More important, both groups are angry at a political class that they believe is arrogant, corrupt, and out of touch. And both are particularly galled by what they see as the sense of entitlement of those inside the halls of power.
Many of these progressives first became politically active in Patrick’s 2006 gubernatorial race or Obama’s 2008 presidential quest. (In both of those cases, the state’s Democratic establishment lined up on the other side — with Tom Reilly in 2006 and Hillary Clinton in 2008.) John Walsh, state Democratic Party chairman and manager of Patrick’s 2006 campaign, suggests that the seeds were planted even earlier, in Robert Reich’s grassroots campaign for governor in 2002. Others point to Howard Dean’s presidential run in 2004.
Whatever the genesis, it is now clear that a significant number of these progressives — meeting in person, through social media, or online venues like Blue Mass Group — are constantly seeking crash-the-gates candidates.
While plenty have failed — as did Reich and Jamie Eldridge, who ran for Congress in 2007 — Smulowitz is the latest in a string of recent victories for progressive outsiders against establishment-backed Democrats, including Sonia Chang-Díaz ousting (pre-indictment) State Senator Dianne Wilkerson in 2008 and Seti Warren upsetting State Representative Ruth Balser for Newton mayor in 2009.
Those victories have emboldened progressive outsiders, while worrying the establishment. In the wake of Beacon Hill scandals, the anti-establishment message seems to resonate beyond activists to a broad portion of the Democratic and general electorate. So far, the establishment has been slow to respond.
Liberal is not enough
Some Smulowitz supporters were amazed that Harkins ran her campaign much the same way that other recent failed insiders have done — most notably, Martha Coakley in her losing US Senate campaign.
Harkins, they say, surrounded herself with endorsements from politicos and powerful interest groups, shunned door-to-door canvassing in the district, and expected her name recognition to carry the low-turnout election.
She also reacted with outrage when Smulowitz began attacking her association with DiMasi and other Beacon Hill insiders. To the progressive outsiders, that only demonstrates the party’s sense of entitlement. It also plays into their belief that new blood is needed to clean up the state government. This is ultimately what seems to divide progressives and the party: the latter’s failure to make state government more transparent, open, honest, and responsive.
Until just the last few years, the rift within the Democratic Party was between liberals and conservatives, over issues. Now, the fight is among the liberals alone, over so-called “process” concerns: campaign finance, open hearings, lobbyist influence, and so on.
“In primaries, there is a greater opportunity for a typical voter in Democratic primaries to focus on process issues,” says Eldridge. “We saw that in the Smulowitz race. We saw it two years ago in Sonia Chang-Díaz’s race.”
Perullo agrees. “The fight is about good government — that’s what it’s always going to be about now.”
Perullo and many others fear that this intraparty battle, if it continues through the September 2010 primary, will play right into the hands of Republicans.
The last thing Democrats need to be doing, they say, is hammering home the message of Beacon Hill corruption and hackery. Even if progressives have success in the 2010 elections, they may soon find that the outsiders they championed turn into just so many insiders. That’s something else they may have in common with the Tea Partiers.
To read the “Talking Politics” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.