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News and Features: Features

The New Campaign

In one race after another, with a return to grassroots organizing, candidates and campaign operatives are upending the power of political machines. Next stop: The all-out scramble for mayor in Boston.

BY: Paul McMorrow
Photographs By: Derek Kouyoumjian
Issue: Summer 2013


JOYCE LINEHAN HAS the most famous living room in Massachusetts politics.

It used to be that Linehan’s Dorchester house drew its fame as a crash pad for touring musicians. Billy Corgan and Courtney Love and Elliott Smith had all slept there. Eddie Vedder hung out on Linehan’s couch and watched television. These are the sorts of guests who tend to attract attention to one’s living quarters. But people aren’t now fighting to get into Linehan’s living room because they’re huge fans of the early 1990s Sub Pop Records catalog. They want a piece of the Dorchester arts publicist, activist, and political organizer because they all see themselves as the next Elizabeth Warren, and they all want Linehan to do for them what she did for the senator.

By her own account, Linehan shot her mouth off on Facebook a lot two summers ago. Much of her mouthing off was aimed at drafting Warren, then a Harvard Law School professor, into a showdown with Sen. Scott Brown. Brown’s Republican colleagues had made it clear that they had no intentions of confirming Warren as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal consumer protection agency she had conceived and was heading on an interim basis. Linehan figured that if an advocate like Warren couldn’t gain any traction in Brown’s Senate, the answer was to change the game and send Warren to the Senate. That’s when Linehan’s phone rang. Warren’s political handlers told Linehan that the Harvard professor was weighing a run for Senate; would she be able to host a house party for Warren, in 36 hours?

Dorchester activist Joyce Linehan is leading the way in the Dorchester Day Parade
for her candidate, Marty Walsh.
Linehan packed the room with dozens of friends and activists—people who were bowled over by Warren, and who became the backbone of Warren’s campaign in this pocket of Boston. They knocked on doors for her and organized their neighborhoods and showed up in force every time Warren swung through town. Warren wound up beating Brown with 90 percent of the vote in Linehan’s Dorchester ward. Warren held hundreds of similar events, in living rooms and auditoriums and union halls across the state, picking up at every stop the volunteers who would form the most formidable grassroots campaign the state had seen in decades.

The mythology behind Warren’s juggernaut runs straight back to that first night in Joyce Linehan’s living room. Warren’s grassroots uprising and Linehan’s living room are now one and the same. So now any lefty politician with a shred of ambition wants a piece of Linehan’s living room, and her politically wired network. Gubernatorial hopefuls are beating down her door. Linehan doesn’t have much time for them yet, though. She’s too busy reshaping mayoral politics in Boston.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino runs one of the country’s last old-school urban political machines. He assembled it while serving as acting mayor, rode it into a full term in office in 1993, and has been tending to it ever since. Menino’s machine of city employees, labor, and wholly-owned and operated neighborhood activists has dominated Boston politics for the past 20 years. Menino has spent two decades using his machine to reward loyalists and punish opponents. And now, with Menino set to trade his spacious City Hall office for a barcalounger in Readville, the machine has no driver.

Speculation is running rampant over whom Menino will bequeath his political machine to. This speculation misses two key points. The first is that urban political machines don’t survive their masters. Read James Aloisi's Fitting the Boston Mayoral Race into an Historical Context.Kevin White didn’t get to keep his machine or hand it off once he bowed out of mayoral politics, and Menino won’t, either. More importantly, the chatter about the usefulness of the Menino machine in an open mayoral race assumes that running for mayor of Boston in 2013 is the same job as it was in 1993, or even in 2003. It isn’t.

Menino has dominated Boston politics during a time when political campaigns have largely moved beyond the reach of old-school machines. Big-time politics in Boston, in Massachusetts, isn’t a top-down game anymore. It’s decentralized. It’s a bottom-up enterprise. The campaigns that win today are the ones that place their emphasis on building their ground games and cultivating organizers like Linehan, not on mailers or media buys or endorsements. It’s not a question of recreating Menino’s operation; it’s about taking the grassroots organizing playbook that Michael Dukakis handed to Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren, and running with it harder than the rest of the names on the ballot.

GETTING ORGANIZED

It started in 2005, with Michael Dukakis trying to talk Deval Patrick out of running for governor. Patrick, a corporate lawyer and former Department of Justice official, had flown to Los Angeles to seek out the three-time Massachusetts governor, who teaches at UCLA during the winter. Patrick told Dukakis he wanted to run for governor. He wanted Dukakis to tell him how to do it. Dukakis suggested he set his sights lower. Tom Reilly was leaving his post as attorney general to run for the Corner Office, Dukakis noted. Why not run for that instead? “I said, ‘You’re not even a Town Meeting member in Milton!’” Dukakis recalls.

Patrick politely told Dukakis that he didn’t want to be attorney general, he wanted to be governor. So Dukakis told him how to make it happen: “Get home in a hurry, get a captain in every precinct in the state, have every one of them get six block captains, and get organized.” Dukakis pauses. “I say that to everyone,” he says. The difference was, Patrick actually listened. He flew back to Boston and called up Phil Johnston, the former state party head, who put him in touch with a Plymouth County organizer named John Walsh. Reilly, the AG Patrick was supposed to get in line behind, never knew what hit him.

Matt Patton, left, confers with his mayoral candidate, John Barros.

Reilly had scores of state reps and senators and mayors lined up behind him. Patrick couldn’t compete with the traditional Massachusetts political power structure, so he made an end-run around it. He and Walsh and his chief strategist, Doug Rubin, followed the same grassroots playbook that Dukakis used to make himself a Brookline Town Meeting member, and then a state rep, and then governor. He drove to house parties across the state, winning over supporters 10 or 20 at a time, building a statewide grassroots organization that swept aside everything and everyone in its path, from the Democratic town caucuses in February to the election in November. John Connolly, the Boston city councilor and current mayoral hopeful, recalls looking around the room at his caucus, staring at a pack of Patrick volunteers, and wondering, who are all these people? He found out soon enough. Patrick’s grassroots volunteers rolled over Reilly, including in Boston, where Reilly enjoyed Menino’s backing. Patrick’s campaign had built an organization that was better than the mayor’s. “They were hyper-focused on voter outreach,” Connolly recalls.

“The governor was forced to create new people, because he wasn’t going to get the old guard,” Rubin says. “That created a whole new crew, a new foundation around the old one, and it created the opportunity for the right candidates to run with it.” Warren ran with it harder than anyone. She took the organization Patrick built in 2006 and solidified during his reelection run in 2010, and with the help of Rubin (now head of his own consulting firm, Northwind Strategies) and Walsh (now the state Democratic Party’s chairman), she stuck another layer of new grassroots activists on top of it. Now the Patrick veterans were the ones wondering who all these Warren folks were on caucus day; she’d tapped a layer of activists that even two Patrick campaigns hadn’t reached.

The man Warren took on, Scott Brown, proved emphatically in 2010 that Democrats can be beaten badly, even in deep blue Massachusetts, if they don’t pay attention to their ground game. Brown became a national media sensation, but he also drew huge crowds to his closing campaign rallies, and attracted the support of many out-of-state campaign volunteers. His 2010 opponent, Martha Coakley, became a cautionary tale in appearing to take elections for granted. Walsh vowed not to let his party, which enjoys strong numerical advantages over the GOP, get out-hustled again. Brown came out of his 2010 Senate race looking formidable, if not nearly unbeatable, but he couldn’t come close to matching the ground game Warren put together.

Starting from Joyce Linehan’s living room, Warren did exactly what Michael and Kitty Dukakis told her to do: She built a mammoth volunteer organization. She amazed her staff by attracting 500 volunteers to an organizational meeting on a Tuesday night in Framingham, 13 months before Election Day, when her staff would’ve been happy with 50. Her grassroots operation knocked on 242,000 doors just in the weekend before Election Day. The state party targeted 100,000 lapsed Democrats, disaffected voters who hadn’t bothered to vote for several straight elections; Warren’s grassroots operation visited those 100,000 voters, and managed to get 35,000 of them to show up on Election Day. Warren didn’t abandon traditional messaging efforts; the $27 million she spent on broadcast and print ads helped make the contest the most expensive Senate race ever. But her campaign designed the ads to piggyback off of—and not replace—boots-on-the-ground efforts. Warren’s field organization—by November, she had an unheard of 70 staffers getting paid to turn voters out—ran up huge margins over Brown in Boston. She ran 20 points better than Martha Coakley had against Brown in Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford, Fall River, Lowell, and Fitchburg. Dukakis now calls Warren’s field organization “as good as any I’ve seen.”

Grassroots campaigns stand out from traditional electoral pursuits in a few key ways. They value volunteer efforts above all else. They reach voters primarily through direct, face-to-face outreach, rather than expensive ad campaigns, mailings, or phone calls. And they’re driven by a shared ideology between the candidate and the campaign organization, instead of the sense of grudging obligation traditional machines convey.

“A lot of people talk about running grassroots campaigns, but it’s hard to do,” Rubin says. “It takes a disciplined commitment. You don’t see results immediately. It’s a slow, steady build. Elizabeth Warren didn’t see it in the polls right away. She was down for months. But she saw great numbers with volunteers.”

“It used to be very difficult to get buy-in from candidates to run a grassroots campaign,” says Matt Patton, who was a deputy field director for Patrick in 2010, and for a time Warren’s field director in 2012. That difficulty has melted away, as local candidates have watched Patrick and Warren and Barack Obama successfully run out the same grassroots model Dukakis has been preaching since the 1970s. They’ve seen it work again and again and again. And now they want a piece of the action.

BOSTON BECKONS

Barack Obama is gazing over John Barros’s shoulder. Of course he is.

Barros worked his way from Dudley Street to Dartmouth to Wall Street, and since 2000, he’s run the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, heading up the nonprofit’s real estate development and community organizing efforts. He has a strong handshake and an impressive resume and an unusual appetite for policy papers. The political stump speech is a very peculiar animal, though.

As Barros stands in the living room of a grand old Jamaica Plain home on a warm June evening, asking two dozen voters to help make him mayor, it’s clear he’s still wrestling with the speech. He’s jumping all over the place. He leads with the story of how he hooked on with Dudley Street as a teenager, then laments the deep divisions between the city’s wealthy downtown and the struggling neighborhoods he serves. He talks about wanting to instill a sense of hope in Boston residents, then launches into policy points on education and economic development, before realizing that he’d forgotten to talk about his family’s background, how his father came to Massachusetts from Cape Verde, how his father’s first job in the States, working the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod, paid 5 cents an hour. Then he dives waist-deep into policy again.

A good political speech builds on itself like a wave; Barros is advancing, then looping back, stuck in a rhetorical figure eight. He doesn’t remember to mention that he served on the Boston school committee until taking his second question from the crowd. But if Barros still needs to work on how he packages his pitch, the mechanics of what he’s after are dead-on. He’s standing in a Jamaica Plain living room with an Obama “Hope” poster hanging on the wall, and the most forceful pitch he makes all night is when he asks these two dozen folks to build a grassroots movement with him.

Political consultant Doug Rubin, a veteran of the Patrick and Warren campaigns, is working for Felix Arroyo.

“This is the important part,” he says. “Every time someone believes in what we’re going to do, you have to go and get someone else. It’s about us doing this again,” in living rooms across the city, house party by house party. “We’re going to do this together,” Barros promises. “It’s not about John because John is super-special, it’s about John because we’re going to move this together. It’s about you taking this campaign by the horns and driving it.”

Ask Barros how he—or anyone else in the Boston mayor’s race—cobbles together a winning vote margin in a field that’s a dozen candidates deep, and he talks about voter contact and personal engagement. He talks about advice that Patrick gave him. He talks about old-fashioned grassroots politics. As he talks, the guy standing next to him, his campaign manager, Matt Patton, nods along.

Patton suddenly finds himself running against scores of folks he’s used to working alongside. Northwind Strategies—headed by Rubin, alongside Patrick veterans Kyle Sullivan and Sydney Asbury—is steering political strategy for Felix Arroyo. Clare Kelly, who served as Patrick’s field director in 2010, and then worked alongside Walsh at a state Democratic Party focused on getting out the vote for Warren, is now managing Arroyo’s campaign. Charlotte Golar Richie has former Patrick chief of staff Arthur Bernard in a senior advisory role. John Connolly is importing staff and tactics from Obama’s reelection effort. And then there is Joyce Linehan, who isn’t on Marty Walsh’s campaign payroll, but is the driving force behind the Dorchester state rep’s campaign for mayor.

TRIBAL LIMITS

Politics naturally creates dynastic family trees. Mayor Menino rose out of Joe Timilty’s machine, and he became the center of a new machine that created the likes of Michael Kineavy and David Passafaro. Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy used to be Dapper O’Neil’s driver; Murphy’s colleague and Hyde Park neighbor, mayoral hopeful Rob Consalvo, started out in politics driving and doing advance work for Ted Kennedy. The Patrick and Warren campaigns stand out, though, not just for the number of organizers they’ve sent into the field, but for the speed at which those organizers have blanketed state politics. The Boston mayor’s race is full of grassroots veterans who have risen from campaign operatives to campaign organizers. When it’s done right, grassroots politics runs on its own momentum, gathering up volunteers and turning them into self-sufficient organizers.

Linehan credits the rise of organizers like herself to a state party structure that diffuses power among activists at the ward and precinct level. John Walsh “has run a grassroots party,” she says. “John gives people the tools they need to get the job done. Instead of just sending me to a house, he’ll explain to me why a house needs to be knocked. So then I’m the one explaining it to somebody the next time.”

Tribal politics have dominated Boston since the days when the Brahmins and the Irish slugged it out. The race to replace Menino—September’s preliminary election, at least—sets up differently. The field is too crowded and too fragmented for any candidate to run on tribalism and expect to advance to November. No one candidate has a lock on any of the tribal boxes one would normally look to check off. Arroyo, Golar Richie, Barros and Charles Yancey will all be competing hard for votes in communities of color, while the Irish have three of their own—Walsh, Connolly, and Conley—to choose from. Connolly, Conley, and Consalvo all hail from the city’s vote-rich southwestern corner, and can expect to split the haul from that region; Dorchester’s allegiances will be similarly split between Walsh, Walczak, Barros, and Golar Richie. Barros and Walczak are both talking up their nonprofit backgrounds and positioning themselves as political outsiders. Arroyo and Walsh, both former union officials, will vie for labor’s love. Connolly and Michael Ross are both eyeing the growing pool of young, educated, liberal voters who have settled close to the city’s downtown—a prize that didn’t even exist when Menino rose to power two decades ago. Golar Richie is eagerly talking up her status as the race’s only female candidate, but running in a crowded field of men doesn’t guarantee anything; Rosaria Salerno was the only woman in the field in Menino’s 1993 race, and she placed a distant fourth.

“Realistically, if your organization’s goal is to just win the primary, you will lose the general election,” says Patton, Barros’s campaign manager. “Our goal is to organize the city of Boston.”

In this election, it won’t be enough for candidates to run on who they are; the only way to gather a winning margin will be to stand for something, and organize around it. That’s why veterans of the Patrick and Warren campaigns have been in such high demand in this race. They know, better than anyone else in the state, how to turn months of grunt work into a formidable turnout on Election Day. They’re used to the unglamorous work of building an organization block by block, house party by house party.

“Across the state, there’s this impression that some switch exists in Democratic headquarters that can be hit, and all of a sudden the grassroots rises,” Patton says. “It doesn’t work that way. It’s about engagement and constant cultivation. It’s not giant rallies, a lot of pomp and circumstance. It’s not always flashy when it’s real.”

Doug Rubin had several mayoral hopefuls competing for his services. He says he went with Arroyo, a current city councilor and former political director for SEIU Local 615, because of “who Felix is—he’s an organizer, he’s lived it for a number of years. He has the right attitude. He has the biggest potential to be great at this.” Rubin insists that the mechanics of running a mayoral campaign are no different than running a campaign for governor or for the US Senate. “We’re going to build the same kind of infrastructure we did for Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick,” he says. It’s an infrastructure built on volunteers “who are excited about him.”

John Connolly looks a lot like candidates Bostonians have seen before. He’s Irish, the product of a politically connected family (his mother is a retired judge, his father a former secretary of state), and he operates out of West Roxbury. Connolly has Old Boston written all over his face. But he’s making a severe break with the politics of Old Boston. He jumped into the mayoral race before Menino retired, so from its inception, his campaign has been focused on turning out voters outside any machine’s reach. Connolly often talks about operating like the Obama campaign on a budget. This means merging polling data with consumer data to identify voters who aren’t on other campaigns’ mailing lists. And it means shaping his organization around outreach to voters who should be receptive to his platform.

Instead of organizing neighborhood by neighborhood, starting in West Roxbury and working his way across the city, Connolly is targeting young professionals and parents—voters who either have kids in the Boston schools, or could soon. He’s putting a new spin on the old Dukakis model, centering his organization around volunteers in schools, not precincts. “It’s not, who’s our Dorchester coordinator? It’s, who’s our person in Orchard Gardens or Roxbury Prep?” Connolly says, referring to two Roxbury schools. “It’s about demographics, not neighborhoods. If you’re 30-to-50 years old with kids, we’re coming to your door.”

As for Linehan, there are few, if any, organizers in the city as wired as the 50-year old Dorchester native, which is why gubernatorial hopefuls are already cold-calling her, asking for time in her living room, and exposure to her massive network of voters and grassroots activists. At first blush, her candidate for mayor, Marty Walsh, looks to have a bit of Tom Menino in him. He’s a well-liked neighborhood guy who isn’t going to win over many converts by sitting on a stage and trying to out-debate seven other mayoral wannabes. His strength is in his work ethic, and in his ability to attract an army of campaign volunteers. That’s where Linehan comes in.

The two have run in the same Dorchester Democratic circle for years—“I’d lie in front of a train for him,” she says—and the mayoral race has the two tied at the hip. Linehan is pushing Walsh’s social media efforts, shuttling the candidate to television interviews, helping him prepare for candidate forums, opening doors to Boston’s arts community, and using her outsized online presence to vouch for him to skeptical progressives who only know him as the state rep who moonlighted as a highly-paid union official. Most importantly, she’s drawing her huge network of grassroots activists into Walsh’s campaign. Four hundred people piled into Walsh’s first volunteer meeting. The campaign collected and returned the signatures it needed to qualify for a ballot line—nearly 4,200 of them—in the span of a few hours; other campaigns took days, or weeks, to match that effort. Walsh and Linehan pulled off those two showings of force without bringing organized labor into play. They didn’t need a big labor push when they had Facebook and Twitter and Linehan’s email list.

MACHINE BREAKDOWN

Tom Menino is a politician. Tom Menino is the head of an urban political machine. The two carry very different job descriptions.

Menino became Boston’s longest-serving mayor by running City Hall like a campaign for a district City Council seat. He worked long hours and traveled the city incessantly. He showed up at Little League games and storefront ribbon cuttings and neighborhood coffee klatches. He looked as eager to be able to shake five hands as he was to shake 500. Fifty-seven percent of Boston residents in a 2009 Globe poll said they’d personally met the mayor. That’s the essence of grassroots campaigning—personal contact, direct personal appeals, and constant voter cultivation.

Menino’s machine is a very different thing. It was strongest when it rolled out in support of its boss, since it was built on municipal functionaries whose future employment rested on Menino’s presence in City Hall. But Menino also freely used his campaign apparatus, his machine of loyalists, to collect chits from friendly politicians and to punish enemies. He freely dispatched phone bank volunteers and weekend sign-holders and drivers who shuttled elderly voters to the polls. But the Menino machine owed nothing to the campaigns it backed. These were Menino’s people, and they just were mercenaries, bodies to be loaned out and then returned to their owner.

This is not the same as calling the Menino machine ineffective. Doug Rubin calls Michael Kineavy, the longtime head of Menino’s political operations, “one of the best,” a “real organizer” who built “a real organization.” Linehan calls Kineavy’s Election Day voter pull operations —he’d look at a set of precinct maps and voter records, dispatch operatives to pull voters from a set list of homes, and watch the turnout numbers jump—a work of “genius.” But it’s also true that machine politics is built on an audacious foundation, an order to support a certain candidate because the boss says so. Sometimes those orders would be followed up by angry phone calls from Kineavy and company. The operation ran on loyalty and fear. That’s why the machine seldom got called out to knock doors for other candidates: Its workers had no answer to the inevitable voter question about why they supported a candidate, other than the fact that they’d been told to show up and knock doors, and they do what they’re told.

Loyalty and fear also don’t get the mileage they used to. The Menino machine didn’t just lose big when it backed high-profile losing candidates like Tom Reilly and Hillary Clinton. It has also lost a string of recent lower-turnout local races—the kinds of contests it’s supposed to be able to dominate. Menino’s backing did nothing to keep Dianne Wilkerson from being swept out of office by Sonia Chang-Diaz. Reps. Carlo Basile and Nick Collins both got elected by topping candidates favored by City Hall. Menino’s machine threw everything it had into a City Council race in Dorchester last year, and all the threats and angry phone calls in the world weren’t enough to get Menino’s favored candidate elected. In September, the machine couldn’t even push City Councilor Sal LaMattina past a first-time candidate and into an office (county register of probate) with zero visibility.

The Menino machine’s slow fade occurred as candidates like Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren helped lead a return to the organizational politics of Michael Dukakis. Now, with Menino stepping aside and Menino’s machine lying low in the race to name the next mayor, the grassroots infrastructure that Patrick and Warren helped build up has risen up. The grunts are now in charge of the campaigns, with field operations people now as sought after as fundraisers. The entry bar has dropped dramatically. Competitive campaigns no longer need a guy who sits behind a desk inside City Hall, poring over printed voter lists. Electronic voter files have opened up electioneering data to the masses. Facebook and Twitter have given candidates free organizing and communications platforms. Money’s impact is being blunted. Campaign infrastructure has become both flexible and relatively inexpensive, built more on sweat than anything else. Grassroots organizing—an old-fashioned idea perfect for the digital age —is choking off the old machine.
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jonsax
Says on 07.22.2013
at 8:17 AM
While all of the campaign managers and field organizers mentioned here are truely amazing, and the ground campaigns described were quite massive and sophisticated, It still remains the case that money and star power and track record of the candidates matter a lot more than is currently being credited. So, just one for instance: that first meeting in Framingham for Elizabeth Warren generated a huge turnout in no small part because for months ahead of that, a significant number of grassroots organizations had been very aggressively recruiting her as a candidate and pushing her candidacy to MA voters. Millions of dollars had already been raised for and by her and she came in with a stellar national reputation as a peoples' champion. All of that preceded the grassroots door to door efforts, and in fact was what effectively supercharged those efforts. The point being that, while "ground game" is certainly crucial, there is a lot more to running and winning a political race.
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