Stateline Story

Campaign Journal: A Tasty Banquet in Chopped Liver Land

  • September 09, 2004
  • By Ed Fouhy

For months we've been hearing talk about two Americas, first from Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards and more recently from speakers at the Republican National Convention. It's generally a very good idea to take a skeptical view of campaign rhetoric, but there really is something to be said for this notion of two Americas. It's just that the division is less about economics, as they would have you believe, and much more about past voting records and the arcane calculus of costly TV markets.

The two Americas are divided into the battleground states, some call them the purple states, and all the other states -- red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. Depending on how you define them, there are anywhere from 10 to 17 battlegrounds, leaving 33 to 40 states where the presidential results are, the political insiders tell us, a foregone conclusion. But it's in those red and blue states where the vast majority of Americans live.

We're citizens of states where the thundering artillery salvoes that the candidates exchange daily are just a distant rumble.

I now live in a blue state after three decades in Washington, D.C., where political combat is the stuff of everyday life.

My new home state Massachusetts is so blue it's not even on the radarscope of the people who run presidential campaigns. That means that so far, blessedly, few presidential ads have shown up on our television stations. Too much money to reach too few undecided voters.

Oh, we get the news, especially when John Kerry or George Bush campaign in neighboring New Hampshire, whose four electoral votes narrowly won by Bush in 2000 are thought to be in play. Bush and Kerry seem to visit the Granite State so often that if one or the other hasn't offered to drive your kid to soccer practice, you're probably not a registered voter.

Here in Massachusetts, we're so blue that every member of our U.S. House delegation is a Democrat; both U.S. senators are Democrats and, as you have probably noticed, one is running for president; the other, of course, is Ted Kennedy, whose voting record makes most GOPers foam at the mouth.

We're so blue that Kerry is the fourth Bay State Democrat to seek the White House in the last half century.

We're so blue that the state Senate is dominated by the Democrats 33-7 and the House by 136-23.

The one exception to the blueness is the governor's office. For the last 14 years, voters have elected Republicans. The latest is the impresario of the Salt Lake City Olympics, Mitt Romney, but he seems to have ambitions to leave Boston and go off to Washington as soon as possible. No wonder. Those one-sided numbers in the Legislature add up to a veto-proof Democratic majority.

So what happens in a political year in a state this blue? Does everyone just tune out on politics? The answers are plenty and no. Massachusetts is, after all, the state that produced U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, whose best-remembered contribution to our political lexicon is, "All politics is local." And indeed it is, even when the political odds are so one-sided.

As summer fades, yard signs, those most reliable barometers of partisan intent, have blossomed like mushrooms after a rain. They are everywhere, all touting candidates for the Legislature.

There is a primary on Sept. 14 that's generating some noise, but the real battle is, of course, in November. By that time, if the present pace continues, yard signs will blot out the fall foliage.

Bill Mills, Editorial Page Editor of the Cape Cod Times, says the level of citizen engagement is at its usual level: very high. "About 23 per cent of our voters here are [age] 65 and over, and they remain strongly engaged in civic life," says Mills.

In the state Senate district where I live, the battle is between Democrat Rob O'Leary, a two-term incumbent, and Republican Gail Lese, a physician turned mutual-fund manager and a newcomer to politics.

The issues are the environment -- a big wind farm is proposed for the waters just south of Cape Cod -- health care, affordable housing, and gay marriage. The latter is an especially incendiary issue because Provincetown, with its large gay population, is in this district.

O'Leary won with 60 per cent of the vote last time he ran. But the district elected Republicans until recently, so he's running hard. He voted for a carefully worded gay marriage bill that was endorsed by the gay community. While supporting renewable energy, he's been cautious on the wind farm, questioning the wisdom of leasing the seabed under public waters to a private company. On other environmental issues, his record is solid; he successfully sponsored legislation that will save from developers 110 acres facing picture-perfect Nantucket Harbor and place the land under the jurisdiction of a local foundation dedicated to preserving the island.

Lese is counting on her background in both medicine and finance to help her hone her appeal to Cape Cod voters who lack health insurance, a number that's unknown but thought to be big. She wants the gay marriage issue to be decided by the voters and would have voted against the bill O'Leary supported.

She's raised $110,000, according to her latest financial filing, while O'Leary, the incumbent, has raised far less. Her campaign manager, Jim Cummings, says this is a $200,000 race -- or at least that's his fund-raising target.

There will be at least three and perhaps as many as five candidate debates, so differences between the candidates will be thoroughly aired. Both Lese and O'Leary have advanced degrees from prestigious universities, so chances are the debates will be worth watching even if they're only available on local access cable channels.

While it's a little unsettling to be taken for granted and otherwise ignored as the big presidential campaigns carom from Pennsylvania to Florida to Ohio, we're doing just fine out here in what a New York Times editorial called Chopped Liver Land. We've got good local issues, sharp differences about who can best handle them, debates to acquaint the voters with the candidates and a money race.

So even as the big boys ignore us and duke it out for the undecideds in Philadelphia and Cleveland and Tampa, we've got a fine political campaign here, and there's probably one like it in many other red and blue states. We've got a tasty political banquet before us, and two months to savor it.

Ed Fouhy retired this year as founding editor of Stateline.org and now lives in Chatham, Mass. He is a consultant to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline.org. In a career spanning more than 30 years, most of it in Washington, D.C., he helped direct news coverage for all three major television networks at various times.