2014 Mass. gubernatorial primaries up for grabs

Today’s papers announced the latest entrant in the 2014 race for governor: a Tea Party challenger to Charlie Baker for the Republican nomination. Mark Fisher, a Shrewsbury resident and newbie at electoral politics, runs a metal manufacturing company. His website has a family photo album and an issues list that starts and ends with eliminating Turnpike tolls.  He’s also for small government, lower taxes and gun rights, according to his announcement statement.

It’s hardly likely that Fisher would best Baker for the GOP nomination, but could his presence force Baker to sound more conservative in the primary than would fly in a general election?  That’s the theory.  But leading Democratic candidates face issues of their own. Attorney General Martha Coakley is off to a bad start, charged with inexplicable campaign finance reporting irregularities similar to those for which she has prosecuted other elected officials. And Treasurer Steve Grossman hasn’t been helped by the appearance of conflicts of interest when significant clients of his family’s marketing company also do business with the Treasurer’s office.

Those presumptive frontrunners’ flaws and lack of interest in still-unknown other contenders could persuade unenrolled voters (more than half the electorate) to vote in the GOP rather than the Democratic primary and help Baker sail to victory.  Then, too, those registered unenrolled voters could be drawn to Independent businessman Evan Falchuk, a successful health firm executive or Independent venture capitalist Jeffrey McCormick who is backed by Democratic consultant Dan Payne and Republican consultant Todd Domke. How’s that for an intriguing combination?

Baker has a proven ability to attract Democrats, especially Democratic businesswomen. For years, he was the chairman of the corporate advisory board of The Boston Club, the region’s largest organization of senior professional women. (Disclosure: I was active in TBC for more than a decade).

Of all the candidates, however, Baker’s 2013/2014 persona is still least defined.  The Charlie Baker I first met was smart, capable, enlightened, affable and persuasive….a born leader.  It’s the Charlie Baker who was the youthful secretary of human services during the Weld administration.  The Charlie Baker I last met had a still longer and more impressive resume but was strident, nasty, and more rigidly ideological….a divisive turn-off.  The second Charlie Baker, running for governor in 2010, trumped the first, more appealing Charlie Baker. This year, he has pledged to present the first Charlie Baker, his truer self, according to friends and colleagues.

I sense that after criticisms of the last phase of the Deval Patrick administration (EBT card abuses, slowness to reform the probation system, seeming overreach with his failed transportation bill, frequent trips out of Massachusetts), Massachusetts voters may very well want a return to divided government here. (Think Sargent, Weld, Cellucci, Romney.) Baker has the credentials and now, again, may prove a positive alternative.

2014 is just days away, and the race will gather speed. Coakley has the opportunity to put her campaign house in order and find a compelling message.  She spoke in November at The New England Council, made a forceful, if dispassionate, presentation on various issues but still hadn’t found a unifying, mobilizing theme. Grossman will have more answering to do about the conflict of interest appearance and, while otherwise projecting competence, still has to figure out how to electrify an audience.  Democrats Juliette Kayem (former homeland security official), Donald Berwick (former health care official) and Joseph Avellone (biotech exec) have yet to prove their candidacies are more than ego trips.

For junkies who haven’t tired of the endless campaign, this gubernatorial contest could be very interesting, wide open, and exciting to follow.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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