Every four years, right around Labor Day, the interests of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and the Democratic candidates for governor become almost totally divergent. The party does what it can to ensure a smooth start to the post-primary, general-election campaign. Meanwhile, the candidates are busy kicking the shit out of each other.
This year is no exception. Take attorney general and ex-frontrunner-turned-desperate-long-shot Tom Reilly, who ignored the opening question in last week’s gubernatorial debate and chided Chris Gabrieli (who was nearly Reilly’s running mate) for allegedly leaking a background report the Reilly campaign had obtained on Marie St. Fleur (who was Reilly’s running mate for less than a day). “The only person who had access to that report and a reason to give it to the Boston Globe was your campaign chair,” Reilly snipped. “What does it say about the character of a person running for governor that they would use something like this for political gain and advantage?” Or take Gabrieli, who recently claimed a “small group of rabid supporters” has driven Patrick to take positions that make him unelectable. Or take Patrick, who styles himself “No Ordinary Leader” but who took the eminently ordinary tack of distorting Gabrieli’s position on a hot-button issue: during the aforementioned debate, Gabrieli said state schools should compete for public stem-cell-research funding with private institutions like Harvard; in a subsequent e-mail to supporters, Patrick played the class card by suggesting that Gabrieli wants to bar public universities from receiving such research funds.
In fairness, the candidates are just doing what they’re supposed to do. With the primary less than a week away, Gabrieli, Patrick, and Reilly all have at least an outside shot at winning, and they’d be foolish not to scrap for every possible advantage. But if things get ugly enough, lingering ill will could turn the losers and their loyalists into tepid supporters of the eventual nominee — or even drive them to support Republican Kerry Healey or independent Christy Mihos in the general election. And for the Democrats, that would be a recipe for disaster.
Friend or foe
After all, it’s happened before. In 1990, Attorney General Frank Bellotti was supposed to win the nomination, but lost it to John Silber, the former Boston University president and irascible conservative; afterward, several key Bellotti insiders started working on Republican Bill Weld’s behalf. And in 1998, attorney general and Democratic nominee Scott Harshbarger sustained serious political wounds when a cadre of high-profile Dems organized a group known as Democrats for [Paul] Cellucci.
Granted, there are some big differences between these two races and what’s happening in 2006. In 1990, for example, Democrats were accustomed to controlling the Corner Office; now, they haven’t elected a governor for 16 years. And Democrats for Cellucci was the product, in large part, of Harshbarger’s failure to reach out to his party’s more-conservative wing at an early date. (The fact that Cellucci was an Italian former state senator and member-in-good-standing of the state’s old-boy network didn’t help, either.)