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William Galvin faces strongest challenge in 2 decades

Secretary of State William Galvin (left) is facing the most competitive challenge since he was elected to his post 24 years ago.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

MALDEN — On a recent evening, with a heat advisory in effect, Secretary of State William Galvin arrived for the local Democratic Committee’s annual gathering, replete with hot dogs and hamburgers under a sweltering tent.

Galvin, 67 and lanky, in a full suit and tie, shuffled from one banquet table to another as an aide introduced him.

“He’s been a familiar name to us through the years,” said D.J. Wilson, who said he was watching closely Galvin’s primary race with Josh Zakim, a city councilor from Boston.

When he addressed the crowd of roughly 60 people, Galvin offered a four-minute speech about voter access and President Trump, declaring at the onset, “I’m very proud of my record as secretary of state.” He joked about his dog and the smell of barbecue, an attempt to loosen the crowd.


This is life back on the campaign trail for Galvin, in the thick of his most competitive challenge since he was elected to his post 24 years ago. It’s somewhat forgotten work for the long-time politician, who defeated his general election rivals in 2014 by winning 68 percent of the vote. Now, as he’s facing his first primary challenge in more than a decade, Galvin is barnstorming committee meetings and senior picnics, shaking hands and seeking support.

“I’m not taking anything for granted; you have to go ask people for their vote,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m concerned about people coming out to vote, I’m concerned about making sure people know about my record. It’s important for me to speak to people and ask for their support, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

He has been in public office for more than four decades, developing a reputation as a hard-liner on his policy views, and in politics. He acquired the moniker “The Prince of Darkness” for forming deals on Beacon Hill after nightfall, but the name has stuck as a symbol for his sharp elbows — a reputation he does not try to dispel.


After all that time, he could be considered the Democratic Party’s veteran statesman, if he hadn’t had so many brushes with fellow Democrats, ranging from battles with lobbyists over registration and disclosure requirements, to a recent tiff with Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston over the redevelopment of the Winthrop Square garage.

“I’ve never been the favorite of party activists,” he told The New York Times in 2003.

Galvin has been more vocal and visible than in previous races, analysts said. He declined to debate his 2014 Republican opponent and even stood up his last Democratic challenger moments before their debate in 2006. This year, he’s already gone toe-to-toe with Zakim in a televised exchange. They have a radio debate scheduled for Friday. The primary will take place Sept. 4.

In Malden, he was shaking hands with committee members who wore vintage Galvin campaign stickers. He stopped to take a photo with state Representative Steven Ultrino and Quentin Palfrey, a candidate for lieutenant governor.

“The worst thing you can do is not be seen, not show people what you do,” said Ultrino, who said he supports Galvin.

“He’s taking this seriously, there’s no question he’s not resting,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College professor who noted that Galvin — a man opposed to the use of e-mail as recently as 2016 — now has active Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for his campaign. “He’s out there, using social media in a way you don’t typically associate with him.”


Zakim came out swinging after he announced in November he would run, challenging Galvin on voter rights and oversight of the Massachusetts Historical Commission. A city councilor for more than four years, Zakim raised more than a half million dollars this year and secured a surprising endorsement from the state Democratic Party at its convention in June. It was the first time the party had not endorsed an incumbent since 1982.

Galvin, a state legislator from Brighton for two decades who still lives in the Boston neighborhood with his wife and daughter, has also been criticized within the party for scheduling the primary for the day after Labor Day. Galvin cited a scheduling conflict with Jewish holidays, but it was seen by insiders as a strategy to depress voter turnout. The secretary of state oversees elections, the securities industry, public records laws, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and Zakim has argued that Galvin has politicized those duties.

Zakim has “done a pretty good job raising his profile, and there’s been some dissatisfaction among Democratic activists, and that has fueled Zakim,” Ubertaccio said.

Galvin downplayed the significance of the endorsement. And, within weeks of the convention, a WBUR poll found him still comfortably ahead, with 62 percent of respondents saying they had never heard of Zakim. Since then, Galvin has been responding — at times with zeal — to Zakim’s claims. A day after Zakim challenged his record on voter security, Galvin pointed to a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that ranked Massachusetts in the Top 10 of states that ensure voter access. He has highlighted the state’s 75 percent voter turnout in the last presidential election, a record high for Massachusetts.


On the airwaves, Galvin has accused Zakim of taking money from corporate interests while running for a post that oversees the financial industry and for failing to vote in multiple elections. “No-show Zakim,” the ad proclaims, “He doesn’t bother to vote. Let’s not vote for him.”

On the campaign trial, Galvin has also been more visible in recent weeks, making stops in Fall River and Springfield. On the first day of August, he attended Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s senior picnic, and his campaign tagged Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian in a Facebook post.

Last month, Galvin did not need to go far to find a welcoming audience. He met one right outside his office.

As thousands of union members protesting the National Grid lockout of its workers marched from City Hall to the State House, singing chants and holding signs, Galvin joined them. He’s always had a close relationship with unions, dating to his days in the Legislature, he said.

Galvin trudged from his State House office through the crowd, past lawmakers and other dignitaries, toward the podium — where state AFL-CIO head Steve Tolman gave him a shoutout. “Billy Galvin, we got him, there he is, our secretary who is there all the time,” Tolman, who heads the state’s largest union umbrella organization, huffed into the microphone. The crowd applauded.


Galvin, seeming to enjoy the opportunity, lambasted National Grid for putting public safety at risk. “You’re in the right place,” he said to cheers. He called on the corner office of the State House — a jab at Republican Governor Charlie Baker — to do more to settle the lockout.

And as he stepped down from the podium and started moving through the crowd back toward his office, he continued to shake hands, with union leaders, with dignitaries, with the protesters who approached to thank him for the support. “Sept. 4,” he told them, a reminder of the primary. “Sept. 4.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.