This time, Massachusetts promises election fireworks over top job

Governor's race offers sharp ideological and generational choices - and big names.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Massachusetts governor's race is how many people seem to want the job.

After a politically bleak couple of years, during which two governors abandoned their posts mid-term and the current acting governor has been plagued by one scandal after another, Bay State politics are finally generating some excitement again.

Yesterday, Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary during the Clinton administration, joined an already-competitive field of Democratic contenders who are mounting a challenge to acting Republican Gov. Jane Swift.

The move reflects the fact that Democrats are feeling especially confident about their chances in governors' races this year - and Governor Swift is seen as a particularly vulnerable target, both because of the various controversies that have surrounded her tenure, and because Massachusetts is a heavily Democratic state.

Still, Swift - who landed on magazine covers and in American hearts as the first governor to give birth in office - made things interesting last week by naming an openly gay man as her running mate.

And Mr. Reich, a silver-tongued intellectual with strong name recognition who has never held elective office, will also have to get through what is likely to be a tough primary. The Democratic field includes a number of state politicians, including the state Senate president, the state treasurer, and a former Democratic Party chair, many of whom have already gathered strong backing, and have a good head start on the fundraising trail.

"It will be a free-for-all," says Gus Bickford, former executive director of the state Democratic Party. "There really is a choice out there between four or five extremely talented individuals."

The free-for-all character of the race fits well, in some ways, with what has been a fairly tumultuous few months for the Bay State. Recent controversies over the sale of the Red Sox and an embarrassing dispute between Harvard University's president and the chair of the Afro-American Studies department have landed on the front pages of national newspapers.

On the political front, the state has had to contend with a long, drawn-out budget dispute, and of course, the perennial dispute over cost overruns for the multibillion-dollar "Big Dig" underground highway project. Most controversial, however, have been revelations about security lapses at Boston's Logan airport, where 10 of the hijackers boarded planes Sept. 11 - and the top two officials in charge of the airport were revealed to be patronage appointees.

In his announcement, Reich took on a number of these issues, calling the scandals at Logan and the state's port authority "cronyism" and "chronic mismanagement."

He also criticized Swift directly, citing the state's "current vacuum of leadership," echoing his past comment to the press characterizing her as "an embarrassment" - jabs that strike glee in the hearts of some political observers anticipating gubernatorial debates.

"A debate between Swift and Reich would provide major entertainment to the voters," says Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University. "Reich is so good on his feet. He knows what he believes in and knows how to articulate it, [whereas] Swift is always cautious, and tries to be conscious of what she's saying."

Reich also attempted to tie himself to the Clinton administration's record of economic growth, promising to lay out his plan to help the state's ailing economy.

Significantly, Reich, who is currently a professor at Brandeis University, is joining a number of former Clinton administration officials who are seeking elective office this year. Among them: Former Attorney General Janet Reno is running for governor of Florida, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is running for governor of New Mexico, former chief of staff Erskine Bowles is running for US Senate in North Carolina, and former political adviser Rahm Emmanuel is running for US Congress in Illinois.

But although Reich, like these other candidates, may be running on the Clinton administration's record, he himself had largely broken with Bill Clinton over what he perceived as the president's abandonment of the left. Indeed, during the 2000 election, Reich endorsed Bill Bradley over former Vice President Al Gore.

Reich's strong liberal views will provide an interesting test for a state that clearly leans left, but whose past three governors have been Republicans.

"It adds plenty of zest," says Mr. Berkovitz.

"You have someone who is unabashedly liberal in a state that is liberal but doesn't always want to pretend it is."

Reich's entrance could also create a dilemma for certain liberal activists in the state who may have already pledged support for other candidates. The state's organized labor groups, for example, have largely backed Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who also has strong liberal credentials - though Reich, a fierce champion of the minimum wage and workers' rights - will undoubtedly try to win over their support.

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