Leaving it all on the field

“Hello, Marty? It’s Steve Grossman. Listen, Marty, I need you to look at something…”

Steve Grossman is four days away from what could be the last election of his career. Polls show Grossman, the current state treasurer, trailing by huge margins in his race for governor. He needs every vote he can get. But right now, he’s on a borrowed cell phone, calling the mayor of Boston, asking Mayor Marty Walsh if he can send somebody down to the intersection of Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, and have an old pay phone plate ripped out of the ground.

The plate — maybe 18 inches square, a few inches tall, with old wires sprouting from the top — just came to Grossman’s attention. He was shaking hands and passing out campaign literature inside Mattapan’s Finest, a barbershop in Grove Hall. One of the barbers jokes to Grossman that people have been tripping over the old pay phone plate on the sidewalk outside for 20 years, and if Grossman could get the thing taken care of by Tuesday, he’d have a vote. Grossman pounces. He grabs the cell phone of Liz Walker, the WBZ anchor-turned-pastor who is showing Grossman around the neighborhood, and dials Boston’s mayor. Walsh doesn’t answer, so Grossman leaves a long message detailing the location of the pedestrian hazard.

“When I see a problem, I try to solve it,” he says, after hanging up the phone and handing it back to Walker.

Standing in Flames, a neighborhood Caribbean restaurant, and eating a dish of ice cream Grossman has just handed her, Walker says she doesn’t usually get involved in political contests. Grossman’s gubernatorial campaign is different, she says. Walker’s church has been working for years to have Roxbury’s academically struggling Dearborn Middle School rebuilt and repositioned as a math and technology academy. Grossman committed state funds to the $70 million construction project. “He was instrumental” in funding Boston’s first new school building in more than a decade, Walker says. “He kept his promise.” So now, here’s Walker, walking up Blue Hill Avenue on a hot Friday afternoon in September, trying to help Grossman engineer a monumental political comeback.

Steve Grossman campaigning hard on Friday in Grove Hall in Dorchester.

A WBUR poll last week had Grossman trailing Martha Coakley by 24 points. A Boston Globe survey put Grossman’s deficit at 20 points. Grossman, a businessman and longtime Democratic party fixture, knows how to read a poll. He knows he’s chasing Coakley into Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

But Grossman is also a candidate who knows politics boils down to forging personal connections and asking for votes. It’s how he won over Liz Walker. It’s what he’s done all afternoon, popping into Dorchester businesses and shaking hands with commuters waiting for buses in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. He did it with the Mattapan’s Finest barber who prompted his call to Marty Walsh. He did it with a woman sitting in a barber’s chair, chatting about pre-kindergarten funding, and swapping stories about their grandchildren. All afternoon, Grossman chats up anyone in sight. Not one voter tells Grossman they’re already committed to one of his opponents. And when he asks for a vote, no one turns him down.

Grossman possesses a deep knowledge of the intricacies of state government — in Grove Hall, he rattles off decades-old budgetary line item statistics, and talks about the connections between the arts, restaurant liquor licenses, and neighborhood-level economic development. He talks about access to business capital, education policy, and the fate of the state’s older industrial cities.

He’s also as loose and approachable as he’s ever been. He’s hustling for votes and absolutely loving the hustle.

Grossman relishes personal contact with voters. When he strikes up a conversation on the sidewalk, he listens intently. He drives his campaign staff crazy because he’s incapable of having a 30-second conversation with a voter. On Friday, he spends ten minutes chatting up a pair of teenagers who can’t even vote on Tuesday. Every positive interaction with a voter sends him spinning off, looking for more. When a bus driver waiting at a red light lays on her horn and flashes him a thumbs-up, he leaps onto the bus and introduces himself. “Vote for this guy! Vote for Steve!” the driver hollers, and the bus goes nuts for him. Soon, he’s floating down the street, singing, “Do you believe in magic?”

“Most people who are objective will say we’re huge underdogs,” he says. “The polls say we have either a large hill to climb, or a small mountain. But we’re seeing things differently on the streets. Lots of people are totally undecided.” Grossman’s trying to get to as many of them as he can before Tuesday. On Saturday, he says, 900 voters would be descending on state Sen. Steve Brewer’s annual summer barbecue. “I’ll shake all 900 hands there. It’s that old cliche. I’m going to leave it all on the field.”


A front-runner with a lot on the line

Martha Coakley throws her arms around Michael McGlynn, the mayor of Medford, and Rep. Paul Donato, a top aide to the speaker of the House. “Everybody’s pumped,” McGlynn assures Coakley, as the trio dive past a phalanx of reporters and into a Medford diner. “Everybody’s ready to go.”

It is a reunion of sorts. Coakley and McGlynn worked the room at this greasy spoon, Dempsey’s, last September, when Coakley announced her run for governor. Now, a year later, and with Coakley closing in on the Democratic nomination for governor, the attorney general has chosen this same diner to launch her pre-primary push. It kicks off a frenetic weekend of campaigning that will see Coakley, the Democratic frontrunner, visit diners in Quincy, Brockton, Taunton and Lawrence, as well as a Framingham barbecue, a Tewksbury Market Basket, and a Lynn sports bar.

And at every stop, the question hanging over Coakley isn’t just whether she can close the deal in Tuesday’s primary, but whether she’ll finally be able to live down the electoral disaster that made her a household name.

Martha Coakley works the room on Friday at Dempsey’s, the same Medford diner
where she kicked off her campaign last September.

This is the paradox of being Martha Coakley in 2014: even when things are going great, she can’t enjoy it, because she’s still dogged by doubts and questions about a US Senate race she lost over four years ago.

Coakley is at ease in Dempsey’s. She hugs supporters and works the room freely. She chats with a pair of young mothers, one of whom had swung by the diner when she heard Coakley was in neighborhood, and one of whom was just taking her kids out to pancakes. They’re the type of voters who have given Coakley the enormous lead she now enjoys in most polls of the Democratic race. Recent polls have shown Coakley enjoying leads of between 20 and 30 points among female Democratic primary voters; in a primary where women outvote men by 8 percentage points, those are daunting margins for Coakley’s Democratic rivals, Steve Grossman and Don Berwick, to overcome.

Coakley’s strength with women voters has given her a healthy lead in most hypothetical matchups against Charlie Baker, the presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee. A survey last week for WBUR by The MassINC Polling Group, for instance, found Coakley up 9 points against Baker, even after splitting Grossman’s primary voters evenly with Baker.

But if the Democratic defections to Baker that polls find aren’t yet enough to dent Coakley’s momentum, they speak to a deep sense of unease that the state’s Democratic establishment feels toward Coakley. McGlynn and Donato, the politicians who accompany Coakley into the Medford diner, are among the relatively few Democratic officials who have rallied behind Coakley’s candidacy. Most have flocked to Grossman. Party regulars don’t appear to trust Coakley with a lead. They don’t trust her to finish off Charlie Baker in November, because they watched her fail to finish off Scott Brown four years ago.

It’s been this way ever since Coakley visited Dempsey’s last September. Since that last visit, Coakley has improved as a candidate. She’s getting better at peppering her stump speech with lively populist appeals. She’s out on the campaign trail shaking hands. Her campaign organization had knocked on over 100,000 doors, even before this past weekend’s push. Coakley is doing everything she needs to do, politically, to be a credible candidate in November.

But when you’re the Democrat who lost Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, politically credible doesn’t cut it. So at Dempsey’s on Friday, Coakley faced the same kinds of questions about her 2010 implosion against Scott Brown as she did when she launched her campaign last year. She’s used to answering those questions by now. If the polls are right, and Coakley wins the nomination Tuesday, she’ll have lots more practice ahead of her. November’s still a long way away, and at every campaign stop between now and then, there’s likely to be a question about 2010 waiting for her. And before she can beat away those questions once and for all, she has to beat a Republican on the ballot.


Looking for a birthday surprise

Don Berwick is behind the wheel of his wife’s 2006 Toyota Prius, heading from a get-out-the-vote rally in Jamaica Plain to another one in Dorchester, his last stop on the Sunday before primary day.

“We’ve had good rallies all over the state,” he says. “The energy is great. I’m excited. I think we can do this.”

Back when he entered the race a year and half ago, there may have been reason to think the first-time candidate could indeed do it. A full-throated liberal with an impressive background in health care innovation and administration, Berwick looked to the recent experience of other Democrats who have been able to successfully romance the state’s electorate without the lengthy courtship of years in elected office.

Don Berwick pumps up volunteers on Sunday afternoon outside Ashmont Station
in Dorchester.

“We’re following in the path of Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren, two very good models,” he said back in February, as the race was getting into gear with Democratic caucuses. “Neither of them was known when they started. I can see the pathway pretty clearly.”

But if the path was to seize the mantle of progressive outsider, a profile that rocketed Patrick eight years ago from political unknown to unstoppable force, it hasn’t worked out that way for Berwick. The 67-year-old physician, who founded an internationally-recognized health care nonprofit and ran the federal Medicare and Medicaid office under President Obama, has been stuck in third place in the polls in the three-way Democratic primary for governor. He’s placing far behind front-runner Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman, registering just 6 percent in the most recent WBUR/MassINC Polling Group survey, while the final Boston Globe poll, released last week, had him at 13 percent.

It’s been a tricky play from the start for Berwick, who has the genial touch of a pediatrician and a sharp mind for policy, but is not a natural glad-hander on the campaign trail.

As everyone from pundits to the candidates themselves has repeatedly observed, there is no Deval Patrick in this year’s race. There is no one who can deliver a hope-filled message with the inspiring oratory that can sway undecideds and energize Democratic activists the way Patrick did when he took the state by storm.

As a result, the race has defaulted to the blocking and tackling of a conventional contest, with the candidates’ standing in the primary contest mirroring their name recognition and voters’ familiarity with their background and record.

It’s also been harder to sell the message of an outside reformer after eight years of a governor who came to office on that platform. What’s more, there have been some notable bumps in the road since he arrived.

Berwick expresses his admiration for Patrick — but also says his own extensive executive background means he’d be better equipped to deal with things like the medical marijuana licensing miscues or problems in the Department of Families and Children, two of several areas where Patrick’s soaring rhetoric has collided with poor management on the ground.

Speaking to about 40 supporters in front of Ashmont Station in Dorchester as the sun starts to go down, Berwick says the race comes down to the kind of values we want to be governed by. If you want “social justice, equality, compassion at the center of our public policy,” he tells the crowd, there is “one choice” in the race.

Berwick has been willing to talk about poverty, homelessness, and other issues that may not be foremost in the minds of many voters. He has also taken clear stands on several high-profile issues, most notably his support for a single-payer health care system and his strong opposition to casinos.

He thinks that makes him the best Democratic choice to go up against likely Republican nominee Charlie baker.

“It’s not the number of hands she’s shaken that’s the issue in terms of her vulnerability,” he says of Coakley. “It’s her willingness to stand up with strong positions that really support improvements in the lives of people in the Commonwealth. You can’t do that by equivocating or mincing words, or saying, we’ll wait and see. It’s got to be stands taken. I think the public sees that.”

So is it frustrating to see Coakley coasting far ahead in the polls?

“All I can do is make my case,” says Berwick. “But I’ll tell you right now, I’m the opposite of frustrated. I’m excited. The feeling I’ve got about the embrace of the agenda I’m talking about — it’s very strong. Tuesday’s going to be a real interesting day. It’s also my birthday.”