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Election fights on every corner

The punch is back in the state’s sweet science: Politics

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 20, 2009

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Over his 81 years, Robert H. Quinn, the former House speaker and attorney general, has seen his share of political battles. But he has never witnessed so many bouts in so many arenas at the same time.

Four credible candidates are duking it out in the first competitive mayor’s race in Boston in 16 years. At least six contenders are squaring off in a special election for the first open Senate seat in 25 years. Governor Deval Patrick already has three prominent challengers. Two open seats on the Boston City Council have drawn a full card of 15 candidates.

And then there is that tussle over appointing an interim senator and the inevitable questions that will dog whomever Patrick picks.

“Oh my goodness gracious, I can’t remember the last time I saw such activity,’’ said Quinn, sounding as happy as a fan settling into a ringside seat. “I love it. I say, ‘Good for Massachusetts.’ The more you have of this, the more people who are going to talk about it and get interested in it.’’

Massachusetts’ favorite blood sport - politics - is back with a vengeance, and many who savor a good campaign could not be more thrilled.

They have endured a long quiet spell, with precious few competitive races in re cent years. Most of the excitement has come from seeing local figures - Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney, John F. Kerry - make failed bids for the presidency.

But suddenly, competitive races have opened up across the city and state, making for a volatile and unpredictable climate as big egos clash with big issues and big money. Many are scrambling for a stake in the action, from college-age volunteers licking envelopes for City Council hopefuls to labor leaders pushing for universal health care and high-priced message gurus shaping the first wave of television ads.

It is a remarkable moment in Massachusetts, where incumbent members of Congress and the Legislature are rarely challenged. If any of the elected officials running for higher office - such as Attorney General Martha Coakley or US Representative Michael E. Capuano, who are both gunning for Senate - were to win, their victories would open up new races for their jobs, and thus more races down the electoral ladder.

Thomas P. O’Neill III, the former lieutenant governor, said the last time the political scene was in such flux was 1978, when Paul Guzzi, then secretary of state, and US Representative Paul Tsongas ran against incumbent Senator Edward W. Brooke. The last full-throated city election in Boston was in 1983, after Mayor Kevin H. White stepped down.

“It has that clearing-out effect, that clearinghouse effect, which becomes a watershed for younger people in lesser political office looking for either a congressional bid or a statewide office bid,’’ O’Neill said. “And it happens once in a generation here in Massachusetts.’’

The ground has already begun to shift far beyond Boston. In preliminary elections last Tuesday, voters ousted Mayor Robert Correia of Fall River, while mayors Mary Clare Higgins of Northampton and Edward J. Clancy Jr. of Lynn each finished second in their races.

“That tells you something about the frustrations of the electorate,’’ said Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “If I were Mayor [Thomas M.] Menino and I saw what happened in Lynn and Northampton and Fall River, that would give me a little pause.’’

The opening bell in Boston clangs Tuesday, with a preliminary election that will narrow the mayor’s race from four candidates to two and the field for at-large City Council seats from 15 to eight. After a sometimes sleepy slog through the summer, interest in the mayor’s race seems to be rising, as challengers Sam Yoon, Michael F. Flaherty Jr., and Kevin McCrea hammer Menino over the quality of the schools, uneven development, and the mayor’s controlling style.

Voters such as Francisco Mejia, a 33-year-old private detective from Jamaica Plain, said they have been pleased to see Menino forced to defend his record against three credible opponents. Mejia has watched both televised mayoral debates and said he has been closely following coverage of the race.

“There have been some mayor’s races in the past but - how can I say this? - there has been no sense in voting because they’ve already been decided,’’ Mejia said. “Now, there are so many people that are stepping up to the plate that you can’t look at this as an already-won race.’’

At Everything Is Real! Hair Care Center in Dudley Square, where the walls are decorated with posters of President Obama and Muhammad Ali, customers have been talking a lot more about politics in recent weeks, said barber Joe Barboza.

“The passing of Kennedy and the election of Obama has made people aware of how involved they need to be,’’ said Arnita Cooper, another barber there.

Cooper said she will vote for Menino on Tuesday and is watching closely as the race heats up for Edward M. Kennedy’s seat. That fight so far includes several Democrats - Coakley, Capuano, Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, and, in all likelihood, City Year cofounder Alan Khazei - and two Republicans, state Senator Scott P. Brown and Canton Selectman Robert Burr.

All this competition is a boon for political consultants, many of whom juggle several campaigns.

“In terms of the operative world, everybody’s scrambling around, seeing, ‘What Senate race are you going to work on? What gubernatorial race are you going to work on?’’’ said Dan Cence, a Democratic consultant who is working on campaigns for Menino and Newton mayoral candidate Ruth Balser. “And we could have some constitutional offices opening up. It’s exciting times in the world of politics in Boston and Massachusetts.’’

It is also an opportunity for groups representing unions, businesses, and other interests to flex their muscle. Haynes said his group is planning to contact its 400,000 members 10 times each - on the phone, in the mail, in person - about the Senate election. The union has also invited the candidates to speak at an upcoming convention, and plans to host a debate before Election Day on Jan 19.

“I think our impact will be huge,’’ he boasted.

Television stations are basking in the ad dollars, at a time when struggling retailers and car dealers have curtailed their advertising budgets. Pagliuca, Capuano, Flaherty and Menino are already running ads in heavy rotation. Menino, for one, spent $528,600 on ads in the first half of September. Pagliuca has an estimated worth of $400 million.

“This would be considered a welcome infusion of a new advertising category, at a time when things have been less than spectacular,’’ said Bill Fine, general manager if WCVB-TV.

Not everyone is heartened by the hubbub. Wayne Lewis, a 60-year-old former Marine sergeant, expressed dismay that despite all the activity, liberal Democrats will probably win most of the races.

“As far as the political scene, I don’t think things are going to change much in this state,’’ Lewis said.

But Mejia applauded the proliferation of competitive races.

“It sends a message that the good-old-boy network is probably on its last legs,’’ he said. “There is a sign of change, and the city and the country as a whole needs something different.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.