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Aboard Reich's Reform Express | The Nation

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Aboard Reich's Reform Express

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Reich's closest competitor for the Democratic nomination is O'Brien, a moderate with New Democrat tendencies and a record of having run and won statewide. She is backed by the unlikely--and at least until recently some thought unbeatable--combination of old-boys-club Democratic leaders in the Statehouse and EMILY's List, the national donors' network that seeks to elect pro-choice Democratic women. But a July revelation that O'Brien failed to notify the State Ethics Commission that her family held stock in Fleet Bank when she approved Fleet's 1999 takeover of BankBoston, as well as lingering questions about the purchase by the state pension fund, which O'Brien chairs, of stock in Enron, for which her husband was a lobbyist, have helped Reich keep a firm grip on the coveted reformer tag. And he is holding his own among suburban women, who might otherwise be inclined to vote for O'Brien.

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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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Birmingham, a good-natured, government-is-part-of-the-solution Democrat, has been slow to get traction, although his campaign is well financed and widely endorsed. The 400,000-member state AFL-CIO is backing the legislator, who has always delivered for Boston's powerful building trades unions. Those unions are a serious political force; last year, in one of the most closely watched Democratic Congressional primaries in the country, they flexed their muscles to elect former Ironworkers union leader Stephen Lynch to represent South Boston. Massachusetts union leaders speak highly of Reich--state AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes says the candidate has an "intrinsic understanding of the issues and problems affecting men and women in unions." But when Reich appeared at a debate sponsored by the labor federation, Haynes grilled him about his support in 1993 for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Reich's response was to try to shift the blame for NAFTA onto his former boss: "When I was Secretary of Labor, President Clinton--let me repeat this, President Clinton--was the one who supported NAFTA." It's not all about NAFTA, of course. Reich's stances on trade issues are far closer to the labor line than Al Gore's, for instance. By most accounts labor is more pro-Birmingham than anti-Reich. But the former labor secretary's inability to win labor endorsements--or at least to neutralize them--has prevented him from opening the clear lead he would almost certainly have achieved with union support.

When all is said and done, however, Labor and Democratic Party endorsements don't mean as much as they once did in a state where the biggest landmark in many towns is an abandoned mill. The suburbs of Boston are now major vote generators in Democratic primaries. And in the same suburbs that produced Michael Dukakis--and that still embrace the former governor's serious mix of social liberalism and social tinkering--Reich's bold moves on issues like gay marriage and big ideas about education and healthcare reform poll well. Indeed, the secret ingredient in Reich's appeal, which comes wrapped in cool graphics, hip colors and lots of humor, is an earnest and old-fashioned faith in the prospect that politics can be reformed. Running less against his three primary opponents--all veteran Massachusetts pols with solid if not always inspiring legislative records--than against the caution and cynicism that have sapped the Democratic Party of its credibility as an alternative to the Republicans, Reich gets his biggest applause when he talks of transforming politics and public policy by sweeping away "cronyism and corruption" in government and the business world.

If that applause translates into a Democratic primary win, Reich still faces a tough race against handsome, popular and very rich Republican Mitt Romney, the CEO of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics Organizing Committee, who has overcome questions about whether he meets state residency requirements to top most polls. Romney has been beaten before--by Ted Kennedy in the Republican revolution year of 1994--but he is a capable contender who is already taking shots at Reich, the one Democrat who matches his star power. Reich enjoys sparring with Romney, a venture capitalist running in a year when the old "run government like a business" line is a tougher-than-usual sell. "I can run circles around him," Reich boasts after a press conference where the Democrat unveiled a corporate responsibility agenda that mercilessly tweaks Romney.

Whether he gets a chance to run circles around anyone remains to be seen, but Reich surely relishes the race. Driving across Boston long after dark on a day that began before dawn, Reich has a cassette of the Beatles singing "Revolution" in the tape player. But he's not listening. He's got one more point to make. "I've never run for elective office before. I have no big endorsements. We're running this campaign on a shoestring, and yet we're tied for the lead in the polls," says Reich, his voice rising to preacher pitch. "It could all start right here in Massachusetts," he says. "The way we are going to give the Democrats in Congress the courage of their convictions is to have reform Democratic governors around the country who are trying out new ideas, implementing new programs and showing that they work better than what the Republicans are proposing. Massachusetts is the perfect testing ground. If we cannot energize the Democratic Party and its agenda here, where can we?"

Reich's wife, Clare Dalton, gently reminds him that he is about to miss the exit that will take them home to their big old house in Cambridge. "Yes, yes," says Reich, who notes with a knowing grin that, against the odds, he is successfully executing a difficult left turn.

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