Aboard Reich's Reform Express | The Nation


Aboard Reich's Reform Express

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The key word is possibility. "People know his name and they generally respect him," says Benjamin Thompson, a community leader in Boston's African-American neighborhoods. "But politics in this town is more complicated than that. You have to connect with people. You have to build networks. The other candidates have been doing that for years. I don't know if Bob Reich can catch up in two months."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Time and money remain real barriers for what in many senses is an afterthought candidacy. Reich--who says he decided to make the run after concluding that "every aspect of state government was malfunctioning, and none of the candidates for governor seemed to be articulating the sort of reform message that the moment called for"--is the first to admit that he remains a long-shot contender. Unlike several other Clinton officials who have hit the campaign trail before him, like former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who is seeking a North Carolina Senate seat; former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, the front-runner for governor of New Mexico; and former White House political director Rahm Emanuel, who is all but certain to win a House seat representing Chicago, Reich is neither independently wealthy nor closely linked to business interests. Nor is he getting any help from the former President, who has never forgiven his former Labor Secretary for criticizing his behavior in the Lewinsky scandal or for Locked in the Cabinet, Reich's dissection of the Administration's policy failures. Despite fundraising boosts from Bradley, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and folksinger Loudon Wainwright III, and a grinding routine of afternoon calls to potential givers, Reich's campaign bank balance in July was just a little over $200,000--less than one-tenth of the war chests of O'Brien and Birmingham. Depending on how a battle over funding of the Massachusetts Clean Money initiative is resolved, even the race's lowest-polling contender, former State Senator Warren Tolman, an earnest reformer who is the only Democratic candidate to qualify for the public-funding scheme, could have a bigger bankroll than Reich.

Reich says he is counting on ideas, as well as "people power," to overcome his financial disadvantage. That may be the oldest spin in the political playbook. But Reich has had considerable success convincing observers and activists that for Massachusetts Democrats, who have not won a gubernatorial race since 1986, fresh ideas are essential. "I think the historic vision of the Democratic Party as the party of working people, of the outsiders, the reformers, the challengers of the establishment and the status quo, is the right vision. That's what we should want to be," he explains. "But we have to update the vision, make it relevant to a new generation, to people who work at different jobs that require different skills."

The author of nine books, including The Work of Nations, which a decade ago briefly seemed likely to serve as the new Clinton Administration's economic policy blueprint, Reich has peppered Massachusetts voters with detailed proposals on everything from corporate accountability to government reform to affordable housing. He's got plans to raise the cigarette tax in order to pay for healthcare for the uninsured; to fight pollution with fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles; to expand access to women's reproductive health services in small cities. Reich may be the only major candidate who would take time out from fundraising calls to sit with his policy team and go over the second draft of a healthcare reform proposal: "I'd like to see us make more of a case in this section for why we need to protect community hospitals," he tells aides, who have come to accept that they are not going to de-wonk the guy.

The intense focus on agenda has earned Reich enthusiastic support from hundreds of volunteers, including high school and college-age students as well as some of their teachers. "I started volunteering for Bob Reich the first night of his campaign," says Katherine Newman, the Wiener Professor of Urban Studies at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The volunteers are also drawn to him because he offers a sense that their help matters. At a job-training center in Lawrence, in an African-American church in Dorchester, in the small towns of the Berkshires, he repeats variations on the theme: "What I've got to do, if this candidacy is going to have a chance, is to break into that cycle of risk aversion and cynicism, and convince people that politics is worth another try." That message resonated with Steve Attewell, a 19-year-old Reich volunteer from Newton. "In the old days politicians talked about great societies and new frontiers. Now politicians come off like people applying for management positions," complains Attewell. By contrast, the volunteer says, Reich has "this vision of something better. And as long as he's willing to give up what he's got to pursue the vision, a lot of us are willing to go with him."

Ultimately, that vision extends far beyond Massachusetts. Reich says the national Democratic Party is failing to thrive because it lacks both courage and ideas--a condition similar to the national Republican Party in the early 1990s. Just as Republican governors such as Michigan's John Engler and Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson renewed their party with an ambitious--if frequently wrongheaded--policy agenda that Newt Gingrich would eventually take national, Reich thinks a new wave of Democratic governors can jump-start their party's Congressional delegation. With the biggest Democratic gains this fall very likely to be at the Statehouse level rather than in Washington, Reich says that by 2004 Democratic governors could be the key to change. "Because it is easier to move quickly at the state level, governors have an opportunity to set a great deal of the agenda," he claims.

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