Massachusetts, Back in the Game

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, October 20, 2006

BOSTON -- Massachusetts is often down in presidential politics, but never out.

The state that gave the United States two of its first six presidents has not had a presidential winner since John F. Kennedy in 1960. The most recent entries, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, were dispatched by different

Bushes.

But in a state where, as the late Mary McGrory once noted, every baby is born with a campaign manager's gene, the political players are as resilient as Red Sox fans.

Astonishingly, the hottest 2008 presidential contender from this very Democratic state is a Republican, Gov. Mitt Romney. He insists, as the scripture might have it, that he may be in Massachusetts but he's surely not of it.

In an interview with Elizabeth Mehren of the Los Angeles Times earlier this month, Romney admitted that, had he known he would go into national politics, he would have been "a lot smarter to stay in Michigan," where his father, George Romney, was governor in the 1960s. He regularly excoriates the legalization of same-sex marriage by "activist judges" in his current home state who "struck a blow to the foundation of civilization, the family."

With Romney leaving the statehouse to go national, his designated successor is Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, a down-the-line loyalist -- until this year. Now, as Romney moves to the right, Healey moves the other way. After keeping mum about her differences with Romney for most of his term, she has split with his more conservative stances on a whole range of social issues, including stem cell research, abortion and same-sex civil unions.

"The poor woman has been forced to discover that she disagrees with him on all these issues," said Rep. Barney Frank, the state's most entertaining Democrat. "She should run her ads on the Discovery Channel."

But another national political player looms in Deval Patrick, Healey's Democratic opponent. Patrick, who was in charge of the Justice Department's civil rights division under President Bill Clinton, has unleashed a sense of excitement among Massachusetts Democrats, who have had a lot to be glum about in recent years.

"I haven't seen anybody else since the Kennedys who had that way of energizing people," says Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, a tough-minded pro not given to extravagant expression. "They'd march through a wall for him."

In a state famed in the 1970s for bitter racial conflict over mandatory school busing, Patrick is an African American with cross-racial appeal. Frank describes Patrick as "bright and thoughtful and extremely competent and in command," and adds: "It's hard to attack this guy as a radical leftist."

But that's what Healey is trying to do with a series of brutal soft-on-crime attacks that bring to mind the ones that helped sink Dukakis's presidential candidacy in 1988. Healey has gone after Patrick for his efforts to seek a DNA test for a convicted rapist in the 1980s. Patrick has a strong defense, saying he dropped his support for the man when the DNA test was positive -- but he initially fumbled his explanation. Healey has also attacked Patrick for serving as a defense lawyer for a convicted killer of a police officer. "While lawyers have a right to defend admitted cop killers," the announcer on one ad intones, "do we really want one as our governor?"

Healey's assaults cut Patrick's advantage in the polls, though he still leads by double digits, and the ads have invited an anti-Healey backlash. "That's what defense lawyers do," says Menino, a Democrat, referring to the murder case. "I'm lucky I'm not a lawyer."

Patrick is commonly compared to another talented African American, Sen. Barack Obama, but many Massachusetts Democrats think the best analogy is between Patrick and Clinton, who campaigned for his former appointee this week and plans to visit again.

A Boston Globe reporter recently read Patrick a politician's long riff about "hope" vs. "fear." Patrick couldn't tell whether the words were his or Clinton's. (They were Clinton's.)

If Healey wins, Romney will claim credit for ensuring his succession in an ideologically unfriendly state, even if Healey did have to toss Romney's social conservatism over the side. But Menino's money is on Patrick for an interesting reason. "We're void of passion," Menino says of politics generally and of his Democratic Party in particular, and Patrick has it. "You see it in his face."

Imagine: A state famous for producing hard-core political pros, practical precinct captains and worldly wise consultants may be on the verge of creating two new export commodities: an attractive central-casting conservative governor and a young passionate idealist. Anything to keep Massachusetts in the game.

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