Democrats' Race Gathers Steam

Convention endorses Bellotti, but opens way for Silber, placing popular outsider on ballot. MASSACHUSETTS

BAY State Democrats have set the stage for a vigorous gubernatorial primary in September, endorsing Francis Bellotti for the post but voting to put current front-runner John Silber on the ballot. The actions took place at the party's convention here Saturday. Besides Mr. Bellotti, a former attorney general and lieutenant governor, and Dr. Silber, president of Boston University, current Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy also qualified for the primary ballot.

``I cannot ever remember a moment in my life when I've experienced a greater honor than this,'' Mr. Bellotti told the delegates. ``It's the story of my life - to hang on and win where we're not supposed to win.''

Bellotti received the endorsement on the second ballot with 51.4 percent of the 4,613 votes cast, while Ms. Murphy received 40 percent. Party rules require that a candidate receive more than 50 percent of the vote to gain the endorsement and at least 15 percent to qualify for the primary. Dr. Silber won 15.5 percent of the vote on the first ballot.

Murphy had been expected to make a stronger showing. Her campaign had predicted for months that she would defeat Bellotti and win the endorsement.

State Rep. John Flood, a fiscal conservative who opposes abortion, did not qualify, receiving only 8.5 percent of the second-ballot votes.

The question of ballot access has caused controversy in the party all spring, fed by the possibility that Silber and Mr. Flood, both of whom were considered serious candidates, would not receive 15 percent of the votes at a convention dominated by Murphy and Bellotti supporters. The issue of Silber's candidacy became acute as he steadily rose in the polls from a distant third place to front-runner in a recent Boston Herald-WCVB-TV survey.

Several Democratic elected officials, including most of the state's congressional delegation and former speaker of the United States House of Representatives Thomas O'Neill Jr., urged that the 15-percent rule be abandoned or modified. But on Friday night, the convention turned back a proposal by Somerville Mayor Michael Capuano to reduce the threshold to 5 percent.

Silber supporters like Senate President William Bulger of Boston, argued it would be a ``terrible error'' to exclude the controversial but increasingly popular university president from the ballot. Many contended that it would damage the party's already-tarnished image and might even drive conservative Democrats to the Republican Party.

In the weeks before the convention, speculation was rife that liberal Murphy or moderate Bellotti would share delegates with Silber and Flood to ensure they could run in the primary. But Silber managed to scramble onto the ballot on his own.

``Sixty-six percent of registered Democrats thought I should be on the ballot,'' Silber said. ``This energized the campaign and a large number of delegates and a large number of politicians who saw that it was in the interest of the party that I be on the ballot.''

But Silber, who claims to be the campaign ``outsider'' and who joined the campaign in January, said it was ``a mistake'' that Flood was not on the ballot also.

For several hours Saturday morning, it was uncertain whether there would even be a convention. A picket line of Springfield and other police officers blocked the entrance to the civic center over a contract dispute with the city. When all four gubernatorial candidates refused to cross the picket line, most delegates stayed out as well. As the morning wore on, tempers began to flare and there was some pushing and shoving when some delegates chose to cross the line and enter the building.

Many delegates expressed anger over picketing by a union, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, that supported George Bush in 1988 and will allegedly back a Republican for governor. Some, like Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), accused the GOP of organizing the protest.

``Going negative isn't just a Republican campaign strategy - it's a state of mind,'' he told delegates. ``We've seen a pretty good example of that this morning here in Springfield.'' The situation was resolved when the Democratic State Committee got a court order to halt the picketing. The convention, which had been due to start at 9:00 a.m., finally got under way around 12:45 p.m.

The Democrats also endorsed US Sen. John Kerry, who was unopposed, for reelection.

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