Once, as a novice political reporter, I covered an independent candidate for governor named Frank Rich. An unpretentious local businessman, Rich barely registered in polls; but as candidates always do, he insisted he could win. His secret weapon, he said, was the small plastic signs with a magnet on the back that he passed out to voters. One bore the message “Who is Frank Rich?” In a gesture of supreme over-confidence, another declared: “Frank Rich — Our Next Governor.”
In that election, in November 1982, Democrat Michael S. Dukakis won 59 percent of the vote over Republican John W. Sears. Rich eked out a mere 3 percent
Last week, I interviewed Jeff McCormick, a founding partner of the Boston venture capital firm Saturn Partners, and an independent candidate in this year’s governor’s contest. Smoother, richer, and more accomplished than Rich, he also believes he can win a third-party campaign, no matter what history says about his chances for success. Tim Cahill, the former state treasurer who ran for governor as an independent in 2010, won 8 percent of the vote — and he already had a statewide profile.
In theory, today’s political ground is more fertile for an independent candidate than it was three decades ago, or even four years ago. Fifty-three percent of current registered voters are unenrolled in either political party. There’s public dismay over everything from the state’s healthcare website to a series of tragedies in the child-protection system, leading to a confidence gap in a state government led by a lame-duck, second-term Democratic governor. Meanwhile, the national GOP is poison in Massachusetts, and the state party is in disarray.
Yet independent candidates like McCormick don’t seem to get anywhere. What would it take for voters — and the media — to give them a real chance?
According to recent polls, most people surveyed have never heard of McCormick, so the onetime registered Republican is about to launch a paid media campaign to introduce himself to voters. He describes himself as “a problem-solver” who knows how to create jobs and understands middle-class needs. He has the square-jawed looks of a Mitt Romney, but hails from more humble roots. He grew up in upstate New York, went to Syracuse University on a lacrosse scholarship, moved to Boston with “800 bucks in my pocket” and now lives in the Back Bay. He said he knows what it takes to roof a house — and build a biotech company.
“People need a different kind of choice,” said McCormick. “I’m not tied to partisan politics or the status quo.”
For McCormick or health care entrepreneur Evan Falchuk, another independent running for governor, it can’t hurt that the best-known Democrats in the race — Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman — are charisma-challenged. And Republican candidate Charlie Baker is already caught up in an ethics controversy. In May 2011, soon after Governor Chris Christie helped him in his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Baker made a $10,000 campaign contribution to the New Jersey Republican State Committee. Sometime after that, as the website PandoDaily first reported, New Jersey pledged to invest $25 million in pension money in a fund managed by General Catalyst, the Cambridge venture capital firm that Baker joined in April 2011.
Baker maintains he broke no rules. But McCormick senses opportunity. Baker can’t win, he says, adding, “The Democrats will have a field day with him.” McCormick may be right about the GOP candidate’s vulnerabilities. But there’s still something missing from McCormick’s campaign.
In order to win as a third-party candidate, “You need a first-rate candidate with an outstanding message and the right environment,” said Joe Malone, the former Republican state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate who now backs McCormick. Yet when McCormick talks about problem-solving and challenging the status quo, specifics are lacking.
In the end, independents like McCormick face the same challenge as Rich, the long-ago candidate who pinned his hopes on magnetic signs that voters were supposed to stick on their refrigerator doors: How to get their message out and convince voters to take them seriously. Unfortunately, all the optimism in the world can’t change that.