Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Trio of One for Secretary

Four years ago, dailies and weeklies around Massachusetts joined bloggers and other busybodies in scolding Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin for blowing off debates and other appearances. Not so this time.

That is, not so for the champions of the voters. The Secretary is doing the same...and it may work for him again.

Disclaimer: We at Left Ahead! have been trying to get Galvin on for a show and still hope to before the election. His campaign manager/brother Patrick is dangling the likelihood of that happening in the middle of October. I admit that we are pretty polite and sweet for a talk show. It's almost always a single guest. We don't pull surprise adversaries in person or on the phone. We don't spring trick questions. We're about exploring a politician's past, positions, proposals and plans.

This week, I attended the local Drinking Liberally to see and hear a challenger to Galvin, independent Jim Henderson. He has no problem with public appearances. In fact, in several ways he wants and needs to be out there.

One way is beyond my abilities. One of his avocations is public singing, as in the Christmas Revels. He has performed several times, including last season with his two children. At the Globe bar yesterday, he did an a cappella verse and chorus from the Revels, replete with table pounding, with his soda glass substituting for a wassail cup.

The dozen liberals around the table agreed that was a first for them and cheered his performance.

Lately, Henderson has often taken the stage alone. Our November 2nd ballot will have a choice among three for Secretary: Democrat William Francis Galvin, Republican William C. Campbell, and independent James D. Henderson. Yet on the way, it might appear that only Henderson is actually campaigning.

Anti-incumbent year?

Old enough to have grown up when everyone had to take civics classes and all my relatives always voted in every election, I have never adapted to voter apathy or incumbent passivity as a strategy. Yet, let's not pretend is has not become a common tactic for incumbents to blow off the public and traditional processes of democracy. If they can stay in office by relying on (INCUMBENT) beside their names, avoiding debates and interviews, many will and do.

So, for the situation-ethics sorts, you'd have to say that is a practical long as it works. The question this election is how wise it that?

Immediately, let me admit failure. While all my other endorsements were talismanic (or at least prophetic), my endorsement of Mac D'Alessandro over (that word again) incumbent 9th CD Rep. Steve Lynch was a display of raw optimism. Moreover, in my endorsement post, I noted the coincidence that no one who had refused to answer our Left Ahead! request for a podcast won. Lynch was the first. He surely doesn't know but he beat me as well as Mac.

A big factor was how well his ploy of avoiding public exposure, campaigning, debates, and explaining his votes and other record worked for him. In what is supposed to be a strong anti-incumbent year, all he had to do was sit there, as my mother would have said, like a wart on a pickle.

You would think that voters would reject any candidates too arrogant and cowardly to face the competition. You'd think wrong in this case, and perhaps with Galvin as well.

Checking the press coverage from four years ago, I am struck by how well that worked for him in 2006. His alleged competition was firebrand voting reformer John Bonifaz. In the Dem primary, Galvin skunked him, getting 80% of the vote. Before the primary, the local media and bloggers ranted about how the Secretary would not show up for debates or any forum, and would not agree to set debates.

Here again, you'd think voters should be furious at such disrespect. Clearly no more than 20% were, if that.

Push the time-machine lever back to 2010. Pile on the additional weight of strong anti-incumbent America. Surely, surely, the refusnik candidates would doom themselves by not participating in the election rituals and expectations.

That's one hope that Henderson held forth before the liberal beer swillers. He also spoke of Bonifaz' efforts and failure.

Asked why he'd run as an independent, he laid it out. Certainly that means no party machine or funds, but it also means no primary, in which the incumbent has to be a total boob, crook or sinner to lose. Henderson said that he knows and respects Bonifaz. However, he thought going against Galvin in the Dem primary was toxic to the candidacy. As Henderson put it, "John Bonifaz was absolutely squashed. Why should I repeat his mistakes?"

Disclaimer: In 1996, Henderson supported and I endorsed Bonifaz.

Henderson explained that as an independent he needed only get enough signatures to be on the ballot. Fund-raising is entirely another issue, as is assembling a crew of volunteer and paid minions for the campaign.

He added that he's aware Galvin's avoidance strategy has worked for him, helping him stay in office almost two decades. "I think he runs a real risk this year," he added, explaining that the label incumbent may be a negative to many voters. Other than an occasional $1 on the lottery, I am not a betting man. Were I, I wouldn't put any money on anti-incumbency swaying a particular election.

Back to the verifiable world, Henderson said that this year for this race, "The issue is getting my name out there." I would add that another huge issue is making voters aware that Secretary is a key office that is long overdue for an overhaul. This second issue may be the pivot for the race.

Henderson admitted that he regularly explains to groups he addresses and individual voters he meets in retail electioneering what the Secretary does. It is a satrapy with many powers of great diversity — elections, corporations, securities, and tons of key public records, among others. Long before Henderson explains how he wants to put satellite Secretary offices around, allow free and easy public access to, well, supposedly public records, and expand voting options, he needs to provide context to each voter.

Heroic Task

This is a crucial office, but who beyond policy wonks and political fetishists knows that? Educating over 4 million registered voters is one heck of a task and Henderson has five weeks left to finish that. I know and like him. He has huge energy reserves, cares deeply about the commonwealth, has strong and clear vision for the office, and is very smart. Yet, his task seems daunting to me.

Oddly though, commentators have been fairly silent this election. We have two down-ballot races of great importance that offer a once-in-a-generation chance for major reform and upgrade — Treasurer and Secretary. The media have sort of and tepidly gotten a handle on the distinctions between Treasurer would-be Dem Steve Grossman and GOP Karyn Polito. That's a clear choice and Grossman is out there in wanting to be a progressive activist, while Polito wants to just keep the money safe.

Maybe because of Galvin's strategy, the media have not not set up their own debates and debate-like-events (a.k.a. simple-minded forums). They have not analyzed the three candidates. They have not looked at the Secretary's role and performance, to ask whether Henderson is right that we need serious change.

Over at Left Ahead!, we figured this was important enough to tackle early. In April, we had Henderson on the show. We may finally get Galvin. I confess that I did not ask Campbell, after reviewing his very narrow set of issues.

In addition to going back over my own material and the various media coverage of this cycle and 2004's, I figured Bonifaz' view on Henderson's tack would be as illuminating as Henderson's on Bonifaz'. Instead, I got the state of 2010 answers when I tracked the 2004 contender down by phone.

He sounded for all the world like the incumbent keeping an arm's distance. After I identified myself and asked if he had comments, he said simply, "Unfortunately I don't and I'm tied up, but thank you for asking."

So, that's where we've arrived. So far, two of the three Secretary candidates have blown off appearances at public forums, they haven't agreed to debates or even answered Henderson's formal requests for them, and they won't show at newspaper editorial-board interviews. The former contender not being willing to lend his experience and insights should be no surprise.

This isn't the ideal of the political and election process I learned. However, it may be the new reality.

For the race in question though, I'm still hoping for several debates this month and that Galvin will talk to us.

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