Great ads, wrong audience - Gabrielli could sink or swim on Saturday.
by Kevin John Sowyrda
Entrepreneur Chris Gabrielli's television ads would be a winning formula for electoral success were the audience of the moment normal, moderate voters. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party's 2002 nominee for lt. governor, the audience du jour is neither; and that's why there's a pretty fair chance that Gabrielli will fail to receive the nod of his party's delegates this weekend in Worcester to appear on the September primary ballot. Gabrielli faces off against Attorney General Tom Reilly and former U.S. Justice Department official Deval Patrick.
Gabrielli desperately needs atleast fifteen percent of the historically left of center conventioneers to vote for him if he's to have his chance for the corner office. Without that precious, all be it anachronistic, fifteen percent threshold, he's got no where to go; and it's too late to pull a Christy Mihos and run as an independent candidate. That would leave Gabrielli a political loser for atleast the third time in his life; to say nothing of the fact that he'd be out a few million - but for Chris that's pocket change and rather incidental, indeed.
It's a damn shame, but I predict it could happen. The convention this weekend is for conventional thinkers, which Gabrielli isn't. These are the quintessential, died-in-the-wool Democrats who come from the very old school of politics. Make that the ancient school of politics. They believe in big government, big spending, big taxes, big projects and very traditional thinking. I'll bet a few of them don't know there's an Internet and think A.T.M. stands for "all taxes matter."
As Gabrielli has shown in his advertisements, he's Mr.out-of-the-box politico if there ever was such a man among us. He's everything the party bosses can't stand and know they won't be able to control. He proposes, for example, to make Massachusetts the stem cell research capital of the world. Before that, his reputation was built on his love affair with charter schools and school vouchers and school choice, themes which are nothing less than anathema to public school teachers who dominate this convention via their extremely muscled union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). The MTA has grudgingly supported Patrick despite some favorable statements he's made on the subject, but to them Gabrielli is too much the education reformist. And trust me when I tell you, the MTA is many things, but God help us, never reformist.
I think likely primary voters - that means people who don't even know there's a convention this weekend - love Gabrielli's newest ads. I know I do. I think they're absolutely delicious and simply rock. They're everything our present state and national leadership isn't - creative, inventive, bold and imaginative. But this crowd sojourning to the Worcester Centrum doesn't care about those noble qualities, suddenly packaged into a last minute electronic ad buy. It's all falling on shamefully deaf ears. They're loyal to a fault to the progressive man of the hour, Deval Patrick, who by now knows the state's highways and byways better than Map Quest. They resent Gabrielli - for no logical reason - for his untimely entry into a contest which has been, from their parochial perspective, going on since last year; with little room for tardy membership. Unless you've attended the Needham Democratic Town Committee meeting atleast fifteen times, you must be a mole for George Bush.
And as for new ideas, these delegates would get much more fired up if a candidate saturated the airwaves with a proposal to abolish Proposition 2 1/2, or some other foolhardy missive. In point of fact, this crowd of delegates is so unabashedly left wing that had Gabrielli spent his suit case of cash on a very different ad campaign, let's say one that preached George Bush should be impeached by the state legislature for his 'crimes' in Iraq, he wouldn't get his 15 percent - he'd get about eighty. (For those of you who missed seventh grade civics class, the state legislature can't impeach the president, thank Heaven.)
So how have past non-liberals like Gabrielli survived this once-every-four-years liberals only festival. Well, in the case of the most conservative Democrat ever to survive the convention, he had a secret weapon. He had a consummate deal maker named Billy Bulger. That uber conservative candidate was John Silber, known for his iron fisted leadership of Boston University, his very right of center social agenda and his close friendship with Bulger, then the state senate president and master manipulator of political voting. Silber garnered his fifteen percent, barely, because Bulger corralled the votes with near ruthless tactics, for which Bulger was always infamous. Bulger pulled it together for his comrade Silber with his unique brand of arm twisting, deal making and cajoling - and it worked perfectly.
Silber was not too conservative for his party's open primary voters. He went on to win the September primary. The same could be the case for Gabrielli - who not so incidentally, is much more socially progressive than the retired Boston University president will ever be.
But Gabrielli has no Bulger. And according to my political intelligence, he has no deal makers; atleast none of Bulger-like caliber. That's his problem going into Saturday.
However, Deval Patrick would be wise, or atleast some of his supporters told me this week, to make a deal quicker than Monty Hall. The man who could be the state's first African-American governor needs more than a one on one contest to win in September. Attorney General Tom Reilly, for all his faults and political blemishes, has a campaign treasury which is intimidating when compared to Patrick's. I think Patrick's chances in September are better if he's one of three candidates, and not just one of two. Gabrielli and Reilly would split the more conservative and moderate Dems (both Reilly and Gabrielli support tax cuts), and Patrick could, so the theory goes, sneak a win with the progressive and minority voters.
Either way you look at it, Gabrielli is in trouble; because the convention is not representative of Massachusetts. One delegate told me this week that he's had call's from the Gabrielli camp "literally begging" him to defect to their bandwagon. My friend declined, as I'm told have many others who committed to Patrick or Reilly long ago.
Gabrielli's got great ideas but bad listeners in Worcester. And if he's denied a place on the ballot the ultimate winner is the G.O.P. nominee Kerry Healey. Healey will be watching intently this weekend because she knows the real truth - she can certainly best Reilly, and possibly best Patrick, but she gets eaten for breakfast if her opponent is Gabrielli.
Because of that political likelihood, it's time for this convention to take a reality test and not to look a gift horse in the mouth, regardless of how late he arrived to the cotillion. Gabrielli brings deep pockets to the race which even the wealthy Kerry Healey can't compete with. That means he can win in November, and it won't just be the money. Gabrielli's message is ironically Weldian (as in the former governor) in nature. He's a social liberal and a fiscal moderate, the perfect ideological mix for the November electorate; and Weld proved this twice at the ballot box. Gabrielli has proven that he's got the tenacity to take on the Democratic establishment while remaining perfectly faithful to key, party values. His social progressive credentials are quite solid, as is seen in his strong support of Gay Marriage. And last, but not least, in the era of political cacophony Gabrielli is a breath of fresh air because he's actually got something to say, as opposed to most politicians who, lately, can only banter. Gabreilli's ideas are deeply substantive and timely.
The Democrats have been exiled from the governor's office since January of 1991. They've got a very good chance to take back the prize if they only dare open their minds and ears this weekend.