Massachusetts matrix: the politics that molded Dukakis

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Michael Dukakis is nominated for president at the Democratic National Convention this week, he may well invoke the memory of the last such nominee from his state, John F. Kennedy. The differences between the former president and the Massachusetts governor are many. Whereas Jack Kennedy was groomed by an ambitious millionaire father on the world stage, for example, Mike Dukakis pulled himself doggedly through the ranks of Massachusetts politics. Whereas Kennedy had a sense of irony and savoir-faire, Dukakis is a plugger who has rarely been accused of eloquence.

Yet in the politics of the state, Kennedy and Dukakis cannot be separated. It was Kennedy, more than anyone else, who provided a bridge between the tribal Irish politics of his grandparents and the suburban, managerial Democratic polity that Dukakis has come to represent.

``The Kennedy culture made Dukakis possible,'' says Jerome Grossman, president of the Council for a Livable World and a longtime liberal activist in Massachusetts.

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The link is important to understanding the instincts that Dukakis would bring to Washington.

Commentators have tried to fix the Massachusetts governor on the liberal-conservative spectrum commonly applied to national issues. Republicans have been painting him a Walter Mondale replica.

But such comparisons largely miss the point. Dukakis is a thoroughly Massachusetts figure. Until now, his entire political career has consisted of striving for - and serving as - the governor of the state. His politics cannot be understood without reference to the historical progression that led from such rogue-Irish politicians as James Michael Curley - whose career as mayor of Boston, governor, and congressman spanned the first half of this century - to Dukakis himself.

Dukakis's contribution to this progression has been less an ideological agenda than a desire to reform the processes of government that the old-style Democrats had abused.

``With the exception of Utah,'' notes Kevin Harrington, former president of the state Senate and one-time history teacher, ``Massachusetts has been the most ethnically and religiously oriented state in the nation.'' The central theme in the state's politics has been the tension between Brahmins and small-town Yankees on the one hand, and more recent immigrants - mainly Irish, but Italian and Jewish as well - on the other.

As has often been noted, Protestant Massachusetts in the mid-19th century showed much less solicitude for the impoverished Irish fleeing the potato famine than for the black slaves safely distanced from its borders. The Irish were barred from jobs and housing. There was even a move to increase the residency requirement for voting from five to 21 years.

Irish turn to politics

Excluded from good jobs, the Irish sought upward mobility in politics instead. Since the Yankees were Republicans, the Irish became Democrats. As the Almanac of American Politics notes, the parties then were aligned very differently from today. Republicans were the party of ``big government'' - protective tariffs, railroad subsidies, and ultimately, keeping the union together. Democrats were the anti-Washington party, which squared nicely with the Irish experience of the British government back home.

The early Irish pols were not ``liberals'' in today's sense. They ministered to their constituents through ward political machines rather than through government programs. The original Boston ward boss was a man named Martin Lomasney, whose formula was simple. As Peter Collier and David Horowitz recount in their book ``The Kennedys,'' in turn-of-the-century Boston Mr. Lomasney would find housing and jobs for Irish arrivals. They would register as Democrats and vote as he suggested.

The result over the years was a local politics rich in color if not probity. It included such characters as ``Mother'' Garvin, so called because of his frequent references to his dear departed, ``Up-Up'' Kelly, whose job was to bring crowds to their feet just before Mr. Curley's arrival, and John J. ``Honey Fitz'' Fitzgerald, JFK's maternal grandfather.

Italians and Jews faced a welcome from the Protestant establishment (and, ironically, sometimes from the Irish themselves) similar to that the Irish encountered. Mr. Grossman recalls that when he started out in the envelope business, he had to call himself ``Mr. Jerome'' to get to see potential customers.

Not surprisingly, these groups followed the Irish into the Democratic Party. ``If your name was O'Mally or Goldberg, of course you were a Democrat,'' Mr. Harrington says.

Boston elected its first Irish mayor in 1888. And in 1948 Democrats finally wrested control of the state House of Representatives from the Yankees. A key juncture in this quest was the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith, the Irish Catholic governor of New York and Democratic nominee. The Smith campaign prompted non-Protestant women to register, something they hadn't done in great numbers since women gained the vote eight years before.

``For the first time, it was the Agnes Goldbergs and the Mary Stupinskis who registered,'' Harrington says. ``That was the watershed.''

Yet Massachusetts after World War II was far from the liberal bastion it is commonly considered today. Sen. Joe McCarthy was popular here. (Joseph Kennedy Sr., Jack's father, entertained the senator at Hyannisport, and Bobby Kennedy worked for him.) The state legislature had a joint Un-American Affairs Committee.

The Democratic Party was conservative and blue-collar, more concerned with distributing the spoils than with an issue agenda. The Roman Catholic Church was still a major political power. Doctors were prohibited by law from giving birth-control advice.

The young Jack Kennedy who entered this milieu had one foot in the traditional politics. For Jack's first congressional campaign in 1946, his father enlisted such old Boston pols as Joe Kane, a prot'eg'e of Martin Lomasney. Legend has it that Mr. Kane dealt with JFK's main primary opponent, one Joe Russo, the old-fashioned way: He enlisted another Joe Russo to add his name to the ballot, thus muddling the Russo vote.

The House of Representatives seat Kennedy ran for had been Curley's own. But Kennedy signaled his break from the old politics by refusing to sign a petition calling on then-President Truman to commute Curley's conviction for mail fraud.

Jack Kennedy's new style

While enchanting the Irish ladies in Charlestown, Kennedy spoke especially to returning war veterans, who had seen a world beyond Haymarket Square and were ready for a vision larger than what local politics had traditionally offered. Billy Robinson, former minority leader in the Massachusetts House, acknowledges that even as a Republican he felt that ``Jack was my President.''

Stylistically, JFK was a far cry from the florid oratory of the Curley school. Perhaps most important, Kennedy's Harvard pedigree and urbanity (he was called a ``Green Brahmin'') made it respectable to vote Democratic in the expanding post-war suburbs. Robert C. Wood, then president of the University of Massachusetts, described him later as a ``rational, problem-solving, consensual politician.''

By capturing the state Senate in 1958, Democrats took charge of the redistricting process that had helped Republicans control the legislature. ``The Democrats did to the Republicans what the Republicans had done to them for 100 years,'' says Harrington, who himself was first elected that year. ``That started an avalanche.''

It was events of the '60s that gave the avalanche its particular coloration, at least on national issues. In 1960, the Democrats had run an all-Irish ``Green ticket'' for state offices, prompting widespread resentment and the election of Republican John Volpe as governor. Two years later, the Kennedys made sure that Endicott (Chub) Peabody, a Yankee, headed the state ticket. He became the first Protestant Democrat governor in memory.

Then came the independent ``peace'' campaign of H.Stuart Hughes, a Harvard history professor, for the open Senate seat in 1962. Mr. Hughes's Democratic opponent was Edward Kennedy, who was ``not at all liberal back then,'' Jerome Grossman recalls. ``Our aim was to talk over the head of Ted Kennedy to his brother'' in the White House.

The Hughes campaign may or may not have encouraged President Kennedy's push for a nuclear test ban treaty. But in Massachusetts, it definitely mobilized a new - largely Protestant and suburban - constituency that was primed for action when the Vietnam war began to escalate.

With the highest concentration of college students in the country, Massachusetts felt the political impact of that war even more than most states. Student volunteers thronged to New Hampshire to work in Sen. Eugene McCarthy's primary campaign. Later that year, Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in Massachusetts by a wider margin than John Kennedy had done eight years before.

Soon the state was electing to Congress liberals such as the Rev. Robert Drinan in 1970. Two years later, Massachusetts was the only state to vote for George McGovern for president, and two Protestant Democrats entered the state Senate. One was John Olver, a chemistry professor from the University of Massachusetts.

``The suburban Yuppie districts would have been Republican,'' Senator Olver recalls. ``But with the McCarthy campaign and the Vietnam war, they had become liberal.''

In 1974, Dukakis defeated Robert Quinn in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Harrington calls this election ``another watershed.'' Four years later Paul Tsongas, another Greek-American, won election to the Senate. ``It was the end of the Irish domination of the party,'' Harrington says.

Today, Democrats hold both houses of the legislature, by wide margins, and every statewide office. The state's entire congressional delegation is Democratic, save one Republican, Silvio Conte, who is more liberal than many Democrats from other states.

The old ethnic politics are rapidly giving way to the new status badges of the state's high-tech, service-sector prosperity. Harrington's son is a council member in the North Shore city of Salem. Ethnicity is irrelevant to his constituents, Harrington says. What counts is that he's a Ph.D.

The irony is that as Massachusetts Democrats have become more affluent and suburban - that is, more the core constituency of Michael Dukakis - they have become more like the Yankee Republicans the party displaced.

The state is not the liberal monolith it at first appears to be. State and local politics tend to be more practical than ideological. That Massachusetts is virtually a one-party state, moreover, has simply brought more of the ideological spectrum under the Democratic tent. ``There is no real need to have a party platform or agenda that holds the Democrats together,'' Olver says.

The legislative leadership tends to be conservative. They'll go along with a universal medical insurance bill; voters like the idea, and it's an extension of the old ward-heeler tradition. But they'll also veto a Boston plan to provide sterile needles to drug addicts.

Liberal conservative Democrats

Social conservatives in South Boston oppose mandatory busing but see nothing wrong with universal medical insurance or plant-closing bills. Suburban social liberals, meanwhile, are pro-choice but anti-tax.

The tax revolt has become an established presence in the state, serving in effect as the opposition party. Recent ballot initiatives suggest a pattern similar to that of the country at large. In 1986, for example, voters approved a state-tax cap to go along with the property-tax cap (Proposition 2) they enacted in 1980. Yet they also approved strong environmental measures, and they rejected proposals to ban abortions and provide public funding for parochial schools.

These results mirror the fate of the Reagan initiatives in Washington: The tax cuts flew, environmental cutbacks and the conservative social agenda didn't.

They are also quite congenial to the politics of Michael Dukakis. Dukakis was never identified closely with the crusades of the '60s, nor with Great Society-style programs. He was a party reformer: His foil was the old corrupt Democratic politics. His early issues involved such things as Boston's postwar highway frenzy and the excesses of its urban renewal programs, both of which gave off whiffs of contract boondoggles.

As a state legislator in the mid-'60s, Dukakis was best known for pushing through single-handedly the nation's first no-fault auto-insurance bill. His aim has been the reform of process, making institutions more efficient.

``There is no way you can call Dukakis a flaming liberal,'' Grossman says. He ``represents the suburban culture against the big city.''

By a strange twist, the fall campaign may enable the Massachusetts governor to play out this same political psychodrama that sped his rise in Massachusetts. The President he hopes to succeed has a bit of the Irish blarney against which Dukakis plays so well. There have been official improprieties and even a contracting scandal.

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