Chaos Theory

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 8, 2010

In part, the stasis has been due to fate — in particular, circumstances that conspired to keep the two Senate seats in the same hands for decades. Kennedy defied all odds to become the fourth-longest-serving US senator in history, while John Kerry came within 18 electoral votes of relocating to the White House.

(Although gubernatorial turnover has been more frequent, that seat has frequently been won by non-officeholders — meaning that no dominos fell at all. Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney, and William Weld had never held elected office before becoming governor. In fact, the last person who was elected governor in the state who had to give up another elected office was Christian Herter, in 1952.)

On those few occasions when someone has left a high-level office, it has usually been in mid-term, prompting special elections — meaning contenders don't have to surrender the offices they hold in order to run.

That is true of the special election for Kennedy's seat: Coakley, Brown, and Congressman Michael Capuano all ran, but only one of their offices will ultimately be vacated. It was also the case for the last two congressional vacancies: when Marty Meehan took the chancellor position at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in July 2007, and when Congressman Joe Moakley died in May 2001.

Another factor that has contributed to clogged political pipelines is the ineptitude of the state Republican Party. With the GOP nearly irrelevant in the state — and Democrats generally unwilling to challenge their own — incumbents have had an incredibly easy ride once they get into office. It's been 15 years since a Republican won a congressional race or a statewide election other than governor. The state legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic, with most members cruising to easy re-election every two years — often without an opponent.

Finally, the dominos have resisted falling because, over and over again, officeholders have chosen to keep their safe, lower office, rather than relinquish it for a chance at something bigger. Galvin is often cited as an example, leading some to think he will once again choose the safety of a re-election campaign. And look at the open AG race four years ago, when Tom Reilly ran for governor: everyone stood aside and let Coakley walk in virtually unopposed.

To some, this is evidence of an overwhelming lack of guts in modern politics. Others are a little kinder, noting an increase in the value of lower offices, from seats in the state legislature to city and town positions, as they have become "professionalized" — with more power, pay, and benefits. Political consultant Michael Goldman says that many of those positions are no longer seen as "up-and-out" stepping stones. "Politicians by nature don't want to risk losing the power they have for the perceived power they might receive," says Goldman. "The old calculations don't hold any more."

A new day?
And yet, political observers in the state believe that this year the logjam will finally break. Not all of the rumored candidates will actually pull the trigger, but enough will, they say, to create the biggest political reshuffling in the state in years.

So why will this time be different? For one thing, the long stretch of stagnation has created a pent-up desire to run. Ambitious pols who have been building their networks — and their campaign war chests — were waiting for opportunities that never came, until now.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Massachusetts, U.S. Congress,  More more >
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