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BRIAN MCGRORY

Political malpractice

Now that Tom's back from his Excellent Adventure, let's take a look at what he should have said yesterday.

Thomas F. Reilly should have said that he knows full well of the hundreds of thousands of people all across Massachusetts, good, hard-working, God-fearing people, who bounce from one paycheck to the next.

He should have said he knows first-hand how mightily these people struggle to pay their bills. He understands the enormous sacrifices they make, the hours they work, the worry wrinkles they get, all in the name of keeping up in a society that's never forgiving enough. Dignity is not always an easy thing to maintain.

And he should have said that, for this reason, he realized that Representative Marie St. Fleur couldn't run on his ticket.

He should have admitted to an enormous blunder, one of the biggest of his career, made even more embarrassing by the fact that he's the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and if anyone should be expected to thoroughly investigate job candidates, it's him. He should have wished her well in the future.

He should have solemnly vowed that such carelessness would never happen again in his campaign for governor and that now, more than ever, he fully appreciates what's at stake in this race.

His whole life has been a series of valuable lessons, and this particular and extremely valuable lesson would last him for a long time to come.

The bad news for Reilly is that he said precisely none of that yesterday.

Oh, he said he's learned some lessons. He said he's learned that he has to get better at playing politics and pay more attention to process. He said this as if it's a badge of honor that he's never been particularly good at either, like politics and process are beneath men as weighty as him.

''I'm not exactly a process guy, but process is important," he said in a phone call yesterday.

Later, he added: ''Politics is not my strong suit; it's something I have to work hard at. I haven't lived a political life."

Not lived a political life? He's the highest elected Democrat in state government. He just tapped a little-known black female legislator in his campaign against a black primary opponent and a female Republican.

Even if you took him at his word, his problem is the governorship is an inherently political job. The governor has to practice politics with the Legislature, with mayors, with Washington, with special interests. Politics is about brokering and compromising, parrying and thrusting an agenda to its fullest extent.

Public service isn't always played out in the kind of courtrooms where Reilly has spent his career. It happens at a podium or behind a closed door or in a particularly charming phone call to a partisan foe. It's knowing when to give and how to take.

If Reilly is confessing ineptitude or distaste for this, then it's time to start focusing on the other people in the race.

The good news for Reilly is that it's Feb. 3. The Democratic primary isn't until Sept. 19, the general election Nov. 7. That gives him seven-plus months not only to recover from this bone-headed blunder, but also to demonstrate his ability to grow.

Campaigns are long for a reason, not just to allow candidates to raise the obscene amounts of money it takes to win, but to allow voters to become comfortable with those who want to lead them. The public loves nothing so much as redemption.

This is more good news for Reilly. He is an extremely well-intentioned and decent man. I've written that before, and I'll write it again.

He has an inherent, hard-lived understanding of the needs and dreams of average people, even if he's done a miserable job of expressing it.

The question now is: Will this past week become a blip in Reilly's campaign or the very embodiment of it? It's astonishingly unclear right now whether he has what it takes.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

RELATED CONTENT:
 Democrats jumped gun on Gabrieli (Boston Globe, 2/4/06)
 Reilly's pick withdraws from race (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 Patrick divulges 1996 tax lien (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 Reilly picks St. Fleur for campaign (Boston Globe, 1/31/06)
STATEMENTS:  Tom Reilly (2/1/06)  Marie St. Fleur (2/1/06)
COMMENTARY:
 BRIAN MCGRORY: Political malpractice (Boston Globe, 2/3/06)
 SCOT LEHIGH: A taxing week for Democrats (Boston Globe, 2/3/06)
 ADRIAN WALKER: Strange missteps (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 JOAN VENNOCHI: Reilly's judgment is suddenly suspect (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: Encumbered candidates (Boston Globe, 2/2/06)
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