Massachusetts Blues

This article appears in the December 2023 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

At first glance, Massachusetts seems to be among the bluest states in the nation. It sends an all-Democratic delegation to the U.S. House and Senate, including progressive champions Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. And in the past two years, voters have rejected the long era of clubby, male, centrist, white-ethnic politics.

In 2021, Michelle Wu, a 36-year-old progressive Boston city councilor, was elected Boston mayor, the first woman and the first Asian American to hold the post. Then in 2022, Democrat Maura Healey, the former attorney general and an out lesbian, was elected governor. To succeed Healey as AG, voters chose a crusading progressive, Andrea Campbell, the first African American woman in the position. The state auditor, the state treasurer, and the lieutenant governor are also women. Since 2019, the U.S. House member for Boston and some inner suburbs, Ayanna Pressley, is the first Black representative from Massachusetts and one of the most left members of Congress.

Polls confirm that Bay State voters are resolutely progressive on a range of issues. But on policy, Massachusetts continues to lag far behind other Democratic trifecta states. If you unpack why this is the case, you appreciate that it isn’t only right-wing Republicans who undermine both democracy and popular faith in democracy. It’s also corporate Democrats in one-party states.

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But hold on, didn’t voters just elect reformers to the top posts? Not quite. The most powerful politician on Beacon Hill remains a 77-year-old state representative named Ron Mariano, who was elected by exactly 10,085 voters in Norfolk County. He’s the Speaker of the state House of Representatives. And the Massachusetts legislature has procedures to ensure total leadership control that would make Boss Tweed blush.

The leadership and lobbyists make deals behind closed doors. There are no recorded votes in House committees, where legislation is often sent to die, making it impossible to hold representatives accountable. Full texts of bills are often unavailable, and final passage on the floor is usually by voice vote. Technically, a member can demand a roll call, and it does happen once in a while. But to do it is to court retribution.

Outing a fellow member to “take a difficult vote” even has a uniquely Beacon Hill term of opprobrium. It’s called “spotting,” and is considered an unfriendly act. “You are not supposed to make anybody uncomfortable. It’s a culture of comfort that often trumps the interests of the working people who we represent and serve,” says state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and is a rare effective progressive.

To further entrench boss rule, the Speaker can augment the $73,654 base pay of state reps, by sums ranging from $7,095.60 to $88,694.99. He can do this for more than half of the 160 members of the House, by naming them committee chairs, vice chairs, and other honorary leadership positions.

To cross the Speaker is to have your extra pay and staff taken away, and your office abruptly moved to the basement. A few members do choose to play the role of outsider, but they rarely accomplish anything. “If you want that earmark for a senior center in your district,” says Diana DiZoglio, a former renegade legislator who is now state auditor, “you had better not challenge the leadership.”

Just as important are the feedback loops that legislative boss rule creates. The dictatorial role of the House leadership undercuts progressive grassroots activism, because even progressive groups that resent Mariano and his cronies still have to work with them to get half a loaf.

In short, Massachusetts may be all blue, but it’s the wrong kind of blue.

IN OTHER BLUE STATES SUCH AS CONNECTICUT AND CALIFORNIA, effective alliances among grassroots groups, trade unions, the legislature, and the governor produce progressive wins. Even in purple states such as Minnesota with very narrow Democratic control, party discipline and strategic alliances with an activist base have produced a string of progressive reforms.

The Massachusetts House has 134 Democrats and 25 Republicans. Of the 160 state reps, in the most recent election, 109 ran unopposed. The state Senate currently has 36 Democrats and just four Republicans. Incumbents thus have little to fear from voters, so they pay more attention to donors, corporate lobbyists, and local real estate interests.

The real opposition party is the minority of progressive Democrats in the legislature, but most are either co-opted, intimidated, or give up after a few terms to do something else with their lives. The House Progressive Caucus has had as many as 60 members. It has no staff or website, takes no formal positions, and never crosses the leadership as a caucus.

You might think that such circumstances would be ripe for primary challenges. But incumbents have so much power to bestow benefits and raise money from corporate lobbyists that primary fights are rare and wins are even rarer. There were two challenges in 2022; both challengers lost.

Local progressive donors who could fund primary campaigns pay no attention to their own backyard. “There are a lot of wealthy donors in Massachusetts who give to national races,” says Eldridge. “Their view is, this is blue Massachusetts, we’re OK, local races don’t need our money.”

A compounding problem is the lack of home rule. Beginning in the 1920s, as Irish politicians came to dominate the city of Boston, the state legislature, which was still controlled by Republican Brahmins, acted to strip Boston of local governance rights. According to a comparative study by two scholars at Harvard Law School, other major cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle have nothing like the limits suffered by Boston. This legal structure, authors Gerald Frug and David Barron wrote, “forces the city to rely on a narrow revenue base, limits the city’s ability to control its own expenditures, and distorts the city’s efforts to plan.”

Other cities can use an array of local taxes to fund local needs. San Francisco levies a business license tax, a real property transfer tax, a utility user tax, a parking tax, and a transient occupancy tax. Chicago has more than a dozen taxes. Seattle and Alameda County, California, added local taxes dedicated to mass transit. Boston, with the nation’s oldest subway system and among the country’s worst traffic congestion, can’t do any of that.

The only tax Boston does control is the property tax, which accounts for about 74 percent of its revenue. In the other cities studied, the property tax averaged about 20 percent. This leaves Boston heavily dependent on state aid, giving the legislature even more leverage. A secondary effect, Frug and Barron observe, is that these constraints depress civic engagement and create a psychology of “why bother.”

Massachusetts cities regularly file home-rule petitions with the legislature, humbly asking for the authority to enact, say, rent control, or a real estate transfer tax to underwrite affordable housing. These are usually rejected, often via the usual method of being buried in committee.

This serves to blunt progressive impulses on the part of mayors, and to weaken progressive elected officials by making them seem ineffectual. It also cements the alliance between business elites, their allies in the legislature, and state governors.

UNTIL MAURA HEALEY, FIVE OF THE PAST SIX MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNORS were centrist Republicans, liberalish on social issues (which are broadly popular here) and in the pocket of business on economic ones. That suits the legislature just fine.

Healey has been a careful student of this dynamic. She is the first to successfully transition from the attorney general’s office to the governorship, and this was not accidental. Crusading AGs make political enemies. Previous AGs Martha Coakley, Tom Reilly, Scott Harshbarger, and Frank Bellotti all wanted to be governor and none succeeded. Healey was increasingly cautious during her two terms as AG, bold mainly on broadly popular social issues such as reproductive and LGBTQ rights, but not seriously attacking the business establishment and corrupt pols, or taking political risks to promote criminal justice reform.

Healey was also a close student of her predecessor, Republican Charlie Baker, a two-term social liberal and fiscal conservative. Because the Massachusetts Republican Party has been taken over by Trumpists and no center-right GOP successor to Baker could be nominated, Healey won the general election in a walk, defeating Republican Geoffrey Diehl by nearly 30 points. So she had a mandate for an expansive program.

But Healey was especially mindful of the experience of the last Democratic governor, Deval Patrick (2007–2015), a progressive who went public with a bold program that was cut to shreds by the legislature and the business lobbies. Of the people I interviewed on background for this piece, several used almost identical language: “Maura Healey wants to be Charlie Baker’s third term.”

For her first high-profile act, Healey with great fanfare unveiled a tax cut, slashing the estate tax and the short-term capital gains tax as well as changing the sales tax formula to make it easier for multistate corporations to game the system. Her move infuriated liberals, who had been fighting for decades for a progressive income tax.

Progressives finally succeeded with two ballot initiatives enacted over four years, which took effect in 2023, adding a new top bracket of 9 percent for millionaires to the otherwise flat-rate tax of 5 percent, and dedicating the proceeds to education and transportation. The so-called Fair Share Amendment produced a revenue windfall of on the order of $2 billion a year. Healey’s tax cut gave much of that back to the wealthiest residents of Massachusetts. The legislature, though far from progressive, actually revised Healey’s proposal to make it less regressive.

The bill did include some progressive elements, including an increase in the child tax credit. But Healey has relentlessly promoted her “tax cut,” supposedly to improve the state’s business climate. “On taxes,” says one leader who fought for the millionaire tax, “Healey is basically a Reagan Republican.”

Healey’s speeches have reinforced the bogus premise that taxes are driving rich people and entrepreneurs out of Massachusetts. In fact, Massachusetts, with its world-class universities, hospitals, and research complexes, is awash in successful startups. It’s a desirable place to live culturally and there is no exodus of the wealthy.

Incumbents have such power to bestow benefits and raise money from corporate lobbyists that primary fights are rare and wins are even rarer.

A state-by-state study by the IRS showed that Massachusetts has a lower rate of out-migration by rich people than 38 other states, and that the rate of people leaving the state was lower for the rich (3.1 percent per year) than for the middle class and the poor (3.5 percent). “If anyone is leaving Massachusetts,” says state SEIU Executive Director Harris Gruman, “it’s SEIU members who can’t afford to live here because of the housing costs.”

Having appalled progressives with her tax bill, Healey then turned around and sponsored a $4.1 billion housing proposal reliant on new bonding authority. Among other things, it would provide $1.6 billion for public-housing renovation and construction, and other subsidies that will produce some 40,000 new units of affordable housing.

The move won broad applause. Healey even surprised housing advocates by endorsing home-rule petitions to allow localities to enact transfer taxes on the sale of luxury housing, with the proceeds to support affordable housing. Cynics say she will rely on the legislature, which is heavily beholden to the real estate industry, to kill the idea.

Healey has also been strong on the fraught issue of how to assimilate immigrants and refugees who have flooded into Massachusetts, promoting legislation to expedite work permits. It’s another low-risk issue where the humanitarian goals of progressives happen to converge with those of business, which needs the mostly lower-wage workers.

A kind appraisal would describe Healey’s administration to date as mixed. She created a climate chief to coordinate initiatives on energy and environment, and appointed a respected environmentalist, Melissa Hoffer, to the new post. In contrast to her record as AG, where she ducked criminal justice reforms, Healey recently released new clemency guidelines.

Her appointments in transportation, especially to the long-suffering Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), are considered a major improvement. Baker’s record on the MBTA, known as the T, was dismal. He replaced competent managers with chums from the conservative Pioneer Institute where he once worked, mostly theorists with no operational experience. The new general manager of the MBTA, Phillip Eng, is widely considered one of the best public-transportation executives in the country.

At the same time, Healey has retained several Baker holdovers, including his secretary of public safety, officials at the scandal-ridden corrections department, and key education policymakers. Budget experts reviewing the details of Healey’s 2023-2024 budget were stunned to see that a principal architect was Baker finance director John Caljouw, who had a paid job in 2018 keeping data files for Baker’s donor operation.

Progressives also see donor influence on Healey. She will soon face a test in her decision whether to permit expansion of a suburban airport called Hanscom Field, which is used by private jets that add to pollution, contradicting Healey’s ambitious zero-carbon goals. The surrounding communities are opposed. The unpopular idea’s biggest promoters are large Healey donors who cherish their personal planes.

Healey has done some good things. What she has not done is set a broadly progressive economic agenda and use her bully pulpit to advocate for it, much less work with progressive groups to advance it.

BOSTON MAYOR MICHELLE WU PRESENTS A WELCOME CONTRAST to Healey. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Wu was elected to the city council in 2013. On the council, she was a leading force for enactment of laws providing paid parental leave, limiting Airbnb-style short-term rentals, demilitarizing the police department, and reducing carbon emissions.

Originally from Chicago, Wu came to Massachusetts to attend Harvard and then Harvard Law School, where she became very close to a professor named Elizabeth Warren. Wu worked as constituency director for Warren’s first Senate campaign in 2012. Warren backed Wu for mayor, a race that she ended up winning with 64 percent of the vote. She became the first woman mayor and the first in almost a century who was not a local.

Wu has a sunny temperament and doesn’t hold grudges. Under Wu, the City Hall contrast with the State House culture of retribution is striking. Wu can oppose a city councilor on a given issue one week and work closely with them on a different issue the next.

Wu’s mayoral term so far is a study in working to overcome structural obstacles that limit a mayor’s capacity to solve problems while navigating tricky conflicts among Boston’s diverse constituencies. One signature campaign promise that was ridiculed by her opponents was free public transportation, a project she dubbed “Free the T.” As mayor, Wu managed to find $8 million in federal money to eliminate fares on three heavily traveled bus routes in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, used mainly by working people of color; she hopes to add more.

Wu has made a number of excellent appointments, including a reform police commissioner named Michael Cox, who as an undercover police officer was viciously beaten up by other cops. She succeeded in getting a Boston seat on the MBTA board, and appointed Mary Skelton Roberts, a respected transportation expert formerly with the Barr Foundation.

She has also taken on contentious issues, such as the open-air drug market and homeless encampment near one of the city’s busiest intersections, the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Dealing with “Mass and Cass” divided law-and-order types from civil libertarians, and drug treatment advocates from those who want to crack down on dealers and street crime. Most of the people living in makeshift tents were dealing with mental health and addition problems, as well as being homeless.

Wu won the backing of a majority of a divided city council for allowing police to clear Mass and Cass as of November 1. Homeless people were given shelter beds, while the city attempts to create a permanent facility that combines supportive housing and treatment. This remedy did not entirely please either civil liberties advocates or supporters of a treatment-first approach, but the mayor felt she had to act.

However, the same week the tents were cleared, Gov. Healey announced that the state had run out of emergency shelter beds and she would no longer enforce the Massachusetts right-to-shelter law. In September, Healey had asked the legislature for an emergency $250 million to finance more shelter units. But the House and Senate, squabbling over minor details, took a six-week recess until after Christmas with no action. It was an epic case of the dysfunction between governor, House, and Senate.

Boston’s always tricky racial politics are sometimes a challenge for Wu, in a city that is 50 percent white, 23.5 percent Black, 20 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Asian. When Boston’s city council faced redistricting last spring, an initial map approved by Wu was rejected by a federal judge as too racialized. Wu had sought to increase representation of communities of color, and white incumbents were furious. The successful lawsuit, demanding a new map, was filed and bankrolled by two white councilmembers. Wu’s final map was then attacked by some Black and Hispanic leaders as too friendly to whites.

Wu was an outspoken advocate on the issue of police reform while on the city council, but she has trimmed some as mayor. As a councilmember, Wu supported shutting down the Boston Police Department’s badly flawed database on gangs, which was seen as racially biased. As mayor, she supported giving it additional funding. On the city council, all the yes votes for the funding were from white members and all the no votes were from members of color. On most issues, however, Wu has been able to get broad city council support.

One oft-heard criticism of Wu is that she’s not a great listener. “She often makes up her mind without adequately broad consultation,” says one player who works closely with City Hall. Wu decided, pretty much on her own, to expand the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, the most diverse of the city’s three exam schools. This was a welcome idea. But Wu is moving it from mostly Black Roxbury in central Boston to a mothballed high school campus far from good transportation on the largely white far fringe of the city. The backlash was extensive.

“The Black community has never been her base, and many people of color don’t feel listened to,” says one progressive leader. On balance, however, Wu’s decisiveness wins more praise than criticism. And in the November 7 municipal election, four progressive Wu allies, two of them people of color, gained seats on the city council, giving her a very strong working majority.

WU HAS ALSO MOVED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for quasi-independent city government entities that previous Boston mayors were happy to hide behind. One is the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), long in the pocket of developers. Under mayors Tom Menino and Marty Walsh, the BRA presided over such planning disasters as the development of a largely vacant 1,000-acre tract of land rebranded as the Seaport District, which now has eight luxury hotels, some 80 restaurants, no affordable housing, little public transit, and no requirements on developers to mitigate the risks of sea level rise, despite the fact that the Seaport is just a few feet above sea level.

Under Walsh, the BRA was renamed the Boston Planning and Development Agency. As BPDA director, Wu appointed Arthur Jemison, an admired city planner who grew up in public housing. The BPDA has been repurposed to focus on affordable and green housing throughout the city. Wu was willing to take on developers by increasing the percentage of affordable units required in all new construction from 13 to 17 percent. She also filed home-rule petitions with the legislature asking for authority to enact local rent control as well as a transfer tax on sales of luxury homes.

Wu has also made some nervy moves to improve Boston’s public schools, which have chronically underperformed, more so since the COVID pandemic. She has done this under pressure of a threatened state receivership if she failed to make drastic changes. Some 30 percent of Boston schools perform in the bottom 10 percent of the state. Steadily declining enrollments have led to very small schools in states of advanced physical disrepair. Maintenance outlays, combined with rising costs for transportation and special education, lead Boston to spend an astounding $28,800 per student to deliver substandard outcomes.

In 1992, Boston’s one previous reform mayor Ray Flynn changed the structure of the Boston School Committee from elected to mayor-appointed. Wu wants to keep it that way, both to promote reforms and to be held accountable for them. In February, Wu vetoed a proposal passed 7-5 by the city council to return to an elected school committee. Wu then used her mayoral control to tackle two thorny education issues that previous city administrations have allowed to fester.

Other than the property tax, Boston has no power to tax, leaving it vulnerable to the legislature for local fiscal aid.

Boston’s costly and perverse approach to special education is heavily based on assigning a student one of 53 separate diagnostic codes. The code then generates the extra funding for the student and determines where the student is placed, leading to the warehousing of special-needs kids in “substantially separate” facilities at more than twice the national average. This is the opposite of what the inclusionary mainstreaming approach pioneered in Massachusetts in the 1970s was intended to achieve.

“Many of these kids have learning difficulties rather than learning disabilities, and many teachers are happy to have them out of their classrooms,” says Ellen Guiney, one of the city’s leaders on educational reform.

To Wu’s great credit, she and her school superintendent, a former Boston school principal named Mary Skipper, announced a plan in October that would scrap most of the system of coding and warehousing in favor of bringing most special-needs kids back to regular classrooms, but with extra resources. “All Boston public schools must be inclusive,” Skipper declared.

Wu also has tackled the fraught school consolidation issue by nesting it under her Green New Deal for Boston Schools program, which proposes to make all public buildings carbon-neutral and spend $2 billion from the city’s capital budget to upgrade facilities. Wu reasonably argues that this can’t be done without substantial closing of small, antiquated schools. Her School Committee began the process by voting in June to combine four small elementary schools into two.

On both reform of special ed and consolidation of schools, Wu enlisted the support of leaders of the Boston Teachers Union, some of whose members like the system just the way it is. “The union now supports an inclusive approach to special ed, which is a reversal of their past position,” says one insider. “That took some courage on the part of the union leadership.”

The problem of the Boston Public Schools is not money, but the long-standing misallocation of available funds and a culture that resists change. On this front, Wu is leading. In other areas, notably housing and transportation, the broader challenge facing Wu is resources, under the control of Beacon Hill.

THE MBTA HAS LONG BEEN UNDERFUNDED and mismanaged. This summer, a long-awaited extension of the system’s Green Line to two inner suburbs, Somerville and Medford, became a fiasco when it turned out that the tracks had been laid too closely together by a contractor, forcing trains to crawl at three miles per hour. Baker MBTA appointees had been made aware of the problem in 2021 but did not go public with the bad news because of pressure to do the ribbon cutting while Baker was still in office.

The Fair Share progressive income tax will produce half a billion dollars in new earmarked funds for transportation, including just over $300 million for mass transit. That sounds like a lot of money. But the MBTA puts its capital needs at over $24 billion. And Boston, the hub of the regional transit system, is powerless to tax itself, much less commuters.

In past years, Boston’s need for public investment was solved partly from Washington. The Big Dig turned Route 93, the sole north-south trunk road into the city, from an ugly and chronically congested elevated highway into a more efficient set of tunnels, open space, and development-ready land, and built a new tunnel to the airport to further ease congestion. The Big Dig cost $22 billion, courtesy of U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Nothing similar is in the offing today.

Low-lying Boston dodged a bullet in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy hit New York. Experts estimate that a nine-foot storm surge would flood half the city, put the subways out of commission, and overwhelm the sewer and sewage treatment system. Sea-level Logan Airport would suffer damage. Studies project that a protective system of Dutch-style dikes and seawalls would cost $8 to $11 billion. There is no source for that funding. However, repairing the damage from one or more hurricane direct hits would cost a lot more. Sandy cost New York City $19 billion and did about $70 billion of damage nationally.

The Boston Green Ribbon Commission, an influential civic group that includes all of the city’s leading businesses and bankers, has pushed for an independent taxing authority that could raise the money on the scale needed. But that would require legislative approval.

On the housing front, Greater Boston faces one of the country’s worst mismatches of income and housing costs. The average rental cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Boston, where the median income is about $37,500, is more than $2,800 a month.

One remedy is to require developers of market-rate or luxury housing to set aside a percentage of units as affordable, as Boston and Cambridge do. But most white suburbs resist the idea, and neither the governor nor the legislature is inclined to override local decisions.

Earlier this year, in the inner suburb of Braintree, a developer proposed to build 495 units of low-rise multifamily housing on a large, underutilized parking lot near a shopping mall and a subway station. None of the units were even slated to be affordable. When it became clear that town authorities would reject the needed zoning change, the developer gave up. There were no consequences.

Some blame resentment of the relative weight of greater Boston in the state’s politics. But the hidden issue behind much of this is race, says Ted Landsmark, a longtime Boston civil rights and social activist who is now a professor at Northeastern University, where he directs the Dukakis Center. “When busing came in, a lot of white people moved out,” Landsmark says. Affluent whites have since moved back into trendy, gentrified Boston, but few send their kids to Boston public schools. “Despite the region’s increased diversity, Boston’s schools and professions are as segregated as they ever were.”

In 2021, the legislature passed a law to promote transit-oriented development. It requires some 177 communities served by MBTA subway and commuter stations to liberalize zoning laws to facilitate multifamily housing. But the law doesn’t require any of the housing to be affordable.

THE BAY STATE’S NEW ATTORNEY GENERAL is Andrea Campbell. She has a remarkable personal story. Soon after she was born, her father was sentenced to an eight-year prison term. When she was still an infant, her mother was killed in a car crash en route to visit her father in prison. Campbell’s two brothers both served time, and she spent her childhood with relatives and in foster care.

Campbell made it to the prestigious Boston Latin School, then to Princeton, and then to law school at UCLA. She worked in public-interest law firms, in a private firm doing labor law, and as Gov. Deval Patrick’s deputy general counsel. She was elected to the Boston City Council in 2015, defeating a longtime incumbent. On the council, her close ally was the councilmember Ayanna Pressley. One of Campbell’s signature issues was police reform, an unusual background for the state’s future top prosecutor.

In 2021, Campbell ran for mayor, was endorsed by The Boston Globe, and for a time was favored to win. But with the appointment of Mayor Marty Walsh as President Biden’s labor secretary, Kim Janey, then the lackluster city council president, automatically became acting mayor. Janey, like Campbell, is African American. Janey’s surprise entry into the mayoral race split the Black vote, and neither Campbell nor Janey made the runoff. Campbell then decided to run for AG in 2022, winning the Democratic primary by more than 16 points, and cruising to victory in the general election.

As AG, Campbell created a Reproductive Justice Unit, convening several leading law firms and the ACLU to establish a hotline so that anyone threatened can get legal help. That includes people from out of state who have come to Massachusetts to obtain legal abortions or gender-affirming care, and are being threatened by bounty hunters or vigilantes under the laws of other states. This action harks back to the days when Massachusetts was a haven in the era of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The problem of the Boston Public Schools is not money, but the long-standing misallocation of public funds and a culture that resists change.

Campbell has also been strong on criminal justice reform and police reform. Campbell supports restrictions on the use of facial recognition software by police and prosecutors. As a candidate, she supported an end to qualified immunity for police officers.

Campbell presents a contrast with her predecessor. When the proposal to end qualified immunity for cops was under debate in 2020 and the House and Senate had passed different versions, Maura Healey ducked the issue saying that she was for reform, but on the other hand, “we don’t want a situation where public employees are paralyzed.” The legislation never passed.

Similarly, when sentencing reform was before the legislature in 2018, Healey declined to take a strong position. Healey was also weak on a huge scandal involving corruption at the state drug testing lab, where thousands of people were sent to prison based on lab results that were made up. Civil libertarians wanted those records wiped clean. Most district attorneys didn’t, and Healey ducked the issue. The records were eventually cleared by an ACLU lawsuit.

As a statewide official, Campbell has been a little more prudent. As AG, she has not pushed for an end to qualified immunity for cops, and she is trying to mend fences with prosecutors. On balance, Campbell is the most reformist AG in decades. But Campbell’s work, as good as it is, operates largely at the periphery of the structural barriers to major reforms.

MIGHT REFORM COME FROM INSIDE THE LEGISLATURE? One brief episode did occur in the mid-1980s, when a particularly autocratic House Speaker named Tommy McGee double-crossed his heir apparent, Majority Leader George Keverian. McGee had promised to retire so that Keverian could become Speaker, but changed his mind. Keverian then led a backbench revolt that deposed McGee. When he became Speaker in 1985, Keverian reformed the rules to make the legislative process somewhat more transparent. But after Keverian left in 1990, his successor reinstated the autocratic old rules and also shut down the independent Legislative Research Bureau.

The state auditor, Diana DiZoglio, wants to conduct a full audit of the legislature to shine a light on slush funds, corruption, and tricks the leadership uses to keep control. The legislature has refused to cooperate. DiZoglio has launched her own ballot initiative to confirm her authority, but Campbell, ordinarily an ally of DiZoglio, has issued an advisory opinion that the proposed audit is unconstitutional. Even if DiZoglio ultimately prevails, the audit could embarrass the leadership but not necessarily compel reform.

In short, it would take a dramatic upsurge of progressive organizing, including primary challenges, to fundamentally change the game. But the several forms of blockage described in this article have a depressive effect on activism.

The problem is not a lack of grassroots groups; Massachusetts has hundreds, if not thousands. The state is also home to world-class policy research and advocacy organizations. On tax and budget issues, the Mass Budget and Policy Center is considered one of the country’s best. But compared to other blue states, the whole is weaker than the sum of its parts.

Many of the groups are too small, often dependent on foundation grants, and in turf competitions with each other. Others are reliant on state or city funds, and reluctant to take on public officials.

To some extent, this same dynamic occurs everywhere. A key difference is that Massachusetts has no single statewide progressive membership coalition that agrees on priority issues and common strategies, endorses candidates, recruits activists, runs challengers, and keeps voter files.

Instead, there are several partial statewide groups with overlapping memberships, and they sometimes trip over each other. A group called Progressive Mass does some of what’s needed. It has several strong local chapters, takes positions on issues, and rates candidates. Executive director Jonathan Cohn is respected in the firmament of progressive players. But the group has never reached the scale needed.

Another group, the Massachusetts Voter Table, works with nonprofits that promote voter education work through door-knocking and phone banks, especially in communities of color. The Massachusetts Communities Action Network has strong community bases and some victories on economic and housing issues.

Yet another organization, Act on Mass, promotes progressive issues, pushes for procedural reform, and trains activists. Still another, Mass Alliance, functions as a coalition of other progressive organizations and seeks to broker a common agenda. It has a budget of about $300,000 and a staff of around four.

“Right now, our community is anemic,” says Jordan Berg Powers, who served for 13 years as executive director of Mass Alliance before leaving to become a political consultant last spring. “There are a jillion little groups in a few concentrated parts of Massachusetts—they don’t coalesce, they don’t have money for long-term organizing, they don’t put effective pressure on the legislature.”

Sen. Jamie Eldridge echoes this critique from the perspective of a progressive legislator. “A lot of the liberal activists and groups are too passive,” he told me, “not willing to call out elected officials who are not fighting or voting for progressive policies, and have not properly organized to elect more progressive candidates.”

One group called Raise Up Mass periodically goes into high gear to promote ballot initiatives. Progressives have won five in recent years. They included measures to raise the state minimum wage (twice), a law mandating paid sick days, a paid family medical leave act, and most recently the Fair Share millionaire tax.

In three of these cases, progressive success in qualifying an initiative for the ballot led to negotiations with the legislative leadership, which ultimately enacted a close equivalent measure, and the proposition never appeared on the ballot. Between ballot campaigns, there are ongoing strategy meetings and lobbying of the legislature. But Raise Up Mass does not do endorsements or primary challenges.

THIS ORGANIZATIONAL PATCHWORK GOES BACK to the collapse of Massachusetts Fair Share in the early 1980s. Founded in 1975, Fair Share had 110,000 dues-paying members at its peak. It built strong chapters in metro Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, Fall River, and Lynn. Organizers enlisted local people, substantially working-class, in neighborhood chapters, Saul Alinsky style. Issues were defined by the membership. It could turn out hundreds of people at meetings on trademark issues like schools, public services, utility rates, rent control, and taxes.

Fair Share relied heavily on funding from the federal VISTA program. When Ronald Reagan demolished VISTA in 1982, Fair Share failed to adjust and collapsed in 1983. Ever since its demise, repeated efforts to recreate something like it have faltered.

One of Fair Share’s leaders, Prospect board member Miles Rapoport, moved to Connecticut, succeeding Marc Caplan as director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG). Caplan, in turn, organized a broad coalition of progressive organizations called LEAP—the Legislative Electoral Action Program. LEAP’s core was four key progressive unions: the UAW, the IAM, the Connecticut Federation of Teachers, and District 1199 of the SEIU. It also included CCAG, leading women’s organizations, the Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Task Force, several organizations of color, and others. LEAP coordinated joint endorsements of candidates, recruited activists to run for the legislature, and offered training for campaign managers and candidates alike. It was a challenge machine Democrats had not seen before.

One of the first successful LEAP candidates for the state legislature was Doreen Del Bianco in 1982, a working-class leader in the Waterbury CCAG chapter. The next few cycles saw the election of several progressives, including Rapoport and Chris Donovan, an organizer for both CCAG and the SEIU. Donovan would go on to become Speaker of the House.

LEAP-elected representatives formed a Progressive Legislators’ Group. Numbering close to 30, they met regularly among themselves and with the leaders and lobbyists for progressive organizations. Victories came, including passage in 1991 of the state income tax, in a state where Democrats had routinely taken a New Hampshire–style “pledge” never to have one. LEAP-led progressives were the key allies of independent Gov. Lowell Weicker in the six-month battle for its passage. Today, the income tax is the progressive source of close to 40 percent of the state’s budget.

The intriguing question is how much influence the Working Families Party can have in non-fusion states like Massachusetts.

Connecticut is now a reliably Democratic state with a progressive congressional delegation and liberal statewide officers. The state has a $15 minimum wage annually indexed to inflation, paid family leave, early voting and same-day registration, and a successful system of public financing of elections, the only statewide system created legislatively and not through ballot initiatives. Although LEAP no longer exists institutionally, its culture and broad coalition still exist. Effective leaders from the progressive community are routinely elected to the state legislature and to committee chairs and legislative leadership positions.

Two major differences with Massachusetts help account for Connecticut’s success. First, the rules of the Connecticut legislature preclude the kind of bossism that paralyzes Massachusetts. All committee votes are recorded, roll calls are normal (as are floor amendments), full texts of bills are available, details are negotiable, and challenges to the leadership position are not viewed as hostile acts. All that in turn makes it possible to hold legislators accountable.

Second, Connecticut is one of two states (along with New York) that permit fusion voting, meaning that a candidate may run on more than one ballot line. This created an opening for one of the most effective progressive organizations now on the scene, the Working Families Party. A WFP endorsement brings with it on-the-ground campaign help. As a party, the WFP also helps progressives unite around a coherent ideology, program, and set of strategies.

Rapoport ran statewide and was elected Connecticut secretary of state in 1994, before the WFP. The third party in those years was called A Connecticut Party, created by Weicker for his gubernatorial race in 1990. Rapoport received 366,380 votes on the Democratic line and 127,615 votes on the A Connecticut Party line. He won by about 2,300 votes, demonstrating the benefits of fusion.

THE WFP HAS HAD SUBSTANTIAL INFLUENCE in both New York and Connecticut. An intriguing question is how much influence it can have, as a quasi-party, in non-fusion states in need of such an organization—Massachusetts, for example.

I put the question to the WFP’s national director of campaigns, Joe Dinkin. “We’ve done a lot of work on the meaning of a party,” he replied. “To us, a party is a group of people who share a platform and work together to make change, and use elections as the primary tool. That means we’re building a community of voters and candidates and donors and activists and institutions like community groups and unions that come together to recruit candidates, make endorsements, and build a political strategy together. That’s the core of a party, not a line on the ballot.”

For now, the WFP is working to build something very much like a party in states that don’t have fusion. For the WFP’s national leaders, fusion is still a first best where it can be attained. In Massachusetts, to date, efforts have been local and low-key, in line with the WFP’s strategy of building from the ground up.

In Worcester, New England’s second-largest city, Working Families is active as an organization and brand, recruiting and endorsing candidates for all major local offices, coordinating with other progressive organizations and unions, and organizing volunteers to help elect endorsed candidates. In 2021, this effort paid off when three Working Families candidates were elected to the nine-member city council. In this year’s elections, Working Families’ candidates picked up another seat. A separate ballot line would be even better, but Worcester progressives organized as Working Families have managed to be a major presence without it.

The broader expansion of the WFP to non-fusion states is a subject for another day. And it will be a while before Working Families goes statewide in Massachusetts. For now, the Worcester success suggests something of the broader strategy that Bay State progressives need.

Some liberals have been dismissive of process reforms as the stuff of well-meaning “goo-goos”—good government types, arguing that what matters is substance. The Massachusetts experience suggests that this premise is wrong. When “the rules are rigged,” to borrow Elizabeth Warren’s famous phrase, no substantive gains are possible. When they are unrigged, new avenues for change open up. The rules determine whether democracy can work.

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