disfunction The Massachusetts GOP election has grabbed attention and headlines over the past few years, but what should be of concern is the quiet collapse of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
In February 2006, Deval Patrick shocked the world of Massachusetts Democrats by sweeping caucus after caucus, and many first-timers defeated the combined forces of the Massachusetts Democratic establishment — Organization of congressmen, mayors, state legislators, labor unions and their political organization employees and advisors.
Patrick emerged from the caucuses, won the support of the Massachusetts Democratic Party at the Massachusetts Democratic Convention in June, defeated the Democratic establishment’s gubernatorial pick (then Attorney General Tom Riley) in 2006, and then won the defeated Republican Kerry Healy in the November general election. Activists involved in Patrick’s campaign continue to have a significant impact on our state’s politics. A good example is current Democratic state committeewoman and East Hampton mayor Nicole LaChappelle, who got her start in politics during DeVaal’s campaign.
Sixteen years later, Patrick’s path to victory and subsequent exploitation of the Massachusetts Democratic Party seems quaint because it took place in a world that no longer exists. In 2022, the insurgents could easily win the support of the Massachusetts Democratic Party; it is almost impossible for these insurgents to win at the ballot box.
This year, the winners of the General Assembly races for attorney general, secretary of state and auditor have all lost badly in statewide primaries. To really be clear about what that means, a candidate chosen by the Democratic Party’s radical class is rejected by the Democratic Party’s primary constituency. It’s not a one-time event either, but is becoming more and more common at statewide and even local races. The best example is the Secretary of State race, the second time in as many elections that the radical class of Massachusetts Democrats supported incumbent William Calvin’s opponent. Galvin, as he did in 2018, then decisively defeated his opponent at the ballot box.
What has changed? In 2006, Patrick won the caucuses, showing grassroots enthusiasm for anti-establishment candidates. Winning the caucuses and conventions by 2022 will not require grassroots enthusiasm or organizational prowess, but rather a personal connection to the activist class and a willingness to bow to their narrow cultural and policy philosophies.
The growing disconnect between candidates who appeal to these activists and those who appeal to Democratic primary voters should prompt a rethink of how Massachusetts Democrats do business. That didn’t happen, largely because the balance against activists that used to exist in the Massachusetts Democratic Party no longer exists.
Elected officials and their organizations, who used to work with and fight against the activist class, have completely abandoned the formal process of the party. Elected officials and would-be elected officials have seen a growing divide between Democratic activists and Democratic voters — and followed voters. The result was that many Democrats won offices, but the Massachusetts Democratic Party and its local town and district boards were not a significant part of those victories.
It might seem odd to claim that a party’s elected officials are no longer meaningfully involved in the running of their party, but that has been happening very openly on the Republican side of the Massachusetts aisle for the past few years. While the fight between Jim Lyons and Charlie Baker is more intense, the contours of the fight are very similar to what happened to the Democrats.
For 16 years, elected officials and their political organizations have gradually been withdrawn from the formal process of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Instead of loudly announcing eventual separation like the Massachusetts GOP, the split within the Massachusetts GOP has been relatively quiet.
Marty Walsh resigned as mayor, taking with him the political organization he led. Boston’s Democratic political machine has been an institution of the Massachusetts Democratic Party since its founding in the 19th century, but in 2022, Michelle Wu decided to end it. Her supporters did not ask her campaign supporters or city employees to serve as representatives or volunteers at the mayoral-approved campaign. A local machine has played a leading role in determining the fate of statewide candidates and, more importantly, in the election of every statewide Democrat for most of the state’s history, only no longer exists.
Wu is simply following in the footsteps of his colleagues. In 2022, elected officials and their political organizations are largely without the power to field them in caucuses and conventions. The Democratic Party’s most important elected officials have consciously ceded control of the statewide party to the activist class and are now conducting elections without the participation of the state or its local affiliates.
The end of Massachusetts Republicans and Democrats as organizations focused on electoral office requires serious reform of the Commonwealth’s electoral system. Brinkman reforms, such as ending the requirement that at least 15 percent of convention delegates vote for a candidate to advance to a statewide primary, aren’t enough.
The whole party primary process is so rotten that it needs to be thrown out. Massachusetts needs a nonpartisan primary, with the top two winners running in November.
While such changes have been attempted elsewhere, the next reform – the rules for joining and creating political parties – has not yet been attempted.
Now, activists from the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and those who oppose them are vying for control of the Somerville Democratic District Committee. Different versions of the Democrat-to-Democrat struggle can be seen in the towns and cities of the Commonwealth, especially within Route 128.
A new party system that allows people to maintain national ties and increase ties at the local or state level will serve our Commonwealth better. In Somerville, the two sides have starkly different ideas about how the city should be run, even though they vote for a Democratic presidential nominee every four years. Allowing local groups to organize local political parties with caucuses, conventions, platforms, and most importantly, as a legal mechanism for coordinating voter data, volunteer work, and campaign spending. Take the current battles over housing, transportation, open space, and city hall transparency in the borough board races and make them public.
Massachusetts needs to rethink how we elect our leaders and the state-level party system that develops future leaders. The existing system proved unable to reflect statewide and local concerns and divisions in Massachusetts.
Gregory Maynard is a political consultant in Brockton and a member of his Democratic city and district committee. He has managed or consulted on two dozen campaigns, including those of former Somerville Mayor Joe Cottatone, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo and Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan.