Tuesday, February 19, 2002

There Goes Swifty

Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift's troubles are so legion that it would take the speed-typing Instapundit a week to chronicle all of her woes. But begin at the beginning. She's a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. She's a mediocre governor, at best. She's a bad candidate, running in a deteriorating economy. Conservatives have no use for her, at all. And twelve years of Republican control of the "corner office" (as the governor's office is called in Boston) has led to repeated "Administration scandals." To top it all off, her personal life is politely described as "messy."

There are three Democrats who have a fair chance of being their party's gubernatorial nominee. They are, in rough order: State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, State Senate President Tom Birmingham and former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. In order to qualify for the September primary, a candidate must receive 15% of the delegate votes on a roll-call ballot at the Massachusetts State Democratic Party Convention. The convention will be held in about 100 days (on May 31 and June 1).

It is expected that Senate President Birmingham and State Treasurer O'Brien will easily cross the 15% threshold on the first ballot. If either should get 50%-plus-one-vote, then there won't be a second ballot. But if no one wins an outright majority, then the horse-trading begins.

Senate President Birmingham is doing everything he can to win 50%-plus-one-vote on the first ballot at the convention, since he believes (probably correctly) that this will leave State Treasurer O'Brien as his only primary opponent. State Treasurer O'Brien would prefer to have as many male candidates as possible on the primary ballot, since she's a woman and the majority of primary voters are women. So she's doing everything she can to make sure Mr. Birmingham doesn't get a majority of the delegate votes on the first ballot at the convention. She figures that if it goes to a second ballot, she can instruct some of her delegates to vote for Reich (getting him on the ballot) and that if it goes to a third ballot, she might even be able to get one of the also-rans (like former State Party Chairman Steve Grossman or state senator Warren Tolman) on the primary ballot as well. The more boys, the merrier she'll be.

Meanwhile, Mr. Reich is just trying to qualify for the September ballot. He did better than expected in the town caucuses (where town delegates were chosen) in early February, but is still thought to be shy of the magic 15% number. Should he get on the ballot, he might cut into Birmingham's base a bit, but no one really knows. Because he has never before been a candidate for public office and because Democrats are still angry with him for being disloyal to the Clinton-Gore Administration that employed him, the "Reich factor" is hard to measure. It's not at all clear how his candidacy cuts.

The larger question is whether the Democrats can lose the unloseable race. Impossible as it may seem, there's a chance that could happen. Tom Birmingham is described by his friends as "strange" and "scarey." Shannon O'Brien is as dumb as she is sweet. Reich has never run for statewide elected office. Rarely has a less impressive group of candidates lined up for a prize that is literally there for the taking.

The Republican fantasy is that President Bush, in the next few months, will appoint Governor Swift to some position in the federal government and that Mitt Romney, fresh from his role as savior of the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, will become the GOP's gubnernatorial nominee. Romney would be a great governor. He may well be the single most impressive person in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But magic solutions rarely, if ever, materialize.

In the end, who will lose? That's how the question is phrased in Boston. The most interesting thing is that no one much cares who the winner will be. Absent Romney, it's just another chapter of what Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr calls the Hackerama.

The one thing that is interesting about Massachusetts politics this year is an initiative measure to abolish the state income tax. The measure has qualified for the November ballot. And it will draw a lot of disconnected voters to the polls. They'll be there on election day, but not for the governor's race.