Bay State Democratic Party needs to cultivate political grass roots

Big parties -- yes, even political parties -- can be a lot of fun. But they can become too big and lose some of their appeal. This challenge of bigness now confronts Massachusetts Democratic leaders as they shape strategies for the years ahead.

Of some concern has to be the increasingly evident fact that there are nowhere near enough elective and appointive government posts to go around for party members aspiring to public office.

While still very much the dominant force, as it has been for more than three decades, on the Bay State political scene, the party's growth has slowed in recent years. Two results of last November's elections were particularly disquieting to Democratic leaders: a net loss of six seats in the state legislature and Republican President Reagan's victory in Massachusetts, despite the fact that Democrats outnumber the GOP by more than 3 to 1 on state voter rolls.

More recently, there was a disappointing turnout of Democrats at Feb. 9 town and ward caucuses across the state. There were approximately 15,000 party members on hand at the various local gatherings from Martha's Vineyard to the Berkshires -- fewer than the number who participated in similar sessions in recent years.

Maybe the low turnout was due to the cold temperatures that day, but special interests such as organized labor were well represented, and they succeeded in electing large blocs of delegates to the party's statewide convention May 17-18 in Springfield.

The purpose of the two-day spring get-together is to adopt a party platform embracing a broad statement of principles and goals for future direction of the party here and across the nation. More than 5,000 delegates, including the nearly 3,500 chosen at the recent caucuses, plus over 1,000 Democrats who hold various elective offices in Massachusetts, will participate in the statewide convention.

The elected officials, a substantial portion of them conservatives, will help provide some measure of balance to the convention, perhaps pushing a narrower agenda than liberal elements in the party have in mind.

Instead of possibly becoming bogged down debating the pros and cons of what might be little more than a laundry list of controversial issues such as public funding of abortion, party leaders are bent on developing a consensus on which way the party should be heading to win back the White House.

It is questionable, however, whether the Springfield convention will be as unifying as state Democratic chairman Chester G. Atkins and his party leadership colleagues anticipate, or at least hope.

If nothing else the gathering will give grass-roots party activists perhaps a greater sense of involvement and even a feeling of at least modest accomplishment.

Even if the approved platform, like other statements of objectives adopted at party delegate sessions here and elsewhere, proves to be worth little more than the paper it is written on, then it seems bound to focus attention on the party in a year when there are no state or national elections.

Detracting from the May gathering's appeal to rank-and-file Democrats may be the absence, thus far at least, of an intraparty contest for next year's gubernatorial nomination.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who is expected to seek reelection, was clearly the big winner at the February local caucuses, where members of his political organization were substantially involved as they have been in similar sessions in recent years.

A continued strong presence of Dukakis operatives and other supporters at caucuses next winter, when delegates will be chosen for the party's 1986 endorsing convention, can be expected.

Although no endorsements will be involved in this May's platform meeting, several would-be and could-be candidates for next year's Democratic nomination for the now-vacant post of lieutenant governor will be moving about the May convention lining up early support in the party ranks. Such an exercise may prove worthwhile, since many of the delegates to the coming gathering seem likely to be involved in the 1986 endorsement session.

But regardless of how much of a 1986 Massachusetts campaign table-setter the May gathering of Democrats proves to be, it at least gives party activists something to look forward to in their ongoing efforts to woo more voters to their cause.

Chairman Atkins, under whose leadership the party has strengthened its roots, makes it clear that continued growth is not being taken for granted. Yet what has to be a concern to him and others dedicated to a stronger and more influential Democratic presence in Massachusetts is the steady increase in the number of so-called independents, those enrolled in neither political party.

The nonaffiliated registered voters now total nearly 1.4 million, or less than 100,000 fewer than Bay State Democrats. And, on the surface at least, Republicans with an enrollment now numbering slightly under 386,000 are not that much of a threat on their own.

Independents and GOP voters combined, however, comprise a majority of the Massachusetts electorate, now at more than 3.2 million.

Clearly this combination of Republicans and independents had a large part in last fall's Reagan victory in Massachusetts. But there is little doubt that a generous number of Democrats also supported the GOP President rather than Walter Mondale, their party's nominee.

The current efforts to rally Bay State Democrats, and in the process help charter a new course nationally toward regaining the White House in 1988, may have been somewhat complicated by state chairman Atkins's newly acquired responsibilities as a member of congress.

Despite having to spend considerable time in Washington, the Concord Democrat has no intention of handing the state Democratic gavel to someone else.

If the dual roles of state party leader and member of Congress do not work out all that well, however, pressures within Massachusetts Democratic ranks could force a change in the chairmanship. Thus far, there appears to be no such move in the offing.

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