When Democrat Peter Smulowitz celebrated his victory in the special-election primary for State Senate earlier this month in the back room of Masala Art restaurant in Needham, no bigwigs from his party were in attendance. In that race for Scott Brown’s former seat, almost all of the party elites had backed his opponent, State Representative Lida Harkins.
By beating Harkins — and a “beating” it was, winning every precinct outside her home town of Needham — Smulowitz, a 30-year-old doctor running for public office for the first time, has clearly roiled the Democratic Party establishment of Massachusetts. He has also become a hero of the state’s “crash the gates” progressives, who are looking to recreate the same success elsewhere.
What most upsets — and worries — the party insiders is not so much the victory itself, but the blueprint for how Smulowitz did it. He attacked Harkins as part of the corrupt Beacon Hill crowd, and tied her to indicted former Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi.
Now, in a rare display of party disunity, Harkins has refused to endorse Smulowitz against the Republican candidate, State Representative Richard Ross, in the May 11 general election. And though the Democratic Party and the Committee for a Democratic Senate are indeed working with Smulowitz, many party insiders are privately furious at what they see as his vicious tactics. At a party committee meeting the week after the primary, according to people who were there, Smulowitz was booed and Harkins was given a rousing ovation.
“I expected to hear those [sorts of] things in the 2010 elections,” says Democratic campaign consultant Frank Perullo, of Sage Systems, a campaign-services company. “I just thought I’d hear it from Republicans, not other Democrats.”
We’ll likely be hearing more of it leading up to the September Democratic primaries — especially now that Smulowitz has demonstrated that an anti–Beacon Hill message works not only with Republicans and “Scott Brown independents,” but with Democratic primary voters, too. As a result, the 2010 crop of progressive candidates can be expected to add some good-old populist bashing to their platform of liberal ideology and good-government reform.
Progressive Charles Rudnick recently launched a “clean government” primary challenge against Newton-based State Senator Cynthia Creem. Michael Day is taking a page from Smulowitz’s playbook in his State Senate primary against State Representative Katherine Clark. Mike Lake is running a similar campaign for state auditor, against veteran Democratic pols Suzanne Bump and Guy Glodis. And progressive activist Mac D’Alessandro has just announced that he will challenge Congressman Stephen Lynch of Boston.
There is little substantive policy distinctions between the “progressive” and “establishment” candidates — as was the case between Smulowitz and Harkins. Those backing the so-called progressive campaigns believe that they are continuing the “change government” crusade epitomized by Governor Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama.
Party insiders, however, believe that supporters of gate-crashing progressive candidates are — as more than one put it — merely “the Tea Party of the left.”
Angry white lefties
Progressive voters may not be amused by the comparison with Tea Partiers, but there is something to it. Both groups are primarily suburban, white, middle class, and middle-aged. Just as Tea Partiers are demanding ideological purity on the right and threatening moderate Republicans, progressives are doing the same to Democrats from the left.