TUESDAY’S SENATE election was widely interpreted as a rejection of Martha Coakley and Barack Obama, in that order. But the results told a broader story about Massachusetts politics, and of voters’ hunger for options in a state that has often offered only one meaningful choice. Tuesday’s legacy will almost surely be more competition - for seats in the US House as well as the Massachusetts House and Senate. Even within the dominant Democratic Party, the forces of reform will gain traction, creating a sharper definition for the party at the risk of alienating some of its traditional supporters.
All of these outcomes are welcome. Whether or not voters liked Scott Brown’s policies, his victory created the potential for improvement in the state’s political culture. For new voices and ideas to emerge fully, they must have some possibility of success, a realistic chance to win.
Single-party dominance leads to stagnation. Supermajorities in state legislatures often breed political bosses and corruption. In Congress, representatives who are too confident of their re-election can become politically tone-deaf and complacent, even if they otherwise work hard on legislation. When times get tough, and voters look skeptically at all incumbents, those signs of arrogance loom large.
After Tuesday, all incumbents are forewarned.
Last week’s disaster for the Democratic Party had its roots, fittingly, in Democratic overreach. In 2004, believing that John Kerry had a strong chance to win the presidency, legislative leaders took it upon themselves to upend the traditional system of filling a vacancy in the US Senate. Rather than allow a Republican governor to appoint an interim senator until the next congressional election, the Legislature used its veto-proof majority to eliminate the appointment entirely and replace it with a hurry-up election.
It was a high-handed and foolish move. When Senator Edward Kennedy died last August, the state faced four months without full representation in Washington. Under pressure, the Legislature restored the interim appointment but kept the unusually quick election.
Instead of having an election this November, after members of Congress finished their work and were prepared to defend it, Massachusetts went to the polls in January, in the midst of an overly long debate over health reform. Under the best of circumstances, voters have little tolerance for such legislative sausage-making. This year, with unemployment at a more than quarter-century high, patience was especially thin.
The truncated cycle also forced a quickie primary that helped ensure that the Democrat with the highest name recognition - Attorney General Martha Coakley, the only candidate who’d been on a statewide ballot - would have a big advantage. Her career, too, was marked by single-party dominance. She followed a greased path from Middlesex County district attorney to state AG, with little competition along the way. The short Senate campaign didn’t allow her to develop any political sea legs. But Brown, working under the same constraints, did.
The saga of the interim appointment wasn’t the only event of 2009 that showcased the arrogance of single-party rule. Earlier in the year, Salvatore DiMasi became the third straight state House speaker to be indicted. In a more competitive political environment, such a run of corruption would be devastating to Democrats. But the vast, overfed majority on Beacon Hill paid no visible price. Like a corporation with a retiring CEO, the party chose DiMasi’s handpicked replacement and kept on moving as if nothing had happened.
In a one-party state, loyalty leads to advancement. Breaking ranks on principle does not. Thus, when State Senator Dianne Wilkerson was caught stuffing bribery cash into her bra, her colleagues dawdled before taking steps to force her out. State Senator Anthony Galluccio had to be put in jail before his fellow Democrats sent him packing.
And if the voters didn’t sense hubris in these moves, they could have read it in the dismissive way in which Senate President Therese Murray and Speaker Robert DeLeo spoke of a governor of their own party: When the majority is big enough to override a veto, any governor must approach the Legislature on his knees. The system isn’t supposed to work that way. And it shouldn’t.
With more balance between the parties and a chance for shifting coalitions within the two parties, more ideas would be on the table. Governors and legislative leaders would negotiate more evenly.
But even then, there would be no guarantee that good legislation would result.
Single-party dominance has served Massachusetts well in some respects. A large majority is more capable of bold gestures, such as the state’s groundbreaking education reforms of the 1990s and this year, and its ambitious healthcare reform. (Though both were enacted with the help of Republican governors.) Having members of Congress in relatively secure seats leads to long tenures during which they can assume leadership on Capitol Hill, and Massachusetts now has more clout in Washington per capita than any state.
Such benefits shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. But without electoral competition, even the best political skills begin to atrophy. There’s no question that most of the state’s congressional delegation has spent far more time crafting policies in back rooms than explaining them to constituents; even if the policies are sound, members can only benefit from having to confront their critics.
Even before last Tuesday, there were growing fissures in the Democratic Party, particularly between independent, change-oriented suburbanites and traditional liberal constituencies such as organized labor. Issues like pension reform and education reform drove wedges between party loyalists. Coakley, for one, tried to paper over the divisions by offering a little to both camps on education reform. It didn’t work, as most independents voted for Brown, and some working-class Democrats joined them.
Meanwhile, State Treasurer Tim Cahill, representing traditional Democrats, is mounting an independent challenge to Governor Deval Patrick, representing the party’s reform wing. No doubt there is an opportunity for Republicans in that cleaving as well. But they, too, will have to persuade the state that they represent substantive change, rather than just a protest vote.
The coming year will be a watershed for Massachusetts politics. Voters should be the winners, if they engage in the issues and cast their lot wisely.