Khazei, Like a Fox?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  October 16, 2009

The project blossomed — Bostonians are quite familiar with their signature red jackets — and became the model for AmeriCorps, created under Bill Clinton in 1993. Khazei continued to serve as City Year’s CEO until 2006, building and expanding it to 16 cities, with a $46 million budget.

Though he had helped lobby for legislation like Clinton’s, running for office wasn’t part of his game plan. That changed, according to Khazei, after Republicans tried to kill AmeriCorps funding in 2003. It was “a turnaround moment for me,” says Khazei, “realizing that service was not enough. Some of us needed to be more involved with policy, too.”

He considered running for John Kerry’s Senate seat, had Kerry won the presidency in 2004. Instead, he left City Year two years later to create Be the Change, an organization devoted to building a citizen movement to drive service-oriented policy. Khazei used it as a platform to push for the Kennedy-sponsored Serve America Act, which passed earlier this year.

Kennedy, in fact, championed City Year and AmeriCorps from very early on, a connection that can’t hurt Khazei’s argument to be his successor. In almost every photo of Kennedy taken in his final months, the late senator is seen aboard his sailboat or on the dock of the Hyannis compound, always wearing his red City Year jacket.

One Kennedy family member — Max, brother of former congressman Joe — has already endorsed and campaigned for Khazei, and there may be others (Joe himself is said to be supporting Capuano). But endorsements aren’t going to be Khazei’s advantage. Neither will his campaign have a money edge (though it has raised a quick million so far and hopes to be able to spend between $3 and $5 million). Even people who would recognize and appreciate Kennedy’s City Year jacket don’t know who the hell Alan Khazei is.

The crucial component in a Khazei victory will be the establishment, within weeks, of the best grassroots organization in the state — one that will rapidly energize key party activists. Khazei believes that it’s possible, thanks to the experience Massachusetts progressives have already gained. “Massachusetts has very smart, educated activists,” he says, “who have learned from the governor’s race and presidential race.”

Khazei has hired some very experienced staff to make it happen, including veterans of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the former field director for the national AFL-CIO. But to give that staff the raw materials of a grassroots movement — the supporters — he needs to personally inspire activists to follow him. He thinks he can do that through his empowering message, rather than personal charisma.

“I’m not Barack Obama — I can’t give the kind of speech Barack Obama can give, or even Deval Patrick,” says Khazei. But when “people are hurting and frustrated,” and “lobbyists have bought and paid for Washington,” he contends, citizens want something less lofty — “a doer,” a “pragmatic idealist” who knows that “the only way we are going to create change is through citizen movements, along with bold political leadership.”

Getting it done
To deliver that message, Khazei has been traveling the state, speaking to any group of Democratic activists he can. He has met with small groups of party committee members. College campuses, including Tufts, MIT, and UMass-Amherst, have been among his early campaign stops.

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