone uses it so much these days it almost has no meaning”.
The last time I checked, Deval Patrick was still considered one of the most progressive leaders Massachusetts has ever seen. Yet these days, he is considered moderate by some Party activists. Meanwhile, the Sphinx in the corner office has mastered the role of an ideologically-balanced pragmatist and the voters like it. More importantly, they trust Baker. Many establishment Democrats, however, are suspect, and this is reflected in the gubernatorial primary.
Massie has received just a handful of endorsements, which may play into his outsider approach, though he was unable to persuade Bernie Sanders’ Massachusetts co-chairs he is the best candidate. Senate President Harriet Chandler this morning endorsed Jay Gonzalez, on the heels of endorsements from insiders Auditor Suzanne Bump and former Treasurer Steve Grossman. Under the “establishment = sellout” formula, this may backfire with activists at the convention. Look for Massie’s speech to allude to a message that Gonzalez is business as usual. But if Gonzalez can distinguish himself as a Democrat who will rebuild trust, he might set himself up as the candidate to advance progressive goals through Charlie Baker’s pragmatic, insider approach.
This morning we learned in the latest WBUR poll that voters remain largely unexcited by or even unaware of Gonzalez and Massie. While within the margin of error, in a head-to-head match-up with Baker, both dropped a point since the last poll in March. But at convention parties tonight, the takeaway on delegates’ lips will be the fact that Baker’s unfavorables are lower among Democrats than Republicans.
Similar to the national Democratic Party, in Massachusetts a battle between Progressives and Centrists is being waged for the “soul of the party“. Yet the fight is based on a misdiagnosis of the illness and Democrats are applying the wrong cures. Progressives conflate Centrism with sellout politicians. Centrists conflate pragmatism with protecting poor behavior. But voters don’t want to choose between ideas they approve of, and the ability to work effectively within the system to get things done. What they don’t like is us activists implying they must choose between the two . And their discontent with the Democratic Party is, in fact, a frustration with Democrats who are more concerned with the accumulation and preservation of power than with making their constituents’ lives better.
For too long within the Democratic Party, staying in office at any cost has been an end unto itself. Incumbents rarely risk the consequences of speaking out when members of their own party behave egregiously. Indeed, in Massachusetts, we have Democrats who close ranks when a member of their institution is accused of corruption, ignore the principles of democracy within their institutions, and prefer coasting to re-election to leading.
Voters have had to hold their nose when they go into the ballot box and consequently, some have chosen to vote for the other party or not at all. Delegates would do well to acknowledge that many Democrats voted for Baker because they wanted a check on the Democrat-run Legislature. It’s time to nominate candidates with the guts to speak truth to power, even if it costs them. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether they stand for free college or a renewed infrastructure program, whether they are Progressive or Centrist, but they’ve gotta support the integrity of the system. Voters want politicians they can trust to work for their interests.
Party activists are conflating a lack of leadership on Party or Progressive Values with a lack of leadership period. Centrists are conflating Progressives with impractical idealogues. The reality is the Party is capable of producing Centrists who lead (Speaker Tip O’Neill) as well as pragmatic Progressives (Sen. Ted Kennedy).
At last night’s debate on Greater Boston, Jim Braude challenged Gonzalez and Massie on their narrative voters want a more progressive agenda from the governor and the idea that insiders are inherently sellouts. Referencing Democrats who praise Baker’s leadership like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and former State Senator Linda Dorcena-Forry he asked: “Are all those Democrats hacks?” Neither had a good answer.
As we head into the Massachusetts Democratic Convention, Democrats need to do some soul searching. To win back swing voters, the Massachusetts Democratic Party needs to learn from the trust Governor Baker has engendered.
The best way to win over those voters isn’t to convince them they were wrong four years ago. It’s to show them they can have their cake and eat it, too. They can have a steady hand at the helm and call out bad behavior, rule-breaking, and hypocrisy within their own party. They can have strong management and encourage small ‘d’ democratic values such as the shared leadership model former Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg instituted, elimination of consolidated amendments in the Massachusetts House budget process, and allowing bills with 2/3 of the membership listed as co-sponsors to come up for a vote.
As Frank Phillips and Matt Stout and the Boston Globe ask, “Democrats have a lot of energy this year. But in Mass., where do they put it?” The answer is staring us in the face: creating accountability for Democrats who are untrustworthy.
At tomorrow’s convention, delegates have an opportunity to ask more of their leaders: ask the candidates at the convention if they will commit to shining a light on Beacon Hill. Will they call out officials for unethical behavior? Will they encourage a more democratic process within the House? Will they restore the trust delegates, activists, and most importantly, swing voters need? Ask your state legislators the same questions. Demand it. Expect it. The Democrat Party deserves – and can afford – nothing less.
When we are asked to choose between Massie and Gonzalez ; Zakim versus Galvin; and primaries in the 3rd and the 7th congressional districts, the calculus must include more than purity. It’s easy to cheer for applause lines about ideological conviction. But we will be a better party if we are cheering in our hearts for candidates with integrity and trust. Because people in the voting booth care more a lot more about those things than all the planks in our party platform.
Stefanie Coxe is an alternate delegate to the Massachusetts State Convention from Cambridge. She is the founder & principal of Nexus Werx LLC, a political training company offering the Learn to Lobby line of online and in-person training products: Effective Activism 101, Lobbying 101, and Campaigning 101. Sign up for her e-newsletter to get activism training & lobbying training tips. Follow her on Twitter @stefcoxe and Facebook @effectiveactivism.