Khazei, Like a Fox?

Insiders don’t think Alan Khazei has a chance in the US Senate race. But progressive activists could make him an underdog with bite.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  October 16, 2009

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If there is to be a candidate in the Massachusetts US Senate race who inspires the sort of grassroots, progressive following that propelled Governor Deval Patrick into office three years ago — an insurgent candidacy, if you will — it figures to be idealistic public-service advocate Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year and founder of Be the Change, Inc.

At least, that’s the argument Khazei tried to make repeatedly in a lengthy interview at a back table of Brookline’s Fireplace Restaurant last week, giving the Phoenix nearly three times the promised half-hour, after putting his children (Maribelle, 7, and Reese, 16 months) to bed in his nearby home.

But my first question for Khazei is one he’s already accustomed to hearing just a couple of weeks into his campaign for the US Senate: why should voters spend their time learning about a total unknown when there are such perfectly well-established and popular progressive candidates in the race as Attorney General Martha Coakley and Congressman Michael Capuano?

His answer is what one expects from a hope-and-change candidate: leaning forward, eyes wide behind his wire-framed glasses, the 48-year-old Khazei earnestly describes his intent to empower the citizenry, build a movement, take a “fundamentally different approach” to politics, and enact “change from the bottom up.”

Khazei has the résumé as well as the rhetoric, from his Harvard undergraduate and Harvard Law degrees to his 22 years as a public-service entrepreneur. And yet, political pundits and veterans give him little chance of success.

“He is exactly the kind of profile we say we want in politics, but time and time again we have proven that we don’t mean it,” says Scott Ferson, a political consultant with Liberty Square Group, who is unaffiliated with any of the Senate candidates. Khazei won’t win, Ferson predicts, “but the people who vote for him will feel great about it.”

Ferson and others have good reason for their skepticism. Khazei is barely known in the state — he registered an embarrassing one percent of support in a poll of likely Democratic voters conducted by the Coakley campaign a few weeks ago. And whereas Patrick took a year and a half to build his grassroots support, Khazei has about nine weeks until the Democratic primary. His opponents are solid liberals, too, which leaves him little room to differentiate himself on policy issues.

Moreover, the special-election turnout is likely to be dominated by party activists, who generally like Capuano and Coakley. Khazei doesn’t even have sole claim on voters looking for a political outsider — some of whom might vote for Bain Capital tycoon Steve Pagliuca, who is spending millions of his own fortune to raise his profile.

Still, Khazei seems nothing but optimistic, noting that, “I think the conventional wisdom on this race is all wrong.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of his favorite movies. But Massachusetts politics is rarely Capra-esque. Does Khazei really have a chance?

Who is this guy?
Khazei, son of an Iranian émigré and an Italian-American nurse from Pennsylvania, started City Year in 1988 with his Harvard buddy Michael Brown as a sort of domestic version of the Peace Corps. Young people are paid a stipend to devote a year of their lives to service, often with underprivileged children.

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Related: The X factor, That’s what he said, Burn, baby, burn, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Deval Patrick, Peace Corps,  More more >
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