Call for interest in state politics

As a Democrat, I was impressed by the support mobilized for gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich at the local Democratic gubernatorial caucus on Feb. 5. It leads me to think that one of Will Rogers’s most famous quips (“I’m not a member of any organized political group – I’m a Democrat”) ought to be revised. A slate composed almost entirely of Williams professors and students will now represent Williamstown at the nominating convention in Worcester on June 1.

I understand that it was mainly the fact of Reich’s late entry into the race that demanded, for those seeking to net him the maximum number of delegates, the rapid mobilization of College people. Yet the movement also seems to have nourished itself on an image of the local Democratic committee, of which I am a member, as a sleepy gathering of political hacks who answer to a statewide machine. I disagree. Since nobody from the Reich movement ever attended any of our meetings, nor were any of us asked about the committee’s views prior to the caucus, let me now say where I think the misperceptions lie.

OK, so it might seem a little sleepy if you’re used to Mortal Kombat 5. But to be a “party regular” is not to be a cog in a “machine.” It means stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, paying dues, planning issue-based events, trying to bring candidates to a part of the state they usually ignore, and going to meetings (open to the public, by the way, with energetic registered Democrats especially welcome) once a month. The committee also staffs the party caucuses and when necessary, as it was this time, its members’ dues pay for the hall. All in all, mostly humdrum tasks.

Maybe this is why only a few Williams faculty and no students (at least in the few years I’ve been on it) participate. The committee resembles many other volunteer organizations in this country in that its members are, on average, around retirement age. Not that we’re happy about this. The committee has been inviting students to its meetings and activities for many years, with little result. So most of us (though evidently not all) were gratified to see the enthusiastic Williams turnout at the caucus. Older members recalled their own initiation into politics, when they worked as volunteers for Stevenson or McCarthy or one of the Kennedys.

Doesn’t the committee’s failure to jump on the local Reich bandwagon prove that it is beholden to machine politics? Not so fast. Our members love Reich in print and on the radio. But we were flummoxed and put off by his late entry into the race. Like all local committees, we had been doing a lot of face-to-face “retail politics” with gubernatorial candidates for over a year. And, when asked for support, quite a few committee members said “yes” (most of these to Shannon O’Brien, a few to Warren Tolman and Steve Grossman) many months before Reich announced his candidacy. Sherwood Guernsey committed to O’Brien only after he had personally urged Reich (a friend from college) to run, over a year ago, and Reich then declined. Are these people machine hacks because they have honored their commitments? Of course not. Their sin is that they were involved early – well before Reich finally declared his candidacy, and before most of Williams was paying attention.

Some uncommitted members of the committee, among whom I count myself, also felt disappointed by Reich’s late entry. Having met, heard and quizzed several of the other candidates, usually during their trips to the Berkshires, I didn’t know how to compare them to Reich, about whom I know a lot as an intellectual but little as a candidate. His entry was a crippling and, in my opinion, somewhat disdainful blow against two people who had been toiling in the vineyards a long time: Warren Tolman (whose early hard work put Clean Elections in court) and Steve Grossman. But despite my sentimental conflicts, I’m quite sure that if Reich had made it to Berkshire County, he would have won a lot of support on the committee, maybe a clear majority. He may yet do so, for what it’s worth.

Whatever we feel about the top candidates, for Democrats, a key question is: who can best defeat Jane Swift, in a state where half of all voters are now registered Independent? Here a slight edge could go to O’Brien. A poll in late January (Boston Globe 1/27) had all Democratic candidates clearly beating Swift, but with O’Brien’s margin being 18 points versus 12 for Birmingham and Reich. Being slightly more widely recognized than O’Brien, Reich might have less room to improve his numbers. He is brainy, liberal and an outsider; but so was Scott Harshbarger. Still, O’Brien has some important negatives, too – above all, the old-boy aroma coming from her father, husband and brother, which she has tried to counteract by choosing a rich outsider as her running mate. And maybe Swift is so weak that even Birmingham (another liberal Rhodes Scholar, but one who cannot dodge his association with Beacon Hill) could beat her. My point is this: reasonable people can disagree here. You can’t call someone a hack for believing Shannon O’Brien more electable than Robert Reich.

Let me give a final plug for political parties. It’s true: party politics are less exciting and more morally complicated than movement politics, and both are more compromising than declaring yourself a proud Independent. Parties traffic in relationships and personalism, they ask about where you’re from and where you’re going and they get you schmoozing with a lot of people who are only in it for a government job. But though I participate in a movement (Mass. Voters for Clean Elections) and think parties need movements in order to avoid organizational senility, I don’t think we can do without political parties, at least as long as government involves taking responsibility for moral compromises. So cheers to the Reich movement, welcome to the party and please come to our meetings (Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. at the Williamstown Financial Center community room) – it will do us all good.