METHUEN — State Treasurer Steve Grossman’s pink tie flaps in the wind. The Democratic candidate for governor drives a go-kart on an oil-slicked track, skidding and smiling and flashing a thumbs up like somebody’s zany uncle.
The night before, he was treating staff to “the best onion rings on the planet” at Mike’s Roast Beef in Everett, eating them hot out of the fryer before they got soggy in a bag.
And then there’s Grossman taking orders with his elbow on the counter at Jay Gee’s Ice Cream & Fun Center. Bowl of mocha chip. Extra-thick chocolate frappe. Cookie dough in a sugar cone.
“Who’s next? Who’s next?” Grossman bellows, ordering himself a kiddie-sized butter pecan. “When I was here last week, the kiddie size was enormous. I couldn’t finish it.”
This is the same man whose failed 2002 gubernatorial bid was encapsulated by Worcester Magazine with four words: “nice guy, dull candidate.” The same excruciatingly serious man who transformed his family’s century-old envelope business into a marketing juggernaut. The same man who rescued the national Democratic Party from crushing debt and turmoil, and who once shared conversation in the back of the presidential limousine that was so poignant it ended with him and Bill Clinton in tears.
He’s a Princeton man with a Harvard MBA. He’s a renowned fund-raiser, an influential behind-the-scenes rainmaker, an insider among political insiders. And now he’s standing on a sunny sidewalk in Methuen, mired in second place in the polls, and eating ice cream with a grin.
A newspaper columnist dubbed Grossman an “ice cream savant” during his successful 2010 bid for treasurer and it became his thing. It’s a shtick, right? A conscious effort to reinvent an accomplished but stuffy businessman?
“I recognize that people say, ‘Gee, Steve is a good leader, gets a lot done. His record is this, but he is not particularly charismatic.’ I read that,” Grossman says. “All you can do is the best you can to figure out how to build relationships and have fun.
“I’ve had fun on this campaign,” Grossman says, “from start to finish.”
He tucks his pink tie into his shirt to avoid drips and digs into his Styrofoam bowl of butter pecan. He finishes the bowl — he’s never had better butter pecan — and climbs into the front passenger seat of his campaign’s sport utility vehicle.
Grossman reaches over and grabs the extra thick frappe he bought for his driver, lifts off the lid, and takes a gulp.
“Amazing,” Grossman says. “It’s really chocolaty.”
He has wanted to be governor for at least two decades. Grossman first considered running in 1994, challenging Republican incumbent William F. Weld. It was a good thing he held off. Weld trounced the Democratic nominee by 42 percentage points.
When Grossman did take the leap in 2002, he won a spot on the ballot but remained stuck in third place in polls. He dropped out before the primary.
Grossman’s victory four years ago in the treasurer’s race — winning 1.2 million votes — freed him from that need to be validated at the ballot box.
It freed him, Grossman says, to be himself.
“Authenticity trumps almost anything else,” Grossman says. “The only thing that trumps authenticity is likability. People first of all want to get to you know. Then they decide whether they like you or not. Then they decide whether they are going to vote for you.”
She likes him. Theresa Wagner is eating eggs with her boyfriend at a booth inside the Breakfast Club, a classic chrome and checkerboard-floor diner in Allston. Grossman is at the 24-year-old’s table asking questions: Where do you live? What do you do professionally?
Wagner’s boyfriend, Ryan Meunier, works at an upstart toy company in Acton.
“Tell me about it,” Grossman says.
He was the 47th employee, Meunier says, and now there are more than 100. It is growing with an infusion of millions of dollars from investors. Grossman is excited. He talks about his family business and the joy of entrepreneurship.
“That’s the story of Massachusetts in the 21st century,” Grossman proclaims, turning to Wagner. “And how about you?”
She’s an occupational therapist from New Jersey. They live in Lowell and have long commutes. Grossman talks about the shortage of affordable housing and the need to beef up public transportation. They talk local ice cream parlors. Wagner laughs at the enormous kiddie size at Kimball Farm.
“Well, my name is Steve Grossman and I’m running for governor,” he says, shaking their hands. “I’d like to ask for your vote.”
The couple had not spent much time thinking about Tuesday’s primary before now.
“I’d heard his name, but I didn’t know much,” Wagner says. “He’s nice, very personable.”
Grossman is at the counter rhapsodizing about his breakfast.
Like his late father, Edgar, he ordered a poached egg on top of well-done corned beef hash. When he was a boy, his father took him to Warren Spahn’s diner across from Braves Field in Allston every Saturday and ordered poached eggs and hash.
Grossman holds up a forkful of the shredded meat. The hash could not have come out of a can, he says. It wasn’t pulverized in a food processor. He’s right, the owner says, they pull it apart by hand.
“Nobody has ever made better corned beef hash than that,” Grossman says. “Pulling it apart by hand! Doesn’t that say it all about craftsmanship?”
On the campaign trail, Grossman’s father is a presence. They were business partners and Grossman says he had a “lifelong love affair” with his dad. He often reenacts conversations with his father or his grandfather, a Russian immigrant with a sixth-grade education who started the family business.
Grossman does this a lot, reenacting conversations. He takes on both speaking roles and turns the memory into a teachable moment.
It might be a chat he had decades ago with John F. Kerry about why Grossman wanted to run for office. Or it could be a reenactment of a talk he had with a 4-year-old from Everett who discovers in pre-kindergarten that his favorite word is “lobster.”
A taste for art
The kitchen is fascinating.
In Grossman’s 4,280-square-foot Colonial in Newton, nearly every inch of wall space is claimed by original paintings, pottery, blown glass, show bills, family heirlooms, travel keepsakes, and drawings by the couple’s three children, who are now grown.
The kitchen pulses with the most color, the walls heavy with dozens of vibrant paintings of all sizes: a lemon, lily pads, a seascape, leeks, artichokes, pears, and a bumper sticker that reads, “Conserve Water, Drink Wine.”
Their favorite piece, Grossman says, is a perfect-as-a-photograph painting of mounds of eggplants and green peppers and carrots at a San Francisco market.
“Not necessarily,” says his wife, Barbara Grossman, a drama professor at Tufts University. “I also love the Natalie Alper painting. She’s a local artist.”
They have a highchair for grandkids and a dog kennel. Barbara has just returned from her morning walk with Sally, their springer spaniel. Grossman is drinking Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.
“Turbo iced. Gotta have a shot,” Grossman says. “I used to have two shots, and Barbara said, ‘You don’t need two shots. You’re pumped up enough as it is.’ ”
He’s hustling out the door. Barbara leans in with a kiss.
“Have a great day,” she says.
Grossman’s mother found Barbara. Shirley Grossman returned to Smith College for a reunion when Barbara was a junior. Mom advertised her son as a Cary Grant look-alike who was at Harvard Business School and asked Barbara for her phone number. When Shirley got home, she stood over her son and made him call.
“I said, ‘Mom, don’t do this,’ ” Grossman recalls.
Grossman called. They went to a movie – “I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘isname” — and afterward sipped Nassau Royale Liqueur while listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in his Harvard dorm. They’ve been married 45 years.
Grossman’s mother is 92 now and still helping her son. Shirley Grossman contributed $100,000 to the political action committee running ads supporting his candidacy. Mom even starred in a commercial.
Polls showing Attorney General Martha Coakley with a double-digit lead are soft, Grossman insists. In most surveys, he is running well ahead of former Medicare and Medicaid chief Don Berwick.
Polls are all about name recognition, Grossman says, and people are starting to know his name.
Delivering his message
Grossman squints in the morning sun. He’s standing midblock on Harvard Street in Brookline, looking for a break in traffic.
“We shouldn’t cross here,” Grossman says. “But we are Bostonians.”
He jogs across the street in shirt sleeves, orange tie flapping and his matching orange socks showing as he pumps his legs. Grossman is a spry 68-year-old with a trim physique who stands 5 feet 8 inches. He’s a millionaire wearing a fraying black leather belt, dressed neatly but not ostentatiously.
The destination is Zaftigs Delicatessen, an institution where the line can stretch the block on Sunday mornings. Grossman usually has a local escort for meet and greets. The insiders’ insider has been endorsed by at least 120 elected officials.
In Methuen, he’s met by a state senator and state representative. In Springfield, he’s joined by the mayor and city councilors. A state rep squires him around Pittsfield.
Zaftigs is his turf. His father went to the Devotion School right next door. Grossman makes note of his connection as he introduces himself to a young couple from Boston waiting on the sidewalk for a table.
Inside the deli, forks clang on plates. Grossman approaches two women, standing while they sit at a table.
“My name is Steve Grossman,” he says, grasping each woman’s hand in a two-handed shake. “I’m running for governor.
He’s talking about his family business and his father. Where you are you from? What do you do professionally? He listens, staring intently at their faces, summoning his best Bill Clinton.
An aide taps Grossman, trying to get him out the door. They’re late. No reaction.
The daughter of one of the women works as clinical director at a youth detention center in Westborough.
Grossman seizes the opening. As governor, he says, he would immediately freeze construction of prisons and stop incarcerating low-level drug offenders.
“Our goal should be to use our health care system, behavioral health and mental health experts to get them clean, and give them workforce training,” Grossman says.
He luxuriates over conversations with voters, peppering them with questions, getting them talking. He might hear a reason to bring up his proposal to freeze tuition and fees at state colleges and universities. Or he gets an opening to talk about increasing the state’s environmental spending or doubling arts funding over four years.
With young parents, he mentions his universal prekindergarten proposal. He talks about his role as chairman of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, especially in communities with new schools.
But most often, the topic is small business and his family business. Jobs and economic growth, Grossman says, that’s what gives the state revenue to invest.
He could shake more hands. But he wants substance.
“I know other people in this race have a different style,” Grossman says. “ ‘Hi, how are you, gee that plate of French toast looks pretty good.’ Then you’re on to the next table. That to me is pretty thin gruel for a voter who may say, ‘I just met somebody who wants my vote to be governor of Massachusetts and all they talked about was my French toast.’ ”
A learning experience
Grossman is bursting with a story to tell. He’s in Franklin outside the Spruce Pond Creamery, standing amid a clutch of supporters.
“People ask me, ‘What do you learn running for office?’ ” Grossman says. “I just spent an hour and a half over at the Sikhi temple in Milford.”
He’s gobsmacked. The egalitarian ethos. The enchanting singing. Like everyone else, Grossman took his shoes off at the door, revealing the orange socks that matched his tie. He was handed a scarf to tie on top of his head as a temporary turban. The scarf happened to be orange.
“A number of people said, ‘Did you plan this with all the orange?’ ” Grossman recounts. “It just worked out that way.”
The experience invigorates him.
“It was so warm and welcoming, it just sort of washes over you this sense of peace,” Grossman tells the crowd waiting for ice cream.
He is with state Representative Jeffrey Roy, whose aide is handing out vouchers for ice cream. Grossman is talking about the new $103 million Franklin high school. Mike Walsh, a history teacher, is a fan.
“Grossman knows the way Massachusetts politics works, so he’ll be able to get things done,” Walsh says.
Grossman inches toward the front of the line.
A supporter tells Grossman that one of the young women working the ice cream window is about to start at Lesley University.
Who is going to Lesley? Grossman asks at the window. It’s a wonderful place, he tells the young woman.
Grossman leans his elbows on the counter. He sticks his head just inside the window.
“Can I have a taste of butter pecan?”