At 44, Juliette Kayyem is a Gen-Xer amid four Democratic gubernatorial baby boomers whose ages range from 60 to 68 — but that’s not the only reason she stands out. A first-time candidate impatient with political pieties, she is a big, lively personality, someone who generally conveys a sense of (comparatively) calculation-free candor.
That style is refreshing in a field where, when tough questions loom, the leading candidates often use verbiage the way an octopus does ink. During last week's Globe Opinion debate, for example, Steve Grossman ducked and dodged when asked whether an initiative to repeal casino gambling should be on the November ballot, finally saying he'd leave the issue to the state's Supreme Judicial Court.
Not Kayyem. "I actually have an opinion," she said, a not-so-subtle barb at her circumlocutory rival, "which is that it should be on the ballot." If it is, she added, she would vote to keep the law.
When the discussion moved to the Common Core and whether Massachusetts should stay in the cross-country curriculum, most of the candidates voiced union-courting catch-phrase concerns about "too much testing" and "teaching to the test" and averred that their priority was supporting and investing more in teachers.
Kayyem, by contrast, offered some cant-clearing candor.
"Democrats have a tendency to talk in code" on this issue, she observed, before saying that the state should stay in the Common Core. Noting that the state is currently transitioning from the MCAS to the PARCC exam, she concluded: "Let's see how the PARCC system goes." Her bottom line: With too many kids in underperforming schools, "we need assessments" to tell whether they are learning necessary skills.
All of which is not to say that Kayyem can't be discursive herself. More planning is a regular prescription of hers, and some of her management-speak answers contain more talk of "silos" than a corn-growers convention. Like most of her rivals, she has more program wishes than pay-fors. She wants more investment in public transit and infrastructure, universal (though phased-in) pre-K, and a greater focus on climate change.
In the short term, the self-described pragmatic progressive says, her agenda will rely on new revenues from economic growth and savings from her biggest idea: Reforming the state's criminal-justice system. A civil rights attorney before her state and federal homeland security stints (and her time as Globe columnist), Kayyem wants to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenses while focusing more on treating, educating, and reintegrating inmates.
Kayyem is also funny in a carefree, spontaneous way. At one point in the tightly seated Globe forum, Kayyem shifted on her stool, and almost ended up in Joe Avellone's lap.
"Oops," she said. "Hi Joe. That was intimate" — and carried on without missing another beat.
At another point, the candidates were asked if they had any delegate horse-trading planned for Saturday's convention vote. "I like everyone I'm sitting with; I trust no one," Kayyem said, a remark that amused the audience but seemed to pain earnest Don Berwick, until Kayyem assured him that she had been joking.
She's also become a relatively hard-checking campaigner. In a recent speech, she said, of Grossman, that "endorsements from old political friends and calling in political IOUs" wouldn't help address the state's problems. Martha Coakley's campaign, she said, "is noted more for what it doesn't do: Few campaign appearances. Few tough stands. No bold ideas."
Nothing personal, she notes, but she's battling to be governor and calling it as she sees it.
"When did we become so dainty?" she asks.
One rap on Kayyem is that she doesn't have any major management experience. Her counter: Consider the work she did at the Department of Homeland Security overseeing the response to the BP oil spill in 2010. As lead civilian at the national incident command, she coordinated the efforts of some 60 federal agencies and worked with five Gulf State Republican governors, she notes.
"The range, to be honest, was probably the range of what any executive in a city or state is ever going to handle," she says.
Bottom line? Kayyem has proved herself a smart, thoughtful, interesting candidate, one with real potential. It would be a sad commentary if Democratic convention delegates don't award her the 15 percent vote necessary to make the primary ballot.