January 28, 2023
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CommonWealth Magazine

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THE DYSFUNCTION of the Massachusetts Republican Party has captured attention and headlines for the last few years, but it is the quiet collapse of the Massachusetts Democratic Party that should be concerning.

In February 2006, Deval Patrick rocked the world of Massachusetts Democrats when he swept caucus after caucus, with slates of first-time activists beating the combined forces of the Massachusetts’Democratic establishment – congressmen, mayors, state legislators, labor unions, and their political organizations of employees and consultants.

Patrick went on from the caucuses to win the endorsement of the Massachusetts Democratic Party in June at the party’s convention, beat the Demoratic establishment’s pick for governor in 2006 (then-Attorney General Tom Reilly), and then beat Republican Kerry Healey in the November general election. The activists that got involved in Patrick’s campaign continue to have a big impact on our state’s politics. A great example is current Democratic State Committeewoman and Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChappelle, who got her start in politics on Deval’s campaign.

Sixteen years later, Patrick’s path to victory and subsequent use of the Massachusetts Democratic Party seems quaint, because the world it happened in has ceased to exist. In 2022 it is remarkably easy for insurgents to win the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s endorsement; it is virtually impossible for these insurgents to win at the ballot box.

This year, the winners at the convention in the races for attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor all lost quite badly in their state-wide primaries. To be really clear about what that means, the candidates chosen by the Democratic Party’s activist class were rejected by the Democratic Party’s primary voters. This is not a one-off event either, but an increasingly common occurrence in state-wide races and even in local races. The best example was the contest for secretary of state, where for the second time in as many elections the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s  activist class endorsed incumbent William Galvin’s opponent. Galvin, as he did in 2018, then decisively beat his opponent at the ballot box.

What has changed? In 2006, Patrick’s win in the caucuses demonstrated genuine grassroots enthusiasm for an anti-establishment candidate. In 2022, winning the caucuses and convention does not require grassroots enthusiasm or organizing muscle, but rather personal connections to the activist class and a willingness to kowtow to their narrow set of cultural and policy ideas.

The increasing disconnect between the sort of candidates that appeal to these activists, and the sort of candidates that appeal to Democratic primary voters, should cause a big re-thinking of how the Massachusetts Democratic Party conducts business. That hasn’t happened, largely because the counter-weight to activists that used to exist in the Massachusetts Democratic Party is no longer present.

Elected officials and their organizations that once worked with and battled against the activist class have abandoned the formal processes of the party completely. Elected officials and those who would like to become elected officials have seen the increasing separation between Democratic activists and Democratic voters — and followed the voters. The result is that  many Democrats win office, but the Massachusetts Democratic Party and its local town and ward committees are  not an important part of those victories.

Claiming that a party’s elected officials are no longer meaningfully involved in the running of their party seems outlandish, but it has been happening very publicly in Massachusetts for the last several years on the Republican side of the aisle. While the battle between Jim Lyons and Charlie Baker has been much louder, the outlines of the fight are remarkably similar to what has happened to the Democrats.

For 16 years, elected officials and their political organizations have slowly withdrawn from the formal processes of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Instead of a loud bang to mark the final separation, which has occurred with the Massachusetts GOP, the split within the Massachusetts Democratic Party has been relatively quiet.

Marty Walsh resigned as mayor, and the political organization he led left office with him. Boston’s Democratic political machine has been an institution in the Massachusetts Democratic Party since the party was founded in the 19th century, but in 2022 Michelle Wu decided that it was over. Her loyalists didn’t ask her campaign supporters or city employees to run as delegates or volunteer for campaigns the mayor endorsed. A local machine that played a leading role in determining the fate of statewide candidates at conventions, and more importantly played a leading role in the election of every state-wide Democrat for most of the state’s history, simply ceased to exist.

Wu was simply following the lead of her colleagues. In  2022, elected officials and their political organizations largely did not field their forces in the caucuses and thus at the convention. The Democratic Party’s most important elected officials have consciously ceded control of the statewide party to the activist class, and now fights elections without the involvement of the state party or its local affiliates.

The end of both the Massachusetts Republican and Democratic parties as organizations focused on electing people to office demands serious reform to the Commonwealth’s electoral system. Reforms around the edges, like ending the rule that at least 15 percent of convention delegates must vote for a candidate to get on the statewide primary ballot are not enough.

The whole partisan primary process has decayed enough that it needs to be thrown out. Massachusetts needs a non-partisan primary, with the top two vote getters going on to the November election.

While that change has been tried elsewhere, the next reform —  the rules for belonging to and creating a political party — hasn’t been attempted.

Right now activists from the local chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America and those opposed to them are battling for control of Somerville’s Democratic ward committees. Different versions of this Democrat-on-Democrat fight can be seen across the Commonwealth’s cities and towns, particularly inside Route 128.

A new political party system that allows people to keep a national affiliation and add a local or state-level affiliation would serve our Commonwealth much better. In Somerville, both sides have very different ideas about how the city should be run, even if they will both vote for a Democratic presidential candidate every four years. Allow local groups to organize local political parties that have caucuses, conventions, platforms, and, most importantly, serve as legal mechanisms for coordinating voter data, volunteer work, and campaign spending. Take fights about housing, transit, open spaces, and city hall transparency, currently being fought out in ward committee contests, and put them out in the open.

Massachusetts needs to rethink how we elect our leaders and the state-level political party system that incubates future leaders. The existing system is proving incapable of reflecting the statewide and local concerns and disagreements in Massachusetts.

Gregory Maynard is a  Brockton-based political consultant and a member of his Democratic city and ward committees. He has managed or consulted on two dozen campaigns, including those of former Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, and Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan.

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