Anyone who thinks Massachusetts politics has gone soft should take note of the race to become Democratic nominee for secretary of the Commonwealth. It promises to have it all. Drama. Nastiness. Candidates who seem to inhabit different planets. In one corner: incumbent Bill Galvin, an Irish Catholic economic populist who’s known as an insider’s insider. (As a state rep from Brighton, Galvin’s subterranean machinations earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.”) In the other: John Bonifaz, a Harvard Law School graduate, former MacArthur Fellow, and left-leaning activist who founded both the National Voting Rights Institute (dedicated to campaign-finance reform) and AfterDowningStreet.org (dedicated to impeaching President George W. Bush.)
Earlier this month, Galvin and Bonifaz trekked out to Pittsfield, a struggling post-industrial town in the westernmost part of the state, to make their cases to a few hundred Berkshire-area Democratic activists. Bonifaz — who is boyish-looking and slightly built, with a reedy voice — took the microphone first, and launched into a full-throated condemnation of his opponent’s record.
According to Bonifaz, Galvin — whose duties include serving as the state’s chief election officer — has an attitude toward voting-rights issues that borders on criminal negligence. His proof? When the city of Lawrence sent inactive-voter notices to nearly 19,000 residents before last fall’s preliminary municipal election, raising fears that a disproportionate amount of Latino voters might be disfranchised, Galvin “was silent,” Bonifaz said. Around the same time, the federal Department of Justice sued Boston for failing to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 over several election cycles. “The Bush Justice Department shouldn’t be relied on, frankly, to ensure that the jurisdictions in our state are complying,” Bonifaz jibed. Moreover, Galvin dismissed a 2005 study by MassVote — a statewide, nonpartisan voting-rights organization — which charged that bureaucratic glitches may have kept up to 100,000 would-be, eligible voters from casting ballots in the 2004 presidential election. This means wide-scale disfranchisement, Bonifaz told the crowd, and Galvin has turned a blind eye to it.
Next came Bonifaz’s Big Finish. “I wish that were all of it,” he said ominously. “I wish it were just about the secretary being silent. But it’s not. It’s also about the secretary opposing democracy and electoral reform.” Then Bonifaz related Galvin’s last-minute intervention, last year, against legislation to create a trial election-day-registration program in Massachusetts. (EDR, as it’s often called, is favored by activists who believe it would increase civic participation. Galvin says he likes the idea, but that it would need to be implemented uniformly; the trial program would have allowed cities and towns to choose whether to participate.) By the time Bonifaz bolted from the podium, having just panned Galvin as a “go-along, get-along Democrat,” the audience members were ignoring their chicken parmigiana and seemed to be in a state of high excitement. As the applause died down, the emcee offered an approving assessment: “I think we need Democrats who can speak!”
Throughout Bonifaz’s address, Galvin — who resembles a deeper-voiced, darker-complected William H. Macy — stood at the back of the room, lips pursed, watching impassively. Anyone who’d seen his disappointing speech at last year’s state Democratic convention in Lowell, when he was still considering running for governor, might have assumed Galvin would get the worst of this particular battle. But while Galvin’s remarks in Lowell were flat and phlegmatic, he matched Bonifaz’s intensity in Pittsfield.
First came a mild quip — “You know, if I believed everything I just heard, I wouldn’t vote for me” — that was soon followed by harsher versions of the same message. Galvin would offer the audience an assessment of his record that was “rooted in reality, not falsehood.” He would not make “fantastic claims.” Nor would he peddle “stories and lies.” Forget the MassVote study, Galvin said. The truth is that, under his watch, Massachusetts counts its votes. That’s why, during the contested 2000 presidential election — when Bonifaz, as director of the National Voting Rights Institute, supported another candidate — Al Gore’s camp contacted Galvin for advice. (That unnamed candidate: Ralph Nader.)
What’s more, Galvin added, the secretary of the Commonwealth’s job isn’t just about elections. It’s also about securities regulation, for example — and Galvin just nailed Bank of America and Citizens Bank for improper annuities sales to elderly clients. It’s also about making concrete improvements in the lives of Massachusetts residents. Which is why Galvin is working to expand Internet access in rural areas, and why he continues to support a single-payer health-care system for the state. “People in Massachusetts know my record,” Galvin concluded. And then, just to drive home the Bonifaz-as-liar theme: “These are real policies, not fantastic fantasies.”