Three years ago, commentator Glenn Beck called him “the second-most dangerous man in America,” a label Don Berwick carries with pride. “I was insulted. I think I should have been first,” he wryly says. Berwick is speaking to a crowd of perhaps 20, gathered in a semicircle around him. It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in November and we’re at a house party, the classic set piece of grass-roots politics. Berwick is introducing himself and his ambition: to be Massachusetts’ next governor.
A few weeks ago, there were rumors circulating that Massachusetts Democrats were going to clear the gubernatorial field for Martha Coakley, the attorney general whose career has resurrected itself from the ashes of her 2010 loss to Scott Brown. Certainly the party had done so before. The 2012 race for US Senate saw several decent candidates pushed aside to make way for Elizabeth Warren. Just months after her win, the party attempted the same maneuver in a second Senate race, this time for the benefit of Ed Markey. One candidate — the irascible Stephen Lynch — refused to comply, but still the establishment favorite cruised to victory.
The Republicans already know who their candidate will be — Charlie Baker, same as four years ago — and some Democrats wish they could focus their attention on him and avoid the family squabble that is a primary election. But Coakley now finds herself embroiled in a mess involving the Federal Election Commission. Her anointment seems unlikely, meaning the governor’s race is wide open.
Coakley’s missteps may be unfortunate for her but should benefit Democrats as a whole. After eight years of Governor Deval Patrick, the Democratic Party needs to figure out what’s next. The City of Boston just finished a robust election with 12 candidates in the preliminary race and two in a hotly contested final. The process was bracing and salubrious. Competition shouldn’t be feared.
Five Democrats want to be governor. Coakley and Treasurer Steve Grossman are the best known, the ones for whom the job of governor seems the next logical step up the political ladder. Others include surgeon and health care executive Joe Avellone, homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem (also a former columnist for this newspaper), and, of course, Berwick.
Berwick’s house party listeners are interested and engaged, some pushing back with hard questions. He handles it all with aplomb, a mild-mannered man with a hint of steel, a surprisingly good speaker for someone new to the political hustings. Already, though, he’s familiar with the house party routine. He’s attended dozens so far and there will be more, perhaps hundreds more. They are doubtless a grind, but a necessary one, a way to connect, learn, and network. Berwick wouldn’t mind a few donations, naturally — that’s modern politics. But this isn’t a fundraiser. Most guests are uncommitted, there simply to listen and assess.
Berwick makes a good case for himself. He’s a pediatrician who has become one of the world’s experts in improving health care systems and also spent 17 months running Medicare and Medicaid for the Obama administration (it was there that he earned Glenn Beck’s ire). But Berwick pitches himself as less about health care than about problem solving. His is an activist vision of government, one that tackles huge, seemingly intractable issues. He is not for the faint of heart; why not finally end poverty, he wonders.
Berwick’s notion of government may be out of step with the rest of the country but not, perhaps, with Massachusetts. The Commonwealth is doing well, its economy humming despite — or perhaps because of — its progressive bent of politics. Berwick points out the many times the Bay State has been a model for the rest of the nation — from political leadership to health care reform to same-sex marriage — and thinks the nation needs its example again. The room is abuzz after he concludes his remarks. On such small events are winning campaigns built.