Reformers as Regulars?

Reformers are investing in a politics that combines technical skill with grassroots energy. 
Can that formula transform the culture of “wait-your-turn’’?

Photo credidt: Tim Pierce. CLICK for more.


The thought-provoking piece by Robert Kuttner  in the Boston Sunday Globe describes the dynamics of Massachusetts Democratic politics, wherein an older party establishment can be resistant to the new ideas and tactics introduced by “outsiders” not used to party norms. Kuttner holds out hope that reformer/”insurgent” candidates like Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren can re-align the party’s mechanics, aims and candidates.

At Progressive Mass, we don’t see reformers and party politics necessarily to be at odds, but we believe that for real cultural shift within the party institution, there must be an outside  force applying some pressure. Indeed, this is one of the foundational impetuses of Progressive Massachusetts.

What do you think? Does Robert Kuttner describe the state of play accurately? How does an institution like a political party cultivate nimbleness? Do “outsider” efforts–including Progressive Mass–risk becoming part of the same cycle that turns energy and reform into “the way things are done”? (If so, how do we stop that?) Or is the “reformer as regular,” in Kuttner’s formulation, a real possibility?

Many of our most active Progressive Mass organizers and activists also work hard for the benefit of the Party, not only in winning elections (Patrick, Obama, Warren!), but also on Ward and Town Committees. Individually, people have been staking out ways to be both outsiders and insiders. Can we create a way to harness the best of party politics and outsider reform? (consider Kuttner’s earlier article, “Can Insiders be Outsiders?“–from 2001!)

Excerpts from this great article are below; read the whole thing here (it may be limited to subscribers for a few days).

Can state Democratic reformers transform the “wait your turn’’ culture?

[...]Despite the Democratic sentiments of voters, the institutional party has often seemed dysfunctional, decrepit, and not welcoming of new blood.

In this odd history, one fact screams out. The two big statewide winners of recent decades were complete outsiders.

We could be in a new era of what might be called the reformer as regular. The people attracted by Patrick and Warren are now increasingly the institutional party, and they are very good at politics. Even so, the legacy Democratic Party is still alive, and familiar faces are running for the Senate seat just vacated by John Kerry.

The front-runner in the Democratic primary is Ed Markey of Malden, 66, a staunch liberal with a good reputation and a safe House seat. However, Markey, the senior environmentalist in the House leadership, has not had a tough contest in decades.

His main rival, Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston, is also a well-established incumbent. Whoever wins the primary on April 30 faces a June 25 general election, which is expected to be close if Scott Brown enters the race.

Patrick was a political novice in 2006, but a quick study, and he energized an army of eager volunteers complemented by skilled professionals. Warren, with no electoral experience, built on Patrick’s talent pool and went the governor one better, enlisting some 20,000 ground troops and 60,000 in-state small donors, as well as massive national financial support.

Patrick’s win in 2006, a good year for Democrats nationally, was dismissed by some as a lucky accident. But Patrick’s convincing reelection in 2010, a dismal year for Democrats, was no fluke. He is now one of the most popular and effective governors in recent memory.

Yet dynamic outsiders like Patrick and Warren coexist with the local culture of traditionalists. A friend active in local Democratic politics tells this story: His Democratic state committeeman, a longtime party stalwart, was complaining about a newcomer who was showing up at meetings. “He had all these new ways of doing things. I had to set him straight.”

The alarming heresies turned out to be ideas for getting more people involved. This tendency of traditionalists not to welcome strangers is a staple of decaying urban machines. [...]

Local party machines like to keep the pool of volunteers familiar. Otherwise, you never know whom they might vote for. By contrast, an outsider candidate like Warren or Patrick has nothing to fear and everything to gain from expanding the voting base.

Traditionalists are good at turning out their own people, not so great at energizing a broader public or cultivating a fresh talent. Convalescing Boston Mayor Tom Menino epitomizes the culture of “wait your turn.’’…There is much conjecture about why Menino took so long to endorse Warren. …part of the reason was that Menino and Warren represented entirely different political cultures.

Another factor that contributes to the lethargy of state Democratic politics is the Legislature. It is a mostly one-party body dominated by regulars who seldom face challengers, as well as a top-down operation.

The House speaker awards chairmanships and other perks based on loyalty. Back-benchers don’t get to do much other than provide constituent services. When key decisions get made, they aren’t in the room. It’s not a culture that showcases them or cultivates energetic people to run for higher office.

A final — and huge — factor that discourages emerging new talent is the money hurdle. Markey is the instant front-runner in the Senate primary because he begins with a $3.1 million war chest left over from non-competitive House races. That cleared most of the field.[...]

An intriguing question is whether the political professionalism and volunteer army built by Patrick and Warren can give a less charismatic figure like Markey or Lynch enough lift to hold Kerry’s seat. Patrick and Warren began as outsiders, but they and their close allies such as state party chair John Walsh are increasingly the official party.

Walsh has gone out of his way to showcase up-and-coming reformers. To the consternation of some old party regulars, he is a big enthusiast of primaries. He considers them more energizing than divisive. His list of appointees to the platform-drafting committee for the next Democratic Party state convention reads like a roster of young leaders with statewide potential.

Since Patrick was elected in 2006, the Legislature has experienced an above-average rate of turnover, about 60 percent overall and almost 70 percent in the state Senate, mainly through retirements. Many newcomers are allies of Patrick and Warren. Several reformer-outsider politicians are mentioned as potential candidates for statewide office in 2014 and beyond — people such as state Senators Ben Downing of Pittsfield or Dan Wolf of Harwich. In addition, the talent pool includes people who bridge the role of reformer and insider, such as State Treasurer Steve Grossman.

The reformers are investing in a style of politics that combines technical skill with grassroots energy. We will soon see whether that formula can transform the culture of “wait-your-turn.’’

“If we had a secret sauce,” says a senior aide to both Patrick and Warren, “it’s that they both loved meeting with local people, and we had professionals who could come in behind them and create a real organization.” [...]

A cruelty of politics is that yesterday’s insurgent is today’s incumbent. As a young state rep, Markey was such a thorn in the side of House Speaker Tom McGee that the speaker took away Markey’s office and put his desk in the hall. Markey, running his first race for Congress in 1976 in a crowded Democratic field, turned the incident to his advantage, declaring in a TV spot, “They may tell me where to sit, but nobody tells me where to stand.”

Full piece at: Robert Kuttner –  What is the future of the Massachusetts Democratic Party? – Opinion – The Boston Globe – (Feb, 03, 2013) - 

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