On Monday, former Massachusetts Gov. Edward J. King was buried. It is unclear how long his brand of populist blue-state conservatism will survive him.
For the last 16 years, the nation’s most Democratic state has only had Republican governors. The conventional wisdom is that this winning streak represents either the triumph of moderate Republicanism or the last gasps of the party’s Northeastern Rockefeller wing.
In fact, while Govs. William Weld through Mitt Romney are in many ways to the left of the national GOP, they are strikingly conservative compared to past Republican governors like Francis Sargent and John Volpe. Starting in 1990, they campaigned against the suffocating liberalism of the Beacon Hill political establishment.
But it took a Democrat to score the first points against that establishment. In 1978, the liberal Michael Dukakis was wrapping up his first term as governor. Ed King, a veteran Massachusetts Port Authority executive who played a key role in modernizing Logan Airport, challenged him in the Democratic primary.
King wasn’t a typical Democrat. In one debate, he managed to answer nearly every question by emphasizing that he supported capital punishment and opposed high taxes, welfare and abortion. He didn’t need to have presidential aspirations to be pro-life.
As it turned out, voters were most disgusted with liberalism in some of the areas where it was most entrenched. King upset Dukakis in the primary and easily won the general election. For four years he would wage war against the Boston press and members of his own party.
“If God is with you, who can be against you, right? Except the Boston Globe,” he told the newspaper in 1981. King backed the Bay State tax revolt, leading the charge for Proposition 2 1/2, a successful ballot initiative aimed at curbing property-tax increases. He refused to support Ted Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980. Ronald Reagan called King his favorite Democratic governor. King returned the favor by endorsing the Gipper.
The King administration was a brief conservative interlude in Massachusetts politics. Dukakis retook the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982, putting himself on the path that would include such successes as the Massachusetts miracle and his famous ride in the tank. Ed King was gone after only a single term.
Yet the electoral coalition he appealed to proved more durable. Businesses and upscale suburban voters were groaning under the commonwealth’s hefty tax burden. Working-class families were becoming uncomfortable in a Democratic Party that no longer shared their values. Much is made of the shift of Southern evangelical Protestants to the Republican Party in the 1980s, but another significant source of the GOP’s growth during that time period was Northern ethnic Catholics.
Reagan carried Massachusetts twice and while native-son Dukakis won the Bay State in 1988, George H.W. Bush beat him in the Greater Boston suburbs. Proposition 2 1/2 presaged the success of other conservative ballot initiatives, including the repeal of rent control and bilingual education and the rejection of a graduated state income tax.
The Massachusetts Republican Party was slow to adapt to these changing political conditions. It still appealed to not especially ideological Yankee Protestants and tried tow win elections with GOP liberals like Edward Brooke, bounced from the Senate after two terms in 1978.
Following Ed King’s example, businessman Ray Shamie helped craft a Republican Party that ran to the right on taxes, crime and welfare spending, responding to the conservative populist concerns the dominant Democrats mostly ignored. Shamie ran surprisingly well against Ted Kennedy in 1982, setting the stage for a tough Senate race when Paul Tsongas retired in 1984.
Shamie ultimately lost to John Kerry that year, even as Reagan took Massachusetts in the presidential contest. But Shamie won over a million votes and kept the margin within ten points. A Shamie apprentice, Joe Malone, carried the GOP banner against Ted Kennedy in 1988. Malone got trounced, but managed to build a strong enough reputation to win the state treasurer’s office on a conservative platform two years later. Malone even carried the big cities of Boston and Worcester.
The national press always concentrated on Bill Weld’s support for abortion and gay rights. These two stances kept social issues off the table and probably helped him win such liberal towns as Brookline against John Silber in 1990. But the heart of Weld’s appeal was always conservative — he was against Beacon Hill’s tax-and-spend culture, a pro-death penalty law-and-order man on crime and an early advocate of welfare reform.
Weld’s successor, Paul Cellucci, was also a social liberal. Domestically, however, he pledged to reinstate the death penalty, veto tax increases and peel the state income tax rate back to 5 percent. The voters ultimately passed Cellucci’s income-tax rollback; the Democratic legislature has thwarted it to this day. And Cellucci didn’t exactly ignore culturally conservative themes. In 1998, he campaigned against restrictions on the display of Christmas trees in the office of his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.
A similar formula worked for Mitt Romney in 2002. He ran to the right of Shannon O’Brien on taxes, spending, capital punishment and — although he was pro-choice — even abortion. Romney scored the fourth consecutive GOP gubernatorial win.
Here our happy tale may come to a sad end. Romney isn’t running for reelection. The GOP coalition is fractured, with former Republican Christy Mihos running as an independent. Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey is trying to run on the familiar platform, but her personal qualities make her a poor fit for Ed King Democrats. The polls show Massachusetts ready to elect Deval Patrick, a Dukakis liberal, to the governorship by a landslide margin.
The issues that appeal to Democrats and independents who pulled the GOP lever in the last four governor’s contests are still there, and Bay State conservatives have survived rough patches before. It would be easier to be optimistic, however, if there were signs of effective leaders waiting in the wings.
Ed King died a Republican. It doesn’t look like he’ll be the Massachusetts party’s only loss.