Josh Zakim is looking to accomplish what no other Boston city councilor has done in more than half a century: win a statewide election.
The last time that one won statewide office, Edward J. McCormack Jr. was elected to the open seat of attorney general — in 1958 — showing the difficulty a city councilor such as Zakim faces in attracting support outside Boston.
“There’s certainly an anti-Boston animus he’d have to deal with,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts. “If you’re from Worcester, or Western Mass., if you’re from the Cape or anywhere else in the state, Boston is an afterthought.”
But political analysts say that in challenging the longtime secretary of the Commonwealth in 2018, William F. Galvin, timing may be in Zakim’s favor, as he looks to build off of a progressive, anti-establishment movement taking hold across Massachusetts and the country. Galvin was first elected 23 years ago, at a time that letting residents register to vote at the motor vehicle registry was a novelty, and Zakim argues he would do more to modernize voter access.
“If you’re going to challenge a 20-plus-year incumbent, next year is a good year to do it,” said Scott Ferson, president of Liberty Square Group and a political strategist who helped elect US Representative Seth Moulton by defeating a longtime incumbent in a primary.
“I think there’s a general sense of wanting new energy and blood in elected office,” he said.
If history is any guide, it will be no easy task. Steve Murphy served a dozen years as an at-large councilor, including several years as the body’s president, yet that did not help his unsuccessful run for the open state treasurer’s seat in 2010. Maura Hennigan and Charles Yancey ran for the open auditor seat in 1986, and came up short to A. Joseph DeNucci.
What’s more, Galvin, a former state representative from Brighton, is known as an independent authority on Beacon Hill, holding one of the few statewide constitutional offices, not shying away from challenging authority during the tenure of six governors.
He has built a formidable base, and comes into the 2018 election year with $2.6 million in his campaign coffers. Galvin said in an interview that he was proud of his record, noting voters have returned him to office with decisive victories five times, and he brushed aside speculation that he was out-of-touch with progressives.
“The idea that they don’t know me, or that I’m hostile to them, simply isn’t true, but [Zakim] will have to figure that out himself,” Galvin said.
Zakim, 33, a lawyer by trade, comes from a prominent Boston family, the son of the late Leonard “Lenny” Zakim, the community advocate and longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, and the namesake of the bridge that spans the Charles River.
He does not have the statewidename identification that Galvin has, Ferson said, though he added, “I bet a majority of voters across the state have crossed a bridge with his name on it, and that can’t hurt.”
Zakim has roughly $370,000 stockpiled for his campaign, and he has brought on former state treasurer Steve Grossman, who ran for governor and chaired the state’s Democratic Committee.
Grossman said in an interview that he knew Zakim’s father well; he knew Zakim since he was a child; and he believes “he can be an architect in change.”
In his announcement last week, Zakim outlined reforms he would bring to the post, which oversees the state archives, lobbyists, the public records division and securities division, as well as the Massachusetts Historical Commission — and Grossman said those reforms are much needed, particularly in voter rights.
“I think there are many people, including myself, who feel we here in Massachusetts are not taking a modern, forward-looking progressive approach to voter improvement,” Grossman said.
Zakim said last week that he is similarly concerned with Galvin’s oversight of the state’s public records laws, and securities industries, though he said his immediate focus is better access for voters.
Rachael Cobb, a professor at Suffolk University who focuses on election laws and policy, agreed that Massachusetts could do more to promote voter rights. She was not commenting on the race, she said, but she ranked Massachusetts in the middle of states who promote voter accessibility.
The Commonwealth has not been as regressive as others, such as North Carolina, Cobb said, in passing voter identification laws. But Massachusetts has lagged in passing reforms seen elsewhere, such as voting by mail, same-day, or automatic registration. Galvin recently appealed a Superior Court judge’s decision that struck down a 20-day voter registration deadline.
“The Secretary of State plays a huge role in advocating change for those laws, and is the person largely responsible for setting the policy agenda for elections in this state,” Cobb said.
Galvin defended his record on voter access, saying the state has made progress when possible. He embraced same-day voter registration but said proper mechanisms, and the required resources, must first be put in place. He said he has discussed those needs with legislators, but, “I never remember Mr. Zakim being at any of those discussions or offering his thoughts on the issue.”
He said he opposed mail-in voting laws like those in Oregon, saying a new early voting law in Massachusetts addressed some of the same concerns. Galvin also said he is open to further scaling down the 20-day registration deadline, but he said he appealed the court decision to avoid an all-out ban on any deadline, saying that could turn the voting process into “chaos.”
“You have to have a plan, a standard, a process that allows people to vote in the right place, right precinct, on the right ballot,” he said. If anything, he argued, the state has not been accused of any improprieties because of the standards in place.
Galvin also said he would be looking in the campaign to challenge Zakim’s record, including his voting history and preservation efforts for Back Bay buildings, a responsibility he would have as secretary of the Commonwealth.
“We can talk about records, I’m going to talk about mine, but we’ll also talk about his, and his leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said the grunt work of a secretary of state does not always attract sexy headlines — and that may be the very reason that Galvin has been able to keep such a stronghold on the office, he said.
“Voters tend not to be as aware or overly concerned with what happens in an office like secretary of the Commonwealth,” he said. “It’s just a little less high-profile, so it’s harder to build organization, build up recognition, to build up resources and then make the case to unseat an incumbent.”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.