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The Democrats can’t neglect reform

Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, and Don Berwick are vying to win the Democratic primary Tuesday.

Globe Staff photos

Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, and Don Berwick are vying to win the Democratic primary Tuesday.

The modern Massachusetts Democratic Party has important reform roots, roots that began with Mike Dukakis, who helped bring state government into the modern age.

Although he had been a legislator, Dukakis wasn’t a creature of Beacon Hill, but rather a skeptic of the State House’s go-along-to-get-along culture. He had little truck with insider arrangements, wasteful spending, or patronage. Early on, he even tried to abolish the Governor’s Council.

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Deval Patrick ran as more of a movement progressive than a reformer, but he oversaw some significant changes during his first term. Among them: tougher ethics laws, a public pension overhaul, and an education law that included school-turnaround powers and a greater number of charter schools. Sadly, that reform purpose has gone missing in his second term — as has Patrick himself, it sometimes seems — but those first-term measures helped in his reelection effort.

A regular, restless reform impulse is important for several reasons. Without it, there’s a natural tendency for any government to resist change and modernization, for the bureaucracy to grow unnecessarily, and for meaningful savings to go unrealized.

Politically, meanwhile, a reform spirit is important if a candidate is to persuade voters that he or she will be an effective watchdog for the public interest and a determined change agent in a political culture adept at creating and sustaining cozy, incumbent-benefitting arrangements.

But in the gubernatorial campaign, the Democratic reform voice has been muted at best.

I was surprised to hear Martha Coakley say recently that she had supported a House bill calling for a modest increase in the charter-school cap. She certainly didn’t speak up forcefully when that bill ran into trouble in the Senate. Nor did Steve Grossman, who says he also backed the measure. As for Don Berwick, he considered even the House’s limited lift too much. For anyone who values the energy and innovation charters have brought to urban education, those low profiles were discouraging indeed.

In the absence of a reform flame, Berwick deserves credit for at least showing a flicker. He supports closing the campaign-finance loophole that periodically lets labor unions donate $15,000 to campaigns. He also deserves plaudits for making public all but one of the endorsement questionnaires completed for constituency groups. Coakley, who sidestepped the union-loophole issue, has posted no questionnaires. Grossman actually favors the union loophole; though he has posted some questionnaires, they don’t include any from unions.

But though some kudos are due Berwick, when the Boston Teachers Union questionnaire asked what part of the 2010 ed-reform law he would repeal, he wrote critically of the section that lets the state use MCAS results to designate underperforming schools and gives education officials expanded power to restructure those schools. Berwick, who thinks the school-turnaround pendulum has swung too far, told me he favors broader (unspecified) measures than test results to judge school performance. Still, he said he does support intervention in dire cases.

Meanwhile, we haven’t heard any Democrat raise concerns about the Pacheco law, which has pretty much shut down state government’s efforts at contracting out to stretch taxpayer dollars. Grossman and Coakley support that ill-conceived law; Berwick’s position is a study in gray. Nor have we heard anything about the Patrick administration’s imposing competition-limiting, cost-hiking Project Labor Agreements on several large construction projects.

That’s not to say that the three Democrats don’t have departments or programs they want to change. Coakley, for example, advocates adding a separate child-protection division to the Department of Children and Families. Berwick favors a single-payer health-care system. Grossman has promised to move the criminal-justice system away from prison-building and toward rehabilitation.

But when it comes to political reforms or measures to introduce more choice or competition, the Democratic offerings are pretty thin gruel. Coakley’s camp didn’t cite any such reforms. Grossman’s notables: expediting the public-records process and rejecting no-bid contracts such as the one Patrick authorized for a new health care website vendor.

Again, Berwick is a little more interesting than his rivals. He calls for applying Toyota’s Production System — which emphasizes continuously reducing waste, whether of resources, time, transportation, motion, or process — to state government.

It shouldn’t be lost on the Democrats that Charles D. Baker Jr., the likely GOP nominee, is pushing a reform agenda. For example, he wants to close the union-contribution loophole, move to a spring primary, put spending by the state’s quasi-public authorities online, raise the charter cap, move away from PLAs, and reform the Pacheco law.

The contrast between Baker and the leading Democrats hasn’t mattered yet. But that will change next Wednesday, when the general election campaign begins. Which is to say, the eventual nominee neglects the Democratic Party’s reform heritage only at her or his political peril.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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