Can Mass. Democrats offer a true reformer?

The Massachusetts democratic gubernatorial candidates take a selfie together after a debate at Suffolk University on Tuesday.
Matt Stone/The Boston Herald via Associated Press
The Massachusetts democratic gubernatorial candidates take a selfie together after a debate at Suffolk University on Tuesday.

No one doubts that the Democratic gubernatorial field is a basically progressive group. But as Democratic hopefuls head to Worcester for their party’s convention, this crucial questions looms: Can they be both progressive and pro-reform?

Or, to put it another way, progressive and pro-taxpayer?

So far, the leading candidates have been uncertain trumpets on important reform issues. Why? Well, let’s be blunt: One big reason is obviously the Democrats’ long-standing electoral alliance with, and dependence on, groups whose policy desires are sometimes more centered on self-interest than in the public interest.


Not only will those organizations be influential in Worcester, some will provide money and troops for the primary and general election efforts. And that helps explain why some Democrats are so muted on some important matters

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The teachers’ unions, for example, appear to be doubling down in their opposition to key aspects of education reform.

The Boston Teachers Union, the tail that wags the American Federation of Teachers, Massachusetts, has long resisted necessary change. But now, after playing a relatively constructive role under President Paul Toner, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has just elected a new president, Barbara Madeloni, who not only opposes charter schools, but also rejects standardized testing, teacher assessments, and the Common Core.

So let’s see: President Obama is a charter school supporter. So is Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Under Speaker Robert DeLeo, the House has passed a modest charter cap lift for the state’s lowest performing districts.

What’s been noticeably absent? A strong, persistent call from the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls in support of that lift, which would provide sorely needed options for students in those underperforming schools.


Why? The reason is obvious: Union teachers deeply resent the competition from usually high-performing, longer-hour, not-automatically-unionized charters.

More worrisome is the mushy tone some of the candidates are taking on continuing with a graduation exam, which has been central to Massachusetts’ nationally recognized education-reform efforts.

Here’s the problem for Democrats. Any alert voter knows that teachers’ unions are significant forces at the convention, in the Democratic primary, and in the general election. If Democrats let their electoral alliance trump their allegiance to families and students who want better schools and more options, that won’t be lost on the moderates and independents the party will need to win in November.

Education is hardly the only area where inside politics collides with good policy. Take the state’s anti-privatization statute, known as the Pacheco Law, which makes contracting out exceedingly difficult. Safeguarding Pacheco is a top priority for unions representing public employees. But protecting that law means preventing state government from getting the most bang for its buck. We saw an eye-opening example of that recently: Because of a loophole, the MBTA was able to sidestep Pacheco and contract out a mid-life overhaul of almost 200 buses. Doing so saved the transit agency 35 percent over the projected in-house cost — even with the expense of trucking the buses to and from a (unionized) bus-repair firm in Michigan.

That one contract saved the state some $17 million. Reputable fiscal analysts believe that there are at least $100 million, and likely more, in annual savings that could be had absent the Pacheco constraints. So where are the Democratic candidates calling for its repeal?


Given their muted voices on reform issues, one might be curious about what promises these candidates have made to the party’s constituency groups. After all, those groups ask the candidates to fill out questionnaires as part of their endorsement process.

Education is not the only area where inside politics collides with good policy.

Good luck there. Of the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, only Don Berwick and Juliette Kayyem are posting the questionnaires they complete on their websites.

Steve Grossman, who’s favored to win the convention, has filled out 19 — and posted a grand total of zero. Front-runner Martha Coakley has filled out 17. How many has she released? Goose egg.

All of that is revealing. And disappointing.

On Saturday, Democrats will have an endorsed candidate. But what they don’t and won’t have is a gutsy, intrepid, persuasive reformer.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.