Unlikely Silber making strong run for Mass. governorship

September 10, 1990|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Sun Staff Correspondent

FALL RIVER, Mass. -- Not long ago, John R. Silber shared this bit of advice with the nation's elderly: "When you have had a long life and you're ripe, it's time to go."

Not the stuff on which many political pros would suggest launching a campaign.

Nevertheless, Mr. Silber -- the cantankerous academic who punched out a national reputation as president of Boston University -- is running for governor of Massachusetts, competing to take the reins of the state's sagging economy when the commonwealth's present chief executive, the much-reviled Michael S. Dukakis, leaves office.

Hard to believe as it may seem, such "Silber shockers" have attracted thousands to his unlikely crusade. Local pundits who sneered seven months ago when the 64-year-old Kant scholar launched his quest now hedge their bets when talk turns to his chances of winning.

"You bet the voters are angry," Mr. Silber barks.

"My 'Silber shockers' are nothingbut telling the truth."

Of course, this kind of strategy means that the candidate has to spend a good deal of time explaining himself. Which is just what Mr. Silber set out to do one recent morning in the community room of the Cardinal Medeiros retirement home here, before several dozen ripe-looking senior citizens.

The group received him politely, though some expressed open skepticism about his intentions. "That bit about being ripe didn't go over too good here," said Wilma Marshall, an 86-year-old retired seamstress.

And so, for half an hour, Mr. Silber lectured his audience about the obligations of the state to care for those who cannot care for themselves, then segued into a discourse on the roles families must play in caring for one another. Before long, he had told the story about how he helped save the life of his aged grandmother.

By this time, heads had begun to nod sympathetically. And when he railed against the state for failing to pay its Medicare bills on time, Mr. Silber appeared to have won a new group of converts.

"He says what a lot of people think," said Vinnie del Grazia, a retired rubber worker and head of a local senior citizens' activist group. "And even if he makes a mistake from time to time, that's OK, too, because people would rather have an honest governor who makes an honest mistake than someone whose always fibbing and telling you what you want to hear.

"I think the elderly are going to help put Silber over the top."

Whatever the outcome, the raceappears to be close.

Mr. Silber is competing against two other candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a primary to be held Sept. 18. Most polls say he is trailing the front-runner for the nomination -- former state attorney general and political veteran Francis X. Bellotti -- by a slight margin. By almost all accounts, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, the candidate whose political fortunes have been most closely tied to Mr. Dukakis, is running a distant third.

The eventual nominee will be the odds-on favorite in November over the probable GOP candidate, state legislator Steve Pierce.

Ms. Murphy, a lawyer with long experience in state government, was the heir apparent at the start of the year. But a weakened regional economy and the state's worsening fiscal crisis have long since soured voters on the Dukakis administration and, by extension, her candidacy.

Ms. Murphy has taken care to distance herself from the Dukakis administration. "It's been an albatross," she concedes.

Part of Ms. Murphy's strategy is to wait and see whether Mr. Silber self-destructs.

So far, however, he has managed to emerge from each self-made controversy unscathed -- or at least has been able to patch up the damage before it causes him real trouble.

"When he's calm, he's reasonedand persuasive," explains Dennis Hale, a political scientist at Boston College. "When he gets worked up, he sputters, and the media makes the mistake of assuming that because he's a gubernatorial candidate, the resulting string of disconnected clauses is a position paper, when in fact he's just sputtering.

"But people respond to that because they've been reduced to a kind of sputtering rage about what's happened to things around here and the way the place has been run."

In his sputtering mode, Mr. Silber has characterized his university's English department as a "damned matriarchy," inexplicably questioned Gloria Steinem's fitness for the Supreme Court and wondered aloud why the working-class city of Lowell attracted Cambodians.

More recently, he accused Ms. Murphy of effectively condoning infanticide for her support of a bill that would liberalize the state's abortion law, prompting the outraged lieutenant governor call for his withdrawal from the race.

It's not clear whether any of these comments have hurt Mr. Silber. In the week after the "ripe" comment, for example, polls said he was holding the lead by a narrow margin.

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