When we moved in to our new house in Massachusetts, I sent out some e-mails to local friends, announcing we had arrived. One of my more prominent friends wrote back welcoming me “to this state with its ridiculous politics.” I lived here for 10 years, until moving to New Jersey for a short hiatus. And I must say that “ridiculous” does describe Massachusetts from a Republican’s point of view — except that Republicanism is a lot more vital, and a lot more interesting, than most outsiders would suspect.
The outside view of Massachusetts is generally correct. It has a heavily Democratic majority, was the only state to vote for George McGovern in 1972, and the Kennedys live here. People really do worship the Kennedys, too; I was being shown around by a local realtor ten years ago who broke into tears describing the house in Brookline where JFK was born. (Something about the thought of the sainted Rose changing diapers.) That Democratic majority got solidified by the Irish immigrant wave of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a wave that brought not only big families and working-class people, but a certain kind of rough-and-ready syndicalism to the political scene. The government turned into a jobs program, from the ward heelers who got people “on the police” or “on the fire” to heavy hitters like Tip O’Neill, who built himself an eternal monument to Democratic employment with the Big Dig.
But you find Republicans in the darndest places, and you find them doing the darndest things. Most important, you do find them, and they make lots of noise. Boston’s legendary radio talker Howie Carr, a conservative-minded populist Democrat, has made a sympathetic home for working-class Republicanism on the most popular AM radio station in the state, WRKO. So much so that Carr’s mouthy producer, known as V.B., now has his own late-night talk show, V.B.’s Pleasure Pit, a source of more inside political gossip and knowledge than any newspaper columnist or TV commentator can muster.
V.B. describes himself as “a Republican radio host with a Republican radio show on a Republican radio station,” and that’s no small feat in the Commonwealth. But he’s not alone. Over on WBZ, David Brudnoy hosts one of Boston’s longest-running radio talk shows, and Brudnoy is — well, he’s unique. He’s gay, he’s HIV positive, and when that came out years back people assumed a) he was through and b) he was dead. He turned out to be neither, and he’s still tooling away, a prophet in Babylon.
Jeff Jacoby, syndicated columnist headquartered at the Boston Globe, works harder than most journalists, and reports better and more thoroughly, too. Jeff, like Brudnoy, is one of a kind — but of a very different kind. An Orthodox Jew, and a former editorial writer for the Boston Herald, Jeff bring to Massachusetts the point of view of a religious conservative. Last year, the Globe management put him on suspension for a trumped-up charge of plagiarism, for basing a column on a widely circulated piece of Internet lore. (Jacoby disclosed that on his mailing list, but apparently lost the attribution in his print column by some oversight.) Those of us who encouraged him at the time expected (I think) that he would write a book, or break out nationally some way or other. But Jeff stuck out the suspension and resumed work at the old stand. He knew how valuable his position was on the ur-liberal Globe, and he wasn’t about to give it up just because he had to put up with some months of embarrassment.
Heroic stuff, really.
Our realtor, Rosemary Smedile, turned out to be the Republican chairman of the North Andover Board of Selectmen. “People look at me, a woman, and assume I’m a Democrat,” Rosemary says. She sees one of her primary tasks as “setting a good example.” On one of our trips around town, Rosemary introduced me to Jim Xenakis, a fellow selectman and fellow Republican. I had expected a man in his fifties. Jim is 22. Another youngster, Ian Bain, has set up a foundation and a website called the Massachusetts Republican Society, privately funded, and aimed at developing GOP candidates for office. (More about these people in a later column.)
There’s the rub, really: candidacies. As V.B. puts it, “It’s almost impossible to win a rep election as a Republican.” Too many Democrats run unopposed here, literally unopposed. You can understand it. Republicans get beat up by a well-paid core of Democratic activists, including some truly nasty people. Once elected, a Republican gets nowhere against the Democratic machine on Beacon Hill. Here, as anywhere else, losers lose and winners win — that’s politics. As a result, when a real opportunity comes along, like the sudden retirement of Joe Kennedy, Jr. from Congress a few years back, no Republican is positioned to use the race even to draw attention to Republican issues.
But Massachusetts GOP-ers know they need help, and this year they figure they’ve got it. Mitt Romney, the pro from Dover, the guy from out of town, brings experience, class, money, name recognition, and experience to the Governor’s race. And most observers, Dems included, figure Romney will win this one — though he’ll have to work for it, it won’t be a walk.
The last high-profile Republican Governor, William Weld, got the Commonwealth back on a sound financial footing after the spending debacles of the Dukakis years — and then paid attention only to himself and his own fortunes, not to the party. Weld left the Massachusetts Republican Party, if not in worse shape, then certainly no better than when he came on the scene. Will Romney do better?
That’s the big question, and nobody knows the answer to that one yet.