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Always on the run

Despite lack of funds, mounting string of losses, quixotic politicians carry on for their causes

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

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Jill Stein, who just turned 60, has already been a doctor, a Harvard medical instructor, a public health researcher, an environmental health physician, and a guitarist. Her two sons are grown and out of college. She and her husband, a surgeon, made more than $300,000 last year.

She does not need to get elected to state government. But she won’t stop trying.

For the second time in eight years, Stein is running for governor as a representative of the Green-Rainbow political coalition, which has claimed such a small sliver of the Massachusetts vote in recent elections that it does not qualify as a party. She ran for state representative in 2004. She ran for secretary of state in 2006. This year she knew she would face sleepless nights if she did not try to address political issues she views as overwhelming and deeply personal.

“For me,’’ she said, “this is the only ethical choice.’’

Stein is among a persistent pack of always-rans whose names — Jill, Grace, Christy, Carla, Jack E. — are familiar to many on the Massachusetts campaign trail, even if their goals remain elusive. These political hopefuls cannot seem to stop throwing their hat in the ring, experience be damned.

“Obviously, they get some joy out of it,’’ said Paul Watanabe, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Either that or they’re masochists.’’

Republican Jack E. Robinson III — who was brutalized in his first campaign against US Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 2000 and lost again last year in a primary to Scott Brown — will not rule out another candidacy.

Several repeat contenders this election season have also switched parties.

Libertarian Kamal Jain won just 6 percent of the vote when he ran for auditor as an “informational candidate’’ to give voters a choice in 2002. This year, he launched a campaign for auditor as an independent before his friends talked him out of it.

“I had a lot of Republican friends and even Libertarian friends who pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, if you really want to do this and want to win, you need to pick a party.’’ He is also a Tea Party activist who has been endorsed by Ron Paul and his son Rand Paul.

While this election season has brought many independent candidates to the fore and has drawn a former Democrat, Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, to run for governor as an independent, some feisty outsiders have already been edged out of contention.

Christy Mihos, who ran for governor as an independent in 2006, was snubbed by delegates at the Republican convention in April.

Grace Ross, who also ran for governor in 2006 as a Green-Rainbow candidate and picked up less than 2 percent of the vote, tried to get on the ballot as a Democrat but recently acknowledged that she could not get enough signatures to qualify.

“The fact is that it’s really hard for somebody who’s not a millionaire to get in there and be part of the process,’’ said Ross, who nonetheless urged her supporters to stay involved in the race. “Regular people need to define what this race is going to be about. Don’t wait for a politician to tell you what’s important.’’

For some repeat candidates, like Ross and Stein, the race is not only about winning or losing, Watanabe said. It’s about changing the public discourse. Ross wants to talk about housing and health care; Stein, about healthy food and a green economy.

Libertarian Carla Howell, who ran for auditor in 1998 and US Senate in 2000, brought her “small government is beautiful’’ mantra to the 2002 governor’s race. She lost, but she drew attention to her message, which resonated in a closer-than-expected referendum on eliminating the income tax that year. (This year, she’s working on a campaign to cut the sales tax to 3 percent.)

Stein, who worked as an internist and now focuses on health policy and research, knows that her colleagues question her judgment for throwing herself into “a completely thankless task and such a steep uphill battle.’’ But she believes the issues that she cares about will not be solved one at a time.

“I’m doing this as a mother, because this is not a future we can leave to our kids,’’ Stein said. “And I know that it doesn’t get fixed by just working for healthy food. Or just working for better schools. Or just working for secure jobs. You can’t do it, because the system is so corrupted to maintain the status quo.’’

And she hopes that the crowded field running for governor could so divide the vote that she could win with as little as 28 percent of the vote. Of course that, too, would take resources.

“I have no doubt that Jill Stein would be a more significant player if she had the ability to mount a media campaign, for example, and build a large organization,’’ Watanabe said.

But it’s far easier for a candidate to amplify a message when he or she has personal wealth, like Robinson, a lawyer and businessman; Mihos, a convenience store magnate; or Chris Gabrieli, a venture capitalist who ran for Congress in 1998, lieutenant governor in 2002, and governor in 2006.

A decade ago, Robinson told The New York Times that he was running for US Senate because he had already accomplished his other three major life goals: graduating from Harvard, running an airline by age 30, and becoming economically self-sufficient by 40. The campaign was devastating as a slow drip of embarrassing revelations from Robinson’s past came to the public eye. To stanch the flow, he actually posted an exposé of his own life online.

But after his Senate hope was dashed, he went on to dream other dreams. He ran for secretary of state in 2002. He challenged US Representative Stephen Lynch in 2006.

And last year, he lost the GOP Senate primary to Brown, earning just 11 percent of the vote. He was expected to challenge Attorney General Martha Coakley for reelection in the fall, but decided against it.

“I already got Scott Brown elected; what more do you want?’’ Robinson joked.

Still, he doesn’t rule out a future campaign.

“At some point, I’m sure that, as with the rest of my endeavors, I’ll eventually be successful,’’ he said.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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