Boston basks in political spotlight

Nominating convention is in city for the first time

Hub for the Democratic Party

Election 2004

The Democratic Convention

July 25, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON -- The most remarkable thing about the Democratic celebration in Boston this week may simply be that it's happening here. In its long and celebrated history, this city has never before held a presidential nominating convention.

That's surprising, given Boston's prominence in the Democratic solar system. For most of the past half-century, the Massachusetts capital has been the hub of the national party.

Greater Boston has contributed more Democratic nominees (John F. Kennedy, Michael S. Dukakis and, now, John Kerry) than any other place over that period. Not coincidentally, it has also produced a disproportionate share of America's shrewdest politicians and backroom operators, who have managed to perpetuate the city's power, and their own.

"Wherever you go in Democratic politics, you're going to hear a Boston accent," says Kenneth Baer, a former White House speechwriter and strategist in Washington. "Forty-five years after JFK ran for president, the best nuts-and-bolts field people in the party still come out of the Bay State."

Many sharpened their hardball skills on the streets of a city with a well-earned reputation for pugnacity.

"The people here drag their coat behind them, hoping someone will step on it," says Robert Healy, former executive editor of The Boston Globe. "Meaning, they like to take you on in a little sparring match."

The most celebrated operative in this year's election grew up in Boston's blue-collar Dorchester neighborhood: Michael J. Whouley, a grass-roots organizer credited with producing Kerry's pivotal come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses. Co-founder of a Boston lobbying firm, the Dewey Square Group, that contributed top talent to several presidential campaigns, including those of Kerry and his running mate John Edwards, Whouley was credited by Al Gore with turning around his 2000 bid for the nomination.

According to legend, Whouley, seeing early primary-day exit polls in New Hampshire that showed Gore behind, considered flipping a tractor-trailer to block traffic on the interstate running through suburbs friendly to Gore's opponent, to prevent his backers from voting. (Whouley later denied that rumor, and said he was only joking when he bragged that Gore's campaign had sent slow-moving vehicles onto the highway to merely snarl traffic instead.)

"Politics is a blood sport in Boston; it's played on every street corner," said Larry Rasky, who was recruited straight out of Joe Timilty's 1979 mayoral organization ("Whouley was our Ward 15 coordinator") into Jimmy Carter's national re-election effort.

Or as Larry Moulter, who oversaw development of the Fleet Center, where the convention opens tomorrow, once said, "This is a town where there are three pastimes: politics, sports and revenge."

Once again, Boston has the Democratic Party under its control, after the Clinton interregnum. Several former Dukakis aides are now in charge at national Democratic headquarters, led by John Sasso, the 1988 Dukakis campaign manager.

Also influential: the forces of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who, more than anyone else, is responsible for bringing the convention to town. Media strategist Robert Shrum, a veteran of Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign, is the top consultant in Kerry's campaign. A number of other former Kennedy aides occupy key jobs, including Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill.

Boston's political primacy is about much more than campaigning, though. It has produced tangible results for a city, which, with a population of less than 600,000, ranks behind many others, including Baltimore.

One concrete example of local power will be on display for the thousands of delegates, dignitaries and media representatives entering the convention hall. A stone's throw away (if nets and fences hadn't been erected to intercept anything that might be tossed) is the Big Dig, the most expensive highway project in the nation.

The $15 billion monument to the hometown pol who started the money flowing -- late House Speaker Tip ("All politics is local") O'Neill -- helped spur an economic revival. But as a New Boston emerges from the red-brick sidewalks and Revolutionary-era shrines, the distinctive character of local politics is being altered.

"The city is on the verge of a major change in its politics," says Barry Bluestone, a political economist at Northeastern University in Boston. In the 2000 census, for the first time, a majority of Boston's citizens were members of minority groups. Gentrification is pushing up real estate prices and forcing out more of the working-class white ethnics who have dominated politics for generations.

Among the affluent new residents is Kerry, who bought an expensive townhouse on Beacon Hill, not far from the statehouse, with his wife, Teresa Heinz, after their marriage in 1995. Until then, he had lived outside the city, which has had only a loose attachment to the senator.

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