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Web Exclusive | Joan Vennochi

Massachusetts stands out — and not in a good way

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / August 28, 2008
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DENVER

IN A grand gesture of political conciliation, Hillary Clinton released her delegates to vote for Barack Obama.

Fifty-two Bay State delegates voted for her anyway, including Attorney General Martha Coakley and Senate President Therese Murray, the state’s two highest ranking female politicians.

Murray said she was voting ‘‘for history.’’ Besides, she said, Clinton ‘‘did win the state.’’

Coakley, too, said that voting for a woman for president ‘‘was an historic moment. We may never get to do it again.’’

But, at a convention where party unity is a priority, ‘‘Massachusetts stood out’’ — and not in a good way— according to Philip Johnston, a former state Democratic Party chair and one of 65 Bay State delegates who backed Obama.

‘‘It was embarrassing,’’ said Johnston, especially to Governor Deval Patrick, and Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, all prominent Obama supporters.

After Kennedy, Kerry, and Patrick endorsed Obama last winter, passionate Clinton female supporters in Massachusetts let these male political leaders know their displeasure. Their unhappiness increased after Clinton won the Massachusetts primary, but began losing other contests to Obama, leading to calls for her to drop out of the race. Once Clinton conceded, the Massachusetts group helped push the cause for treating Clinton with respect in Denver.

Now, some of Obama’s Bay State supporters question whether those delegates who stuck with Clinton showed proper respect for the party nominee. They point, for example, to the contrast with New Hampshire, where Clinton also beat Obama. The state party chair stood up to cast all 30 votes for Obama, from a state ‘‘where Unity is more than just a town.’’

From a technical standpoint, the Massachusetts delegates voted on Wednesday morning, before Clinton formally released them. However, Johnston dismisses that as ‘‘legal technicalities ... Bill and Hillary Clinton couldn’t be more clear. She stood on the podium the night before and asked her delegates to work hard to elect Barack Obama.’’

Both sides agree that the Obama backers never asked the Clinton backers to switch. ‘‘I blame us as much as the Clinton people. We failed to do our work ... Many would have come over if we asked,’’ said Johnston.

Asking wouldn’t have changed matters for everyone. Calling her vote for Clinton a ‘‘symbolic checkpoint,’’ Coakley said she doesn’t understand why Obama backers assumed she had any intention to support their candidate:, ‘‘I think she earned my vote ... I didn’t see voting for Clinton as any kind of revolutionary or in-your-face move,’’ she said.

While Johnston sees the outcome as an embarrassment for Massachusetts Democrats, the Obama campaign is more dispassionate. ‘‘The vote was an opportunity for folks to show their support for what was an historic effort on the part of Hillary Clinton,’’ said campaign spokesman Bill Burton. ‘‘I don’t think anyone doubts that Democrats in Massachusetts are 100 percent devoted to electing Barack Obama, thanks in large part to the work of Governor Patrick.’’

The Clinton backers insist that is so. Murray said that while her heart was with Clinton before, her heart now is ‘‘in the effort to elect a Democrat to the White House.’’ Added Coakley: ‘‘We need a Democrat in the White House. The Supreme Court issues alone make it crucial.’’

Murray said that when Clinton dramatically asked for Obama’s nomination by affirmation, she was standing next to Patrick and noticed that the governor was trying to keep from breaking down. ‘‘I was trying, too.’’ They both embraced, and she, said, ‘‘I told the governor that I felt it was history for him and history for me.’’

It sounds like a nice moment, but this is Massachusetts. Political hard feelings tend to linger. For Obama backers, they will linger longer if Obama loses in November.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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