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Governor’s race has all Democrats leaning left

Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidates faced off in recent debate. From left are Donald Berwick, Martha Coakley, Joseph Avellone, Juliette Kayyem, and Steve Grossman. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff Photogra

The Democratic field for governor contains several familiar types of candidate. The state’s attorney general is running, as is its treasurer. Two former high-ranking federal government officials are in the mix, along with a businessman.

Missing from this year’s crop, though, is a candidate who fills a long-running role in previous Massachusetts Democratic primaries: a prominent centrist alternative.

Traditionally, the Democratic contenders offer a range of ideological options. At least one viable campaign usually tries to pick off moderate voters and make the appeal that such positioning would be advantageous in a general election against a Republican.

Former attorney general Thomas F. Reilly positioned himself as a moderate in 2006, but was overrun by Deval Patrick’s wave of support from the grass roots.


In 2002, there was Shannon P. O’Brien, the former treasurer, who pulled the unusual maneuver of running to the middle during the primary, then tacking to the liberal side for the general election, falling to Mitt Romney.

In 1990, the last time Democrats ran to succeed one of their own as governor, the party nominated Boston University president John Silber, who ran to the middle before losing to Republican William Weld.

This year, the Democratic race is an almost unabashed race for the hearts and minds of the left-of-center. The five Democrats have formed the party’s most liberal open primary field in generations, political analysts say, potentially clearing a lane for Republicans to reach moderate Democratic voters dissatisfied with their options.

“They’re all liberals,” said Ray La Raja, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “In some ways, Massachusetts politics reflects what’s going on in the rest of the country that [candidates] running for office are more . . . ideological than in the past.”

The Democrats running for governor this year speak often of new spending for health care and infrastructure, and none rules out raising taxes to do it, even in the wake of last year’s $500 million tax hike. They embrace the ideological legacy of Patrick, echoing his governing principle that more government, rather than less, can solve the state’s problems.


The campaign’s only self-proclaimed fiscal moderate, Wellesley biopharmaceutical executive Joseph Avellone, identifies as a social liberal and backs what he calls a revenue-neutral carbon tax long sought by environmentalists.

He is the field’s leading skeptic on other new taxes. But he trails in both public polling and delegate commitments, according to tallies maintained by other campaigns.

The candidates need to capture 15 percent of the delegates at the June party convention to qualify for the September primary ballot. In jockeying to obtain the minimum percentage of delegates, La Raja said, Democrats are being forced to prove their left-leaning credentials, often the case in primary races of both parties.

“To get the 15 percent, you need to be a genuine liberal,” he said of the Democrats’ primary. “Centrists need not apply.”

Collectively, the Democratic lineup reflects a similar ideological tilt across the state, where the more liberal candidates have regularly won Democratic primaries in recent years, and no Republican has seen victory in a regular statewide election since 2002.

At the same time, the last decade has brought a cascade of left-leaning policy changes, from same-sex marriage to health care expansion to marijuana decriminalization.

By contrast, the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial field was divided on gay marriage. Robert Reich, secretary of labor under President Clinton, was the only Democrat to highlight his support for same-sex marriage during the primary. Today, there is little room in the modern Democratic Party for anything less than open advocacy.


Governor Patrick has helped solidify the state party’s liberal evolution.

“Eight years of the Patrick administration and a lot of his successes in terms of his political achievements have moved the party to a more left agenda,” said state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat unaffiliated with any gubernatorial campaign. “And I think our candidates in this race are a microcosm of that.”

Treasurer Steve Grossman has carved out a lead in the party caucuses by appealing to liberal activists and local powerbrokers, for example, shifting left from his 2010 stance against in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who enjoys a double-digit advantage in the polls, has cut a more moderate profile than Grossman, frequently citing her prosecutorial career, but nonetheless bills herself as a progressive.

She has been perhaps the nation’s most vocal attorney general in attacking the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. She has also aggressively pursued subprime lenders and backs a higher minimum wage and earned sick time policy.

Since her 2010 Senate campaign, Coakley has also firmed up both her backing for in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants, supported now by all the Democrats, and her opposition to the “three-strikes law” requiring mandatory minimum sentences.


Her stump speech in this race includes a new emphasis on education and a pitch for improved mental health care, citing her family’s experience with her brother’s suicide.

Donald Berwick, a former federal health care administrator, has run farthest to the left and found traction in left-
leaning enclaves, saying government should weigh a single-payer health care system, under which the government would provide health insurance, rather than private firms.

Juliette Kayyem, the former Homeland Security Department official and one-time Boston Globe op-ed columnist, has also fared well in liberal areas such as Cambridge and Jamaica Plain during the caucuses, largely by running on her record in the Obama and Patrick administrations.

Of course, there is still time for the Democratic nominee to tack to the center after the primary, a common move. Even so, Democrats worry that the push to the left in the early months of the campaign could leave the party vulnerable in the fall, when voters may look for a counterbalance to the Democratic hegemony on Beacon Hill.

“When it comes to running for governor, I think voters look for someone who can be independent of the Legislature and provide some balance,” said O’Brien.

But for Republicans, a Democratic sprint to the left could provide their best hope for retaking the corner office.

“They’re going to try to out-progressive themselves,” said Will Ritter, a Republican political consultant. “It is going to be a nasty fight at the convention to see who can run farthest to the left. For moderate voters . . . they are going to be looking for an alternative.”


Those moderate voters, and their ideological neighbors who are unenrolled, decide elections in Massachusetts. Scott Brown beat Coakley in 2010 by plucking Democrats and independents from the dominant party’s usual coalition; a postelection poll on behalf of the AFL-CIO found that Brown won more votes from union households than Coakley did.

Such swing voters are crucial for the Republican ticket in the fall. Former health care executive and state budget chief Charlie Baker is dealing with his own party’s restive right flank. Tea Party Republican Mark Fisher is suing for a spot on the GOP primary ballot.

Independent voters, too, have at least a nominal home in the unenrolled candidacies of Jeffrey McCormick and Evan Falchuk. Both independent candidates will look to split the difference between Baker and the liberal stances of the Democrats.

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