Bay State Politics Take on Cartoon Style

An evening with the Simpsons, or the campaign for governor? - a letter from Massachusetts

WHO needs the Simpsons, TV's feuding cartoon family? Certainly not Massachusetts voters. We've had the campaign for next Tuesday's primary elections to watch.

The plot goes like this: As the SS Massachusetts Miracle sinks slowly into a sea of budget deficits and tax increases, the captain, Gov. Michael Dukakis, announces his retirement after getting passed over for promotion. The crew begins to argue about who gets to be captain next.

Meanwhile, the despairing passengers, tired of the squabbling and the poor service on board, are threatening to jump ship. Last week the first mate, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, mutinied and tried to grab the helm while the captain was off the bridge. For her trouble she got a stern rebuke and was sent to her cabin.

Unlike an evening with the Simpsons, however, an evening with the news is leaving voters angry - angry enough to bring a sea change to Massachusetts politics.

Until this week, three Democrats were in the race: Lieutenant Governor Murphy, former Attorney General Francis Bellotti, and Boston University president John Silber. Murphy, weighed down by her association with the now unpopular Mr. Dukakis, had for months run third in public opinion polls. Saying she was the only true liberal in the race, she was the only candidate calling for tax increases to solve the state's continuing fiscal crisis. Murphy also tried unsuccessfully to make abortion an issue in the campaign. But her Democratic rivals were also pro-choice.

A new budget deficit and a Dukakis trip gave Murphy a chance to break with him and try to catapult herself back into the race. On the eve of his departure last week, she announced that as acting governor she would cut the budget by $150 million, lay off 1,000 state workers, and slash senior state employees' salaries. The news media here dubbed it the ``Massachusetts Mutiny.''

By Monday, it was clear that Murphy wasn't going to get the ``bounce'' in the polls she needed to win. It was also clear that as Mr. Silber's popularity rose, Murphy risked splitting the liberal vote with Bellotti, allowing the more-conservative Silber to win the nomination with a plurality. So Murphy decided to get out of the race and support Bellotti.

Democrats are left to choose between Bellotti, who has a liberal record, and Silber, who has a broad following among voters angry with the traditional politicians. But Silber's negative ratings are high because of his abrasive style and inflammatory statements. Bellotti has a strong political base, but has been in public office since the 1960s, and risks being seen as part of the same crowd.

The first polls since Murphy left the race show Bellotti getting most of her support. He will probably win next Tuesday. But something else is happening. In greater numbers than ever, Democrats are reregistering as independents. On Wednesday, the secretary of state announced that registered independents are now the state's biggest group of voters. A lot of people think many new independent voters will vote in the Republican primary.

The GOP has two credible candidates this year. Conservative House minority leader Steven Pierce held a big lead over moderate William Weld since winning the party endorsement in February. But Weld, a former federal prosecutor who is a wealthy ``Boston Brahmin,'' has dipped into his checkbook to keep his campaign alive, and has closed to within striking distance of Mr. Pierce. A recent poll shows either Republican leading Silber and Bellotti. A Pierce or Weld victory in November would give the GOP control of the ``corner office'' for the first time since 1974.

The demise of the Murphy campaign shows that Massachusetts politics just ain't what they used to be. The state was 20 percent more Democratic than the national average in 1968; by 1988 it was only 7 percent more Democratic. It went for Reagan in 1980 and '84. The ``liberal'' Massachusetts that Bush skewered so effectively in the 1988 campaign is already history.

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