The five-minute Michael Dukakis speech for capturing the hearts and minds of voters has been told to the former governor’s students at Northeastern University, to a sitting senator and the current governor, and to at least one candidate in next week’s primary election.
But really, those five minutes can be boiled down to two words: personal contact.
“It works,” Dukakis said recently, seated in his Brookline living room surrounded by family photos and artwork from across the globe. On the couch nearby was his protégé and former student Mike Lake, who is running for lieutenant governor against Steve Kerrigan and Leland Cheung in the Democratic primary.
This is the sort of advice that Dukakis, 80, has been giving Lake, the only candidate he’s endorsed in this year’s primary, but he believes it’s good advice for any Democrat on the ballot, and it’s the sort of wisdom the three-time governor and former Democratic nominee for president has been sharing with advice-seekers for years.
Aggressive, grass-roots organizing where candidates and their surrogates have a direct connection with voters is how campaigns are won, he said, adding: “It has a profound effect on the electorate if people are out there on a person-to-person basis connecting.”
“There’s a reason I think there is considerably less cynicism in this state about the political process than other states,” Dukakis continued. “People feel that they know the people who represent them. It doesn’t mean things are great and people don’t screw up from time to time — this probation thing is really inexcusable — but there’s a sense these people are not remote. They’re not celluloid figures we’re watching on TV all the time.”
Lake was a student of Dukakis’s at Northeastern University, where he graduated in 2002. He said one key lesson learned from Dukakis was the importance of being a collaborative leader, “of having people be part of the understanding of a problem, creating a solution, and implementing a solution rather than just coming up with a solution on your own and forcing it on to others.”
Dukakis said this was a lesson “learned by me rather painfully over the course of my political career.”
It took his first election to the corner office in 1974 and his subsequent reelection defeat to cause him to rethink his leadership style. “And I was a much better governor the second time around,” he said. “I finally understood that the kind of collaborative style that Mike is talking about really does work.”
The collaborative approach doesn’t seem to be working in the nation’s capital, but Dukakis said it works here in Massachusetts, adding that some of his best collaborators were Republicans.
“If you want to get things done, bring people together,” he said. “See if you can get them to agree on what the problem is. And if you can, you’re halfway to a solution.”
Though Lake is Dukakis’s sole endorsement, that doesn’t mean he’s not impressed with the current candidate field.
“We’ve got great candidates, and he’s got a couple of opponents who are good people, and that’s pretty true if you look across the field,” the former governor said.
He called the three Democrats running for governor — Attorney General Martha Coakley, state Treasurer Steve Grossman, and former federal health care administrator Don Berwick — “pretty impressive.”
But don’t ask Dukakis to handicap the current candidate field and predict the winner.
“I don’t have the slightest idea. How do you know?” he asked. “Yeah, you look at the numbers, but these are mostly recognition polls.”
According to a new Globe poll on the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Coakley maintains a significant lead over her two competitors. When both solid supporters and those “leaning” toward voting for a specific candidate are included, Coakley has 47 percent of the vote, followed by Grossman at 25 percent and Berwick at 13 percent.
Voters, he said, really don’t really start paying attention to until just after Labor Day, that is, right about now. The short attention span, he said, is because Massachusetts has a late primary. If it were earlier, he said, voters would be forced to tune in earlier.
“But that’s the way we do it here,” he said. “And, I think there is a little bit of political fatigue. We just go through one after another special election, special election, special election.”
Despite weary voters, Dukakis said he hopes Democrats maintain control of the corner office. Deval Patrick was the first Democratic governor since Dukakis left office 22 years ago.
“He’s been a damn good governor,” Dukakis said of Patrick.
“Bringing a state through the worst recession since the Great Depression is very difficult. I went through three recessions,” he said. “It’s not your fault. It’s not the state’s fault. The economy starts going down, revenues drop, needs increase, and you’re sitting there trying to deal with it.”
And while regional economic issues remain, particularly in the western and southeastern parts of the state, Dukakis said he has only one or two squabbles with Patrick, the first of them: an abundance of billboards.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.