Mass. Democrats find new foil in Donald Trump
ARLINGTON — Near the end of Attorney General Maura Healey’s postelection forum for dispirited Democrats earlier this month, a questioner stood to demand that Governor Charlie Baker be held accountable for his “deafening silence” since President-elect Donald Trump’s victory.
Healey had flung plenty of barbs at Trump. She was “sickened” by his choice for attorney general. The incoming president “threatened to undermine some of the progress we have made.” Many people, she said, were left feeling “marginalized, disempowered, disillusioned.”
But in the face of the Baker jab, Healey quickly pivoted, moving on to the next question.
The episode pointed to a new reality for the Massachusetts Democrats who are widely considered the party’s rising stars. Generally, they have been reluctant to rough up the popular GOP governor. But they’ve found a new foil — Trump — and they’re very likely to try to tie him to Baker if the governor’s silence continues.
“There’s no collaboration from the loyal opposition,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic consultant. “You’re either with Trump or you’re not.”
Pushing back against Trump could help Massachusetts Democrats boost their own political standing.
And some could use that elevated profile to challenge Baker in 2018, or run for one of the US Senate seats that could open in the next several years.
The anti-Trump fusillade serves the added purpose, Democratic strategists say, of further wedging Baker into an uncomfortable position regarding the incoming president of his own party.
“I’m not in the business of giving advice to Republicans, but if I were to give advice, [Baker] needs to distance himself even more from the incoming Trump administration,” said Philip W. Johnston, a former state party chairman who served in the Clinton administration. “On the other hand, if you’re a governor, you have a duty to get as much help for the state as you can from the federal government.”
Ferson, who is an adviser to Representative Seth Moulton, agreed, saying the anti-Trump rhetoric would probably mature into criticism of Baker.
“Trump is going to try to dismantle things that are working really well in Massachusetts: environmental policy, the health care bill, education — and the governor’s either with him or he’s not,” he said. “People who are looking toward  will move from criticizing Trump to holding Charlie’s feet to the fire . . . in the context of Trump’s policies.”
Since the election, the march against Trump has been fast and furious.
Healey launched a petition urging Baker to denounce Trump’s newly hired chief strategist, Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon. And her town-hall forum in Arlington on Dec. 6 for more than 400 activists bore many of the trappings of a campaign event.
Moulton penned a USA Today column in which he simultaneously endorsed Trump’s pick for defense secretary, James Mattis, but sharply criticized Trump. “Mattis stands out as a remarkably qualified leader, and I know he is someone who will actually stand up to President Trump,” he wrote. During the campaign, Moulton explicitly likened Trump’s ascent to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Little more than a week after the election, Representative Katherine Clark introduced the Presidential Accountability Act, which would force both the president and vice president to put assets in a blind trust or report to the government ethics agency and the public when they make decisions affecting their own finances.
Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, another of the party’s up-and-comers, and Mayor Setti Warren of Newton, who is actively exploring a challenge to Baker in 2018, have been less openly critical of Trump.
No Democrats have publicly declared their intent to seek the governorship in two years, and several have denied interest. But party strategists and insiders said Trump’s stunning victory had altered the calculus, turning many longstanding electoral assumptions on their heads.
Many Democrats believe a Trump presidency could act as an anchor on Baker. On Election Day, Trump lost the state by 27 points. Massachusetts has an affinity for Republican governors balancing out the Democrat-run Legislature, but hasn’t voted for a GOP presidential candidate since 1984. The governor criticized Trump during the campaign, but waited until after the state’s March primary to say he would not vote for Trump in November.
Democratic politicians in Massachusetts find themselves in an uncommon position. Trump scored his fifth-lowest vote percentage in the nation in the state, while the state’s GOP governor still enjoys among the highest approval ratings in the country.
Another dynamic is that, had Hillary Clinton triumphed, at least some of the party’s big names in Massachusetts could have been considered for an administration appointment.
Healey has, so far, insisted that she’s not interested in a 2018 challenge to Baker, and that she’s focused instead on her job as attorney general.
But her Arlington event may have served as the clearest sign yet that Trump could provide a ladder to prominence for Democrats.
The meeting dwelled on issues the attorney general said she wanted to pursue: immigration, transgender rights, gun control.
But the night also had a distinct air of electioneering. Political adviser David Guarino and field organizing specialist Lynda Tocci, who also played a prominent role in the Clinton campaign, were in attendance, as was Deborah Shah, the former executive director of Progressive Massachusetts, a grass-roots organizing group, and one of Healey’s 2014 campaign directors. Healey encouraged the crowd to text her political team’s account, a common method used by campaigns to connect with potential supporters.
“Trust me, I’m as fired up as ever, so is the team,” Healey said as the event broke up, her voice rising.
Republicans have enjoyed the relatively easy ride Democrats have given Baker since his election two years ago. And Democratic strategists, until recently, have been less than sanguine about their odds of unseating a popular Republican governor, arguing that he could be vulnerable, but only to the right opponent.
Republicans have taken notice of the escalated activity in the other party.
“I think if you look at Maura Healey’s recent antics, I think she’s trying to make a political play for herself,” said state Republican Party chairwoman Kirsten Hughes.
Clark, a second-term Melrose Democrat, waved off the notion that Bay State politicians were pursuing Trump with an eye on their own political futures.
“From where I stand, Donald Trump poses an existential threat to our country and our democracy,” Clark said Thursday. “And we are going to remain loud in our criticism.”
She added, “I think what you’re seeing is not some competition or not to grab headlines, but out of a genuine concern.”