Friday, July 06, 2007

5th CD: What's Experience Worth?

When Jimi Hendrix sang the question, "Are you experienced?" he wasn't referring to qualifications for U.S. Congress. Likely if he were alive and anything like he was way back, he wouldn't care which of the candidates wins the September primary or October election to become the 5th CD Rep.

For those who do care, how odd it is that experience is not a huge issue here. Those with the most applicable résumés try to push it; those who don't blow off the subject. The polls don't indicate that this issue drives voters, not here and now.

No candidate has represented the district in U.S. Congress before. Depending on how you slice it, the spectrum of expertise, accomplishment and comparable experience runs from tons to scant.

The most candid about the experience issue was David O'Brien. He had never been elected to anything, but was redolent of politics, serving many years on the state and national Democratic committees. He knows the people and how things work, and has seen how people get elected or fail trying.

He stayed in the race for only a couple of months, confronting the question directly. When sco asked him if he had what it took to hold the office, he said:
I do. I’m not sure that elective office is the only thing that should be measured when the voters look at all of us and our qualifications to be their next Congressman. I’ve got a pretty diverse background of experience in state government, in the federal government, in the private sector and working for nonprofits.
He sang the same tune, but a little different lyrics when he dropped out at the end of April, saying:
Everywhere I went people responded enthusiastically to my message of bringing real change to Washington. Unfortunately, the dynamics of this special election race made it very difficult for a non-elected first-time congressional candidate without personal financial resources to compete. Therefore, after much thought and discussion with my family and campaign team, I have come to the decision that I will not be a candidate for Congress in this special election.
We care about the dropout because a couple other candidates in this winnowed group also wade in the shallow end of the experience pool. A very large difference is that each of them has an emotional selling point they hope will more than cover for them.

Jim Ogonowski—Does not seem at all qualified but as the lone Republican will likely roll into the general election to be crushed under the sole of the Democratic nominee's shoe, be it loafer or pump. He was a USAF lieutenant colonel, not at all applicable, and makes much of being the brother of a pilot (John) who died when his flight AA 11 was flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

He has made what splash he could so far by being a contrarian. For example, he thinks we have no business in Iraq, but as we are there, we need to pile on the resources and, if you pardon the fantasy, win. Moreover, he identifies himself as a Roman Catholic, but has said he favors a woman's right to choose as well as birth control; he hopes his Church's leaders come around to his thinking.

Through some quirk of battlefield inspiration, he might rise to the role. Yet, we have no reason to suppose he will. He simply has no comparable skills or experience.

Nicola (Niki) Tsongas—On the face of it, she has no business in the race. She's never held elective office and has no actual experience in politics...except...except being married to a beloved politician who died youngish of cancer a decade ago. Her actual expertise is okay, but far below that of other candidates. She has sat on various boards and worked as the dean of external affairs and college advancement at Middlesex Community College. She's a lawyer who has had her own practice with other women attorneys.

That's all good stuff, but pretty ho hum.

Instead, people associate her with late hubby U.S. Rep., then Sen. Paul Tsongas. He was a solid, impressive leader, progressive enough to have set the tone that continued with Marty Meehan as they sort of reassembled what is not the 5th. The question that raises is do you learn enough helping a spouse run for and then run an office to do something comparable? Can you get meaningful experience by osmosis?

With no allusion to this race, Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell asked that last week about Hillary Clinton. Granted, she has subsequently won a Senate seat, but the questions are similar:
Mrs Clinton, a lawyer was made the custodian of various policy projects when her husband held power. Where is the advantage to Mrs Clinton? To say that her deeds were done on a national stage, while Mr Obama has been in the public eye only since 2004 is to measure relative fame rather than their relative experience. Both candidates have career experience that is arguably relevant to the presidency.

Stacking them up against one another requires figuring out what kind of experience one gains by being married to a powerful executive and the nature of the non-constitutional position of US "first lady". Was Mrs Clinton a combination of apprentice adviser and inheritor, Georges Pompidou to her husband's Charles de Gaulle? Or was she simply an observant and ambitious relative, George W. to her husband's George H.W. Bush?
No Lame Link: I won't bother linking to the June 29th, Experience can be a drawback. You need a separate paid FT subscription that includes the online edition to view it (boo). If you run across it at a library, it's good reading though.

The answer for Tsongas seems plainly that she is untested and inexperienced. However, she continues to lead the polls and fund-raising. Voters don't seem totally rational and detached about this race.

Disclaimer: I have endorsed Jamie Eldridge, both on this blog and on Left Ahead!

Eileen Donoghue—She is quite a step toward the experienced side. She's also a lawyer, a former and current Lowell City Council member, as well as a two-term mayor of the city. She has a solid track record on municipal-level accomplishment, with particular concentration on economic development.

It is a big stride, but not necessarily a vault to move from the city level to U.S. Congress. She would not be the first to do it successfully. On the other hand, she would come into the national scene as an unknown and have to create working relationships as well as learning how things work before she might be effective.

Barry Finegold—A state Rep. for a decade, he has the experience in time, but not so much on the score card. He was an Andover selectman for a year before getting a House seat. There aren't many bills that he sponsored. He brags about the Holocaust Restoration one that let Massachusetts residents who would benefit from Swiss government settlements do so without taxes. There's not much else on his list except for things he joined in on when they were rolling. How do we say not a world beater?

He's a super guy though, coaches kids teams, and is charming.

Jamie Eldridge—This one offers quite a contrast. On the face of it, he's in the Meehan mold. He favors progressive reforms and seems to do his own thinking and proposing, in the House, on the campaign trail, and up on his website.

He's been in the House for only five years, but provides an impressive list of accomplishments. He's the only one in the field that inspires confidence that he could walk into this Washington office and start making things happen immediately.

Jim Miceli—Avoiding as many debates as he could so far, Jim Miceli has been in politics for almost 45 years, but doesn't seem to have much of a résumé to show for it. After the Wilmington Planning Board, and MBTA Advisory Board spot and a few others, he has been in the House here since 1977, not that you'd know it.

He doesn't have an active website and doesn't seem to have sponsored anything noteworthy in the past 30 years. He only sits on a single committee, Personnel and Administration, and chairs nothing.

On the face of it, he should be able to claim the most experience. But doing what? Could he be the best napper and luncher on Beacon Hill?

Outlier note: Tom Tierney has registered to run, but seems to be a minor distraction. His website is virtually empty. It's front page says he'll be a one-trick pony — he'll fight to keep Social Security benefits as is. He's an actuary from Framingham and has a nice old-man haircut. Yawn.

Who's Worthy?

Here's the 5th, a fortress of progressive fighters for the common good of this commonwealth and the nation. You would suppose the voters would want the most progressive candidate or the most experienced one.

Yet, common wisdom so far favors Niki Tsongas:
  • Of the two sentiment-based candidates, she is by far the most personable and has lot of second hand contacts.
  • The primary campaigning over the summer gives her an advantage of recognition over substance.
  • The probable low turnout after Labor Day (and even if they move it out a week) is in her column too.
  • Nearly all the candidates are close on many major issues, like getting out of Iraq and some formula or another to improve health care and education, for example.
  • Not even Jamie Eldridge has been able to get the focus on either big topics or a single differentiator.
To her credit, Tsongas has not run from the seemingly continuous forums and debates held all over the district. With her advantages, she doesn't have to be great at any, or even very good. She just has to be not terrible.

Her strategy is not brave and certainly doesn't demonstrate the leadership of Meehan or her late husband. However, it is a pretty safe, and many would say smart, approach. She can't out-progressive Eldridge; she isn't there. She can't claim his experience or legislative accomplishments.

Her series of feel-good, say-little broadcast ads started, they kept the tone. She might or might not be good if elected. We have no historic way to extrapolate. Yet, she says comforting things that she hopes will resonate with voters, voters who know the last name.

In contrast, at his appearances, in debates, on his website and when he spoke with our Left Ahead! podcast, Eldridge was out there. He has a very strong, progressive, innovative platform, in stark contrast to the sponginess of the others. He seems to expect voters to decide on primary day that they would prefer someone most like Marty Meehan — unabashedly populist and progressive — and that would be Jamie not Niki.

To get there, he and his volunteers are literally ringing the doorbells in every city and dorp in this dispersed district. We won't know until September whether they want a proven legislator with accomplishments and real programs or something much vaguer.

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Ryan said...

I really don't think a low turnout helps Niki at all.

Anonymous said...

One thing to keep in mind is that the state will with 95% certainty lose a House seat in '10-'12.

The choice of whose district to carve up probably boils down to retirement (Markey, probably), advancement (Frank as Senator) or the newest House Rep (whoever wins the 5th). Either the 5th gets carved up, or it adds either conservative towns to the west or northwestern Boston suburbia/exurbia.