When the father of Franklin County’s register of probate died last year, Steve Grossman attended the wake in Greenfield, nearly two hours from Boston. “He rearranged his whole schedule,” said John Merrigan.
When Quincy’s Ward Four city councilor was being sworn in to office on his birthday, Grossman was there, too, serenading him with a warbling rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“It was one of the most awkward moments, but also one of the most personal moments, that I’ve shared with a politician,” said Brian Palmucci. “But that’s Steve Grossman.”
This year, especially, it is.
Grossman, the state treasurer, is campaigning for governor as though he were running for city council, lavishing attention on local, county, and state officials at clambakes, breakfasts, and banquets, no matter how far away or how humble their office. It is part of a strategy he hopes will vault him past Attorney General Martha Coakley, a fellow Democrat, who has much wider support among voters but a cooler relationship with elected officials.
Grossman has so far racked up the endorsement of 90 officeholders — state representatives, senators, sheriffs, mayors, and selectmen — who have pledged to support him at the Democratic State Convention in June and to urge their supporters to join them in backing Grossman in the September primary. He hopes that by tapping those officials’ networks and securing a win at the convention, he can begin to gain the broader name recognition and momentum he will need to overtake Coakley.
The strategy harks back to an era in Massachusetts politics when running for office meant lining up the support of party panjandrums who could reliably deliver blocs of voters. Reviving that tactic in 2014 will be a distinct challenge, say political strategists, who point out that Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Elizabeth Warren built their campaigns not on endorsements from the political establishment, but by inspiring liberal activists to contact their friends and neighbors.
Grossman has so far failed to project that level of charisma; though, to be fair, neither has Coakley. Still, he will need to shake every hand he can to close the more than 20-point gap in the polls between him and the attorney general.
To do so, he is relying on other elected officials to fill a room and introduce him to their supporters. Every time he wins an endorsement, he said, he puts a pin on a map to mark where the elected official lives and asks that official to host a meet-and-greet for him at a community center or ice cream parlor.
This weekend, he said, he plans to shake hands at three events hosted by state senators who have endorsed him.
Coakley has courted endorsements as well, but without as much success. She has the backing of 13 elected officials.
“Steve is definitely doing the retro, elected official strategy because that’s his strength right now,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, who pointed out that Grossman, as a former chairman of the state and national Democratic parties, is harnessing relationships cultivated over three decades in politics. “The question is, after the convention, can he build out a grass-roots campaign?”
Elected officials say the treasurer’s approach has genuine appeal. He goes out of his way to show up at their ribbon-cuttings and breakfasts, and remembers details about their work and family life.
While Coakley is also a regular presence at political events, she is not known for showering praise on selectmen and state representatives, some of whom grumble that she doesn’t remember their names.
Coakley has also lost support, to Grossman’s benefit, because her prosecution of former state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill on corruption charges and former state representative Brian P. Wallace for campaign finance violations created hard feelings in the clubby world of Beacon Hill.
“The prosecutor’s job doesn’t tend to make you a warm and fuzzy person,” said Representative Michael Costello, a former prosecutor who has endorsed Grossman but said he likes Coakley.
As a longtime political fund-raising powerhouse and wealthy business owner, Grossman has also bestowed financial largesse on many local officials, a number of whom are now backing his campaign.
Still, his supporters say, there is no substitute for being there.
“He will be in 15 places during the day,” Costello said. “And at all 15 places, he will know who he is with, and know something about them, and he will make you feel like you’re important.”
Grossman’s path is similar to the one plotted by former lieutenant governor Timothy P. Murray, when he was eyeing a gubernatorial bid.
As the governor’s liaison to local officials, Murray maintained a frenetic statewide schedule, storing up chits among local powerbrokers — a machine that could have proved helpful had he stayed in electoral politics.
But Murray’s flameout also illustrated the perils of that approach.
His association with former Chelsea Housing Authority executive director Michael E. McLaughlin, sentenced to three years in federal prison for lying to state and federal regulators, helped sap Murray’s political potential, a cautionary tale about getting too cozy with local kingmakers.
Grossman said his endorsements help him connect with local activists who tend to have influence. “It gives me credibility,” he said. “But more than that, it’s the gateway to a virtually unlimited array of personal relationships that creates an army of activists that will hopefully propel us to victory.”
Grossman’s milieu is the local Democratic gathering, where he is often the highest-ranking elected official in the room.
He is a regular, for example, at the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee’s annual brunch at the Twin Hills Country Club, said Michael Clark, chairman of the Longmeadow School Committee.
“We like him because he knows where we are,” Clark said. “Not every candidate for governor knows where Longmeadow is.”
Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan said Grossman often calls him just to chat. “Frequently, my cellphone rings and it says Steve Grossman on the screen,” Donelan said. “He tries to stay very connected, and I like that a lot.”
But currying favor with elected officials is no guarantee that Grossman can close the double-digit deficit he is facing against Coakley. She is leading him in part because she is better known among voters due to her long tenure in state office and her prominent perch as attorney general.
Coakley is also activating her base, which includes women’s groups. Grossman’s success will depend on how well she can use her front-runner status to mobilize voters.
Doug Rubin, a Coakley adviser who previously worked with Grossman, downplayed the importance of endorsements. “Clearly, this is a big part of their strategy,” he said. “For us, it’s a part of the strategy, but a much bigger part of it” is building a network of grass-roots supporters.
If Grossman were to win the primary, his support from so many elected Democrats could also be a factor in the general election.
Republicans said it could help the GOP nominee, Charlie Baker, argue that a Governor Grossman would be unable to push back against the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
“The strongest argument for Baker against Grossman is an insider argument, that Grossman is so tied into the Democrats that there’s no backstop,” said Republican consultant Meredith Warren. “If the Democratic Legislature wants to raise taxes, Steve’s not going to stop them.”