More than a century ago, George Washington Plunkitt of the Tammany Hall political machine contemptuously declared, “Reformers are morning glories.” Politics was for professionals, he added. “You’ve got to be trained up to it, or you’re sure to fail.”
Here in Massachusetts, Plunkitt may be proven wrong. In an era bracketed by Governor Deval Patrick’s decisive reelection in 2010 and Elizabeth Warren’s grassroots triumph last November, reformers have become effective regulars. But there is still an undertow of the old political culture of “wait your turn” that would be familiar to Boss Plunkitt.
For a generation, deep blue Massachusetts has overwhelmingly supported Democratic presidential candidates and has not voted to send a Republican to the US House since 1994. Yet we had four consecutive Republican governors between 1990 and 2006, when Patrick won an upset in a three-way primary and coasted to victory against Republican Kerry Healey.
But Democrats then bungled the special Senate election of January 2010 for Ted Kennedy’s former seat, when Republican Scott Brown defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley. Despite the Democratic sentiments of voters, the institutional party has often seemed dysfunctional, decrepit, and not welcoming of new blood.
In this odd history, one fact screams out. The two big statewide winners of recent decades were complete outsiders.
We could be in a new era of what might be called the reformer as regular. The people attracted by Patrick and Warren are now increasingly the institutional party, and they are very good at politics. Even so, the legacy Democratic Party is still alive, and familiar faces are running for the Senate seat just vacated by John Kerry.
The front-runner in the Democratic primary is Ed Markey of Malden, 66, a staunch liberal with a good reputation and a safe House seat. However, Markey, the senior environmentalist in the House leadership, has not had a tough contest in decades.
His main rival, Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston, is also a well-established incumbent. Whoever wins the primary on April 30 faces a June 25 general election, which is expected to be close if Scott Brown enters the race.
Patrick was a political novice in 2006, but a quick study, and he energized an army of eager volunteers complemented by skilled professionals. Warren, with no electoral experience, built on Patrick’s talent pool and went the governor one better, enlisting some 20,000 ground troops and 60,000 in-state small donors, as well as massive national financial support.
Patrick’s win in 2006, a good year for Democrats nationally, was dismissed by some as a lucky accident. But Patrick’s convincing reelection in 2010, a dismal year for Democrats, was no fluke. He is now one of the most popular and effective governors in recent memory.
Yet dynamic outsiders like Patrick and Warren coexist with the local culture of traditionalists. A friend active in local Democratic politics tells this story: His Democratic state committeeman, a longtime party stalwart, was complaining about a newcomer who was showing up at meetings. “He had all these new ways of doing things. I had to set him straight.”
The alarming heresies turned out to be ideas for getting more people involved. This tendency of traditionalists not to welcome strangers is a staple of decaying urban machines.
In the Chicago variant, Abner Mikva, later a reform congressman and federal judge, tells of trying to volunteer, as a college student in 1948, to help Governor Adlai Stevenson and Senator Paul Douglas. When he showed up at the local party headquarters, the ward boss asked, “Who sent you?”
“Nobody sent me,” Mikva replied.
The boss glared, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”
Local party machines like to keep the pool of volunteers familiar. Otherwise, you never know whom they might vote for. By contrast, an outsider candidate like Warren or Patrick has nothing to fear and everything to gain from expanding the voting base.
Traditionalists are good at turning out their own people, not so great at energizing a broader public or cultivating a fresh talent.
Convalescing Boston Mayor Tom Menino epitomizes the culture of “wait your turn.’’ He looked sufficiently robust in his State of the City address last week to savor a sixth term.
There is much conjecture about why Menino took so long to endorse Warren. It may have had something to do with Menino’s good relations with Brown, or his early assumption that Brown would defeat Warren, or perhaps some perceived personal slight. But part of the reason was that Menino and Warren represented entirely different political cultures.
Another factor that contributes to the lethargy of state Democratic politics is the Legislature. It is a mostly one-party body dominated by regulars who seldom face challengers, as well as a top-down operation.
The House speaker awards chairmanships and other perks based on loyalty. Back-benchers don’t get to do much other than provide constituent services. When key decisions get made, they aren’t in the room. It’s not a culture that showcases them or cultivates energetic people to run for higher office.
A final — and huge — factor that discourages emerging new talent is the money hurdle. Markey is the instant front-runner in the Senate primary because he begins with a $3.1 million war chest left over from non-competitive House races. That cleared most of the field.
Warren, coming out of nowhere, raised upwards of $40 million to defeat Brown, partly because she had a whole year to campaign. As an emergent national liberal rock star, she could also reap a lot of out-of-state money.
Markey, by contrast, faces an abbreviated campaign and a low-turnout special election. He is justifiably a hero to environmentalists, but not exactly a rock star.
An intriguing question is whether the political professionalism and volunteer army built by Patrick and Warren can give a less charismatic figure like Markey or Lynch enough lift to hold Kerry’s seat. Patrick and Warren began as outsiders, but they and their close allies such as state party chair John Walsh are increasingly the official party.
Walsh has gone out of his way to showcase up-and-coming reformers. To the consternation of some old party regulars, he is a big enthusiast of primaries. He considers them more energizing than divisive. His list of appointees to the platform-drafting committee for the next Democratic Party state convention reads like a roster of young leaders with statewide potential.
Since Patrick was elected in 2006, the Legislature has experienced an above-average rate of turnover, about 60 percent overall and almost 70 percent in the state Senate, mainly through retirements. Many newcomers are allies of Patrick and Warren. Several reformer-outsider politicians are mentioned as potential candidates for statewide office in 2014 and beyond — people such as state Senators Ben Downing of Pittsfield or Dan Wolf of Harwich. In addition, the talent pool includes people who bridge the role of reformer and insider, such as State Treasurer Steve Grossman.
The reformers are investing in a style of politics that combines technical skill with grassroots energy. We will soon see whether that formula can transform the culture of “wait-your-turn.’’
“If we had a secret sauce,” says a senior aide to both Patrick and Warren, “it’s that they both loved meeting with local people, and we had professionals who could come in behind them and create a real organization.”
Markey has already hired two of Warren’s top fund-raising staff members, Michael Pratt and Colleen Coffey. Doug Rubin, master strategist for both Patrick and Warren, is working for the state party and will help the Senate nominee.
Skeptics say that Markey lacks the pizzazz of Warren. But people close to both campaigns say Warren loyalists took Brown’s character attacks on Warren personally and are motivated to deny him a return to the Senate. Still, much depends on whether an old Washington hand can rediscover his inner grassroots activist.
A cruelty of politics is that yesterday’s insurgent is today’s incumbent. As a young state rep, Markey was such a thorn in the side of House Speaker Tom McGee that the speaker took away Markey’s office and put his desk in the hall. Markey, running his first race for Congress in 1976 in a crowded Democratic field, turned the incident to his advantage, declaring in a TV spot, “They may tell me where to sit, but nobody tells me where to stand.”
These trends seem to go in cycles. The first era of the reformer as regular began under Michael Dukakis, an outsider and consummate liberal elected governor in 1974, who created one of the Commonwealth’s most effective grassroots political operations.
The senior citizens who volunteered for Patrick and Warren were youngsters for Dukakis four decades ago. “It’s a lot more open now,” says Dukakis, who will turn 80 this year. “It was much harder to break in back then.”
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His forthcoming book is “Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.”
Note to readers: This column went to press before Scott Brown announced he would not run for US Senate.