Reilly wants to overturn this paradigm. Consider some turns of phrase from his recent speech at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Breakfast, a top destination for the city’s cultural, business, and political elite: “Through it all, I’ve been an independent voice for the people of Massachusetts...” “I’m going to offer the voters a different kind of leadership. It’s tested and it’s proven. It’s not based on party or ideology...” “This is going to be a bipartisan effort, with Democrats, Republicans, independents...”
Obviously, Reilly’s call to Conte doesn’t prove he’s a partisan ideologue. But it does suggest a willingness to use the established channels of power to benefit a friend, however noble the cause may have been. (In his defense, Reilly has said he’s protected victims throughout his career, but this argument is undercut by his refusal — or inability — to cite a comparable example.) And this willingness, in turn, calls to mind the Democratic-insider culture that inspires fear in the hearts of Massachusetts Republicans and independents. “This was a great week for Deval Patrick, and his name didn’t even get in the paper,” says one veteran Democratic observer. “The reason is, a major rationale for the Reilly campaign — that he could get by the attacks of Republicans saying that he was just another State House guy — was shattered. The idea that they won’t be able to do to Reilly what they did to Shannon O’Brien took a beating.”
Of course, that’s a political insider talking. The general public might not remember Reilly’s messy January by the time they go to the polls, especially since the Democratic primary and general election are nine and 11 months away, respectively. Maybe some voters will even admire Reilly’s willingness to show compassion and take the political heat. Not surprisingly, the Reilly camp strikes an optimistic tone. “Tom Reilly was consistent on this throughout,” one of his advisers claims. “From day one, he said this was solely about protecting the [Murphys’] privacy. And two weeks later, after the governor got out there and the lieutenant governor got out there — and, frankly, the media got out there — it’s been proven that Tom Reilly was consistently telling the truth. People tried to find some kind of conspiracy in here that just doesn’t exist.”
We’ll soon know if the state’s Democratic activists agree. The party’s caucuses — where delegates for June’s nominating convention will be elected — are just more than two weeks away. And there’s a widespread sense, among Democratic activists, that support for Reilly is broad but not deep. If Reilly’s struggles lead to a favorable outcome for Patrick, who’s still trying to convince the Democratic establishment that he’s legit, the complexion of the race could change.
And the caucuses may be the least of Reilly’s worries. One Republican insider contends that the recent contretemps established an anti-Reilly narrative — call it The Insider Who Says He’s an Outsider — that could dog him throughout the campaign. “This probably came at a time when the political damage is minimal,” this Republican says. “But it lays a foundation that, if he has another incident like this, then he’s really in trouble. The Al Gore and John Kerry [presidential] campaigns are good examples; they never nipped in the bud the I’m-an-exaggerator/I’m-a-flip-flopper arguments. And with that stuff, the groundwork was laid months before the election.” Time will tell if Reilly has any more baggage to unload — and, if so, whether he’s learned the political lessons of the past month.