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Political intelligence

Baker fell into trap by opposing sick-time measure

The interior of a modest home, late at night. Bedraggled mother, still in her work clothes, dealing with red-nosed kids, coughing and sneezing. Narrator intones, “It’s 3 a.m. and your children have the flu and are still awake. The phone rings. It’s Charlie Baker, reminding you that you have to be at work in five hours.”

That’s not a real ad. It’s a fictional remake of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s famous “3 a.m. phone call” ad designed to highlight Barack Obama’s inexperience during the 2008 campaign — and not a very good one. But it closely approximates the strategy Democrats have painstakingly put in place to swamp Baker this fall.

The playbook, designed to drive up Democratic turnout, reads like something from the paranoid recesses of a right-wing conspiracy theorist’s mind, the type of place where traffic lights flash “B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I” in Morse code and Democrats hold every statewide office. It involves legislative legerdemain, mustache-twirling labor strategists, and a bear trap that a few weeks ago clamped around poor Charlie’s leg and might not let go until November.

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About a year-and-a-half ago, strategists at SEIU 1199, the politically muscular service workers’ union that reflexively backs liberal Democrats, were eyeing the 2014 ballot and weighing their options about ballot questions. Two kitchen-table options were open to them: one bumping up the state’s minimum wage and the other ensuring workers in Massachusetts five days of paid sick time a year.

Separate, union-based coalitions had been behind each of these initiatives, creating overlapping and sometimes conflicting administrative costs, organizational strategies, and fund-raising efforts. Last year, they came under one roof, known as Raise Up Massachusetts, giving them the bargain-cutting clout they needed within the Legislature. And, quickly, quietly, a small circle of strategists decided that they would take the legislative path to boosting the minimum wage and seek a ballot-question solution to sick leave.

Putting that petition on the ballot would have the not-unintended fringe benefit of exciting Democratic voters who might not be particularly fired up about their eventual nominee, not to name any names. Perhaps by way of coincidence, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s campaign manager, Tim Foley, used to be political director at 1199.

The ballot question process functions, largely, as a persuasive tool to cudgel lawmakers about the head until they accede to one’s wishes. That is what happened in the case of the minimum wage, which will rise to $11 per hour in 2017 under a deal struck late in the legislative session. With the labor and community group coalition still publicly threatening to take the measure to the ballot, lawmakers acted on the bill with full knowledge that they were getting employers a better deal than the popular vote would in November. (Legislators also love raising the minimum wage in an election year because it makes them feel better about talking with voters.)

The process also serves electoral purposes as a way of motivating voters. Under the legislative deal, the minimum wage/sick leave coalition agreed to drop its minimum wage petition, while keeping the sick days option, which has never found as much traction in the Legislature, on track for the ballot.

The ballot question polls terrifically well among moderate suburban women, whom Baker is courting.

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This is what’s known as “base politics,” not necessarily a pejorative, simply the dangling of an irresistibly controversial policy question that animates the core voters in one’s own party like nothing else. Recall Karl Rove’s efforts to place a ban on gay marriage on state ballots across the country in 2004, back when that issue was still considered a political loser for Democrats. The same principle applies.

And Baker, who like Coakley has played largely mistake-free ball for most of the campaign, lumbered directly into the trap, coming out against the sick-time measure a few weeks ago, as his campaign tries to appeal to moderates while at the same time nervously eyeing its right flank.

Baker’s response was measured and not unreasonable — essentially, that he wants employers to offer sick days but does not agree with a rigid, mandatory program. Baker’s problem is that the paid sick days poll terrifically well among the moderate suburban women he is trying to draw into his coalition — “Market Basket moms,” if you will — far better than any nuanced policy position.

Baker’s answer gave the labor forces behind the question, and not coincidentally supportive of Coakley, license to pose a binary question to working voters who might not be otherwise inspired to go to the polls: Do you want the one who will give you five sick days or the one who won’t?

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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