Caucus Tests Candidates' Strength

One town's Democratic Party tussle helps set stage for Massachusetts gubernatorial election. GRASS-ROOTS POLITICS

IT is snowing and sleeting, and the temperature is hovering around the freezing mark on the first Saturday in February. But the bad weather does not prevent more than 300 voters in this town of 60,000 people west of Boston from driving to a middle school to make a small contribution to American democracy, Massachusetts style.

Voters who are registered Democrats are meeting around the state to elect delegates to next June's state party convention. That body will endorse candidates running for statewide office in next September's primary election, which will lead to general elections in November.

``I'm here because I think it's important to be involved,'' says Lauren Eramo, a young woman attending her first caucus.

This year the stakes are high. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), beset by state budget deficits, has seen his popularity plummet since he lost the presidential race to Republican George Bush last year.

The unpopularity of the governor and the Democratic leadership in the legislature has created the best chance in almost two decades for a Republican to win the governor's chair.

There are four Democratic candidates: Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, a liberal who supports a tax increase and abortion rights; former attorney general Francis Bellotti, a moderate who wants budget cuts before raising taxes; Boston University president John Silber, a fiscal and social conservative known for his abrasive, direct approach; and state Rep. John Flood, a conservative who calls for deep spending cuts and who is the only Democratic candidate opposed to legalized abortion.

Interest in the race has drawn many participants. Jack Hoffman says he has not attended a caucus since his anti-Vietnam War days in 1972. ``John Silber got me back in,'' he says, explaining that he opposes Dr. Silber's candidacy.

But the saying that all politics is local will be proved here today. While the gubernatorial campaigns have worked to line up votes, the balloting will be a shootout between the two factions of Framingham Democrats.

The liberal or ``progressive'' wing that supported Dukakis now favors Ms. Murphy or Mr. Bellotti. But the ``old guard,'' traditional ethnic and working-class Democrats who are more conservative, are still a force to be reckoned with in town politics. Some of them also support Bellotti, but others prefer Mr. Flood or Silber.

Those running to be chosen as delegates are usually identified as supporters of a specific gubernatorial candidate or as uncommitted, so that caucus participants know for whom they are voting.

But not today. Two slates of candidates are running to fill 33 delegate posts: 16 for men, 16 for women, and one that can be filled by either sex. None of the candidates' gubernatorial preferences are listed. To all appearances, both slates are uncommitted. Most of the people here today, however, know exactly who is supporting whom, and have turned out in response to aggressive telephone campaigns waged by the two factions.

Ms. Eramo and Mr. Hoffman say they are leaning toward Murphy. They will vote for the ``blue slate,'' which represents the liberals.

So will Judy Katz, who has come to her first caucus to support ``friends and folks I know who are on the ballot.''

At the back of the auditorium, Alphonse (Ponzy) Ferullo, a town Democratic chairman in the 1950s and '60s, says he will split his vote between the blue and the white slates, voting for delegates supporting Bellotti.

The meeting is opened for nominations for the men's slots. Town official Gerard Desilets moves that the two-minute candidate speeches be dispensed with. This time-saving measure is approved, but it means that those who have come to the meeting without knowing the candidates will have to fend for themselves.

The two slates are nominated, and voting commences by secret ballot. The process is then repeated for the women's positions.

Tension mounts as the ballot-counting process seems to go on forever. Finally, the chairwoman announces that the blue slate has won all 16 men's slots by more than 58 percent. The old guard has gone down to defeat. While the liberals congratulate each other, most of the white slate supporters quietly get up and leave.

After another interminable period, it is announced that the blue slate has also swept the vote for the women's slots.

White-slate supporters grumble about being shut out of the party and about factionalism. But Mr. Desilets, on the winning side, doesn't see it that way.

``This is not indicative of a split in the town [party],'' he says. ``But it's not a compromise either. We tried to work one, but it didn't come together. Progressive Democrats had to stand up for their principles.''

Local politics aside, the big winners have been Murphy and Bellotti. No one is sure exactly how many delegates each has won, since several people are undecided. The Murphy campaign later says it has garnered at least 17 delegates here.

Today's vote is partly symbolic - the state convention merely endorses a candidate. Nomination in Massachusetts occurs in the primary election. Still, the convention is important, since a candidate must have at least 15 percent of the delegate votes there to be listed on the primary ballot.

As the day ends, the Murphy and Bellotti headquarters in Boston are both claiming to have won the delegate race. Both are well above the 15 percent level. But the results spell trouble for Flood and Silber - each got 1 percent or less.

The local caucus plays a vital role in the state's political system. As Jack Hoffman puts it: ``This is how a power base begins.''

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