Running a farm team for politics
Last week, as the debt-ceiling crisis neared its end, I got an e-mail from an outfit called the Western Representation PAC. The subject line was “The Big Surrender Caucus.” The purpose was to ask me for money, so it could run primary challengers against “milquetoast establishment Republicans” who had committed the sin of compromise.
This — the threat of the big-money primary challenge — is why the government came to a standstill for so long. This is why moderates have disappeared, and why we’re due for more crises soon.
How do you end the cycle? To Marian Walsh, the answer is so simple that it sounds naive: Don’t worry about losing, and you might win anyway.
You might remember Walsh, a Democrat, lawyer, and Harvard Divinity School graduate who used to be a staple of Beacon Hill. She served two terms in the state House of Representatives and nine in the Senate, representing a high-votership, socially conservative district. She was known for casting politically difficult votes — most notably, in favor of gay marriage.
Later, she was known as an early supporter of Governor Patrick — and as a casualty of a public relations disaster in 2009, when his administration offered her a high-paying job at a quasi-public agency. In the end, she didn’t take the job and didn’t run for reelection. Her public service career was over.
Now, Walsh is reinventing herself, with a consulting firm, a teaching gig at Northeastern, and a mission to recruit a new “farm team” to American politics. She is launching a campaign school at the Kennedy Library next month. And she has published a book called “Run,” a primer on running for office, offering tips on how to manage a coffee hour, track fund-raising, monitor polls, overcome doubts, and face angry opposition. (“I urge you to uncurl from that spiky, hedgehog-like ball of self-preservation, and instead subscribe to an attitude of love,’’ she writes.)
Last week, I asked her why anyone would bother to run for high office today, in a climate this toxic and money-drenched. She answered the way she writes: as if she were giving a pep talk. What if you can’t raise the money you need? Study your chances, she said, and choose your races wisely. What if you mess up and get pilloried in the press? “America has very forgiving voters. They just don’t want to be had.”
Her positivity is unshakable — to the point that it can sound unconvincing. I asked her if she had regrets about 2009. “I made the best decision, for the right reasons, knowing what I knew then,” she said. I asked her whether she’s still in touch with Governor Patrick. She told me: “I sent him a copy of ‘Run.’”
Still, relentless positivity can be good for your career — and, at times, for democracy. It carried Walsh through what might have been her shining moment in public life: her heartfelt 2004 speech in support of gay marriage before the state constitutional convention.
It’s getting hard to remember a time when gay marriage in Massachusetts was anything but a non-issue. But at the time, Walsh was out on a limb, particularly in her conservative district. She defied the pronouncements of Catholic priests and the specific wishes of many of her constituents.
“I did not expect to get reelected,” she told me. She ran anyway. Between August and November, she went to 61 coffee hours, explaining herself to voters. “Most people were aghast, confused, felt betrayed, and wanted an explanation,” she said. And on election night, in a high-turnout race, she won with 66 percent of the vote.
Walsh took from that a lesson about political courage: If you’re willing to engage people and explain yourself, you could earn their respect. At that moment, in Massachusetts, it worked.
It’s unclear how Walsh’s happy vision could apply to Congress, with its politically engineered districts, big-money super PACs, a media culture that uses political fury as entertainment. But there’s something appealing about her call to fearlessness, and for a farm team of idealistic warriors. If self-preservation is our politicians’ chief goal, we can’t expect more than what we’ve got. But if more people are willing to run — and face the risk of losing — then maybe a better crop of people will win.