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JOAN VENNOCHI

An insiders’ game for Democrats

When it comes to deciding who can run for office, Massachusetts Democrats aren’t very democratic.

Any statewide candidate who wants to be listed on the Democratic ballot first must win support from 15 percent of some 5,000 delegates who are expected to gather at the state convention in June. In other words, party insiders will decide who “wins” the convention endorsement by garnering the most votes, who loses it, and who is barred completely from the ballot.

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The way it looks now, as delegates are being chosen through local party caucuses, Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steven Grossman will be vying for the most support in Worcester. Lesser-known candidates such as Joseph Avellone, Donald Berwick, and Juliette Kayyem may or may not meet the 15 percent threshold. If they don’t, they’re done.

This is an unusual nominating process and a bad one. It puts too much power in the hands of activists and takes power away from the people, who never get a chance to vote for candidates deemed unacceptable by Democratic activists.

What is unacceptable? It might mean too conservative. Or, it might mean having two women on the ballot is one too many.

This is all done in the name of strengthening a party that already dominates state politics. The Democratic powers-that-be don’t want primary candidates who challenge each other.

After all, that could reveal weaknesses that might be used by a Republican brave enough to run in Massachusetts.

This an unusual nominating process and a bad one.

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There’s nothing subtle about how the convention process works. When Elizabeth Warren was running for Senate in 2012, she received 95.7 percent of the delegate vote at that year’s convention. That kept her one rival, immigration lawyer Marisa DeFranco, off the ballot, allowing Warren to run unopposed in the Democratic primary.

It rallied the troops behind Warren and set her up for her ultimately successful run against Republican Senator Scott Brown. But as a witness to DeFranco’s demise, I found it sad to see someone so passionate about liberal Democratic causes muscled aside in that manner.

With or without DeFranco on the ballot, Warren had everything she needed to win — money, message, and celebrity appeal. Democrats just didn’t want the bother of an actual primary campaign and an election day get-out-the-vote challenge.

This insider game is already infecting the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial contest. Last week, Grossman’s campaign distributed via e-mail a National Journal piece that was headlined “How Martha Coakley Could Lose Again.” The story suggested that Coakley could lose the convention endorsement to the “better-networked” Grossman and such a loss “could convey a sign of weakness for a candidate who already has a lot to prove.”

At the moment, Coakley is crushing her rivals in the polls; a recent Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll gave her a 45-point lead over Grossman. So anything that suggests weakness is a plus for her would-be opponents. It’s especially helpful to Grossman, who is anxious to cast himself in the role of Deval Patrick in 2006. That year, Patrick won the convention endorsement in a surprise victory over the perceived front-runner, Attorney General Thomas Reilly.

As for who is up or down in actual delegate-gathering, I confess, the multiweek caucusing process is one I have never tried to penetrate or understand. There’s only so much insider politics a person can digest. So I will go with the conclusions of Boston Magazine’s David Bernstein — a noted caucus savant — who believes there’s “no doubt” Grossman won the first weekend.

Congratulations, Steve! And now, why should that result, along with the results of all the caucusing that will happen between now and March 2, have any bearing on which Democrats make the ballot?

The Democrats who would be governor have gathered thousands of signatures. They have already raised and spent lots of money. They are shaking hands in the February snow. They have websites and position papers. They are attending forums where voters and interest groups are asking questions and making up their own minds about who deserves their vote. Why should 5,000 so-called “activists” decide who earned the chance to get their name on the primary ballot?

That’s not democracy, by the people for the people. That’s the Massachusetts Democratic Party exercising power by taking power away from the people.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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