PICKING MARTY WALSH’S SUCCESSOR : DAN HUNT’S THE MAN TO BEAT

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^ the man to beat : Dan Hunt

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Five Democrats seek nomination to become the next State Representative from the Dorchester-based District that Marty Walsh gave up to take office as Boston mayor. Dan Hunt, John O’Toole, Liam Curran, Paul “PJ” McCann, and Gene Gorman have been campaigning for weeks now — Hunt, longer than that — in the coldest winter we’ve seen in decades, in the snow and often in the dark. They’re “knocking doors,” as they put it; “standing out” — sign-holding — at major intersections with as many supporters as can take single-digit temperatures; doing “meet and greets” at local pubs; raising funds at what Dan Hunt calls a “friend-raiser”; and “getting on the phones” to reach the District’s “super voters” — those who always vote, including in the District’s one Quincy precinct, assuming they know there’s an election going on.

Last night the race got even more serious, as all five men spoke and answered questions at the Cedar Grove Civic Association’s candidate Forum. Cedar Grove — the part of Neponset that borders Quincy — isn’t just another Dorchester neighborhood; in last year’s Mayor election, almost 75 % of the area’s voters actually voted, by far the highest percentage in all Boston. No surprise, then, that about 70 people showed up to listen, or that State Representative Dan Cullinane, from the District across Granite Street, was in the room, as was State Senator Linda Dorcena-Forry.

For candidates at the very local level, even in a varsity political neighborhood — and Dorchester is super varsity, a candidate Forum presents a challenge. You must be ready to speak well, in a voice confidently loud, to give opening and closing remarks not read from notes, and to talk with appreciable knowledge about the major issues. So it was at Cedar Grove.

Gene Gorman, a professor at Emerson college, spoke eloquently and to the point on almost every question asked.

Dan Hunt, generally considered the likeliest to win, spoke with steady confidence about his readiness and with skilled nuance about issues not cookie-cutter simple. Proudly he listed four union endorsements, including the big one : Service Employees International Local 1199, whose work for Marty Walsh is thought by many to have made the difference in last year’s Mayor election,

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Liam Curran ^ looked and sounded the eager, even passionate young attorney that he is, in the City of Boston law department. He has the support of Mayor Walsh’s brother and mother — and has made sure everyone knows it — and over and over he cited Marty Walsh’s priorities as the agenda he would adhere to. Like Walsh, Curran was a Labor Union member –Laborers’ local 223. This too he made known.

John O’Toole, himself a past president of the Cedar Grove Civic Association, spoke strongly about neighborhood issues and gave a shout out, by name, to many in the room with whom he has worked with on various neighborhood concerns over the past 20 years. O’Toole, too, has labor support, more Locals than have endorsed Hunt, but at the Forum he named none.

“PJ” McCann — speaking in a voice soft and conversational, hard to hear easily in the long, large meeting room — stressed his experience drafting legislation, collaboratively with many agencies, and his work at the City of Boston’s Public Health Commission.

It has been frustrating for me to pin down any of the five to specifics of major issues facing Massachusetts : transportation funding; education reform and funding; curbing urban violence. Last night, Cedar Grove’s President Sean Weir had no better luck. Granted that the first two issues are complex and coated in controversy, and that the third issue isn’t really a matter of legislation; it would still have been nice to hear what the five will work for by way of funding, and where that funding will come from. You can be sure that the word ‘taxes’ graced no one’s lips all night long.

All five men support raising the minimum wage, and those who addressed the matter of unemployment insurance give-backs all said that it was irrelevant to raising the wage. But Speaker Robert DeLeo, who controls all legislation because he appoints all House committee members, says that the two are indeed connected and that minimum wage legislation must connect them ; and no one, at the Forum, or in conversations with me, has faced the fact. We are left to assume that each of the five, if elected, will make the District’s opinion heard — and then vote the Speaker’s way.

That said, the true importance of this election lies not in legislative specifics but in the loudness and confidence of the voice that will be the 13th Suffolk’s going forward. Can any of these men be a next Marty Walsh, a major voice in labor — or other — issues, a sought-after endorsement in city and state elections, even a potential Mayor ? Because this, not positions on the issues, is the standard for the District’s voters. They are accustomed to having their representative be a center of influence and attention, and they vote in large numbers seeking it. Everybody I speak to expects 4,000 to 6,000 votes to be cast on March 4th Primary day.

The only question is, what KIND of center of attention do these voters want ? Only two of the five men seem to recognize this question as the race’s big decider : Liam Curran and Dan Hunt. Curran has lost no opportunity to pronounce himself the most Marty Walsh of the candidates; and having the mayor’s brother and Mom in his corner gives his pronunciamento some truth. He has pushed the point perhaps too far. Mayor Walsh early on announced himself staying completely out of the race : Curran’s message, has, say some, forced the mayor to embrace Dan Hunt, who is said to be his preferred choice anyway. A day after Curran made major publicity of a photograph taken of him with Walsh’s brother and mother, Mayor Walsh insisted, at a Labor breakfast, on having his picture taken with Hunt, a man very different.

Hunt doesn’t look like Marty, doesn’t sound like him, has a personal history all his own. He grew up in a political household — his Dad Jim Hunt held administrative positions in Boston City governance for decades. As he said at the Forum, he was “sign holding even as a six year old” and “a lifetime, so far, of political and state House service, as staff to two committees.” Not many election hopefuls in today’s America would tout long staff service in government. But a hopeful who understands that Dorchester voters want exactly that makes it a major closing remark.

At Cedar Grove, Hunt sounded confident, commanding, with no equal among the five on that score; and when he cited that Senator Dorcena Forry has endorsed him, it seemed a knockout punch. Had she really done so ? I asked him that question after the Forum, and, yes, he told me, she has in fact endorsed him. That’s quite a step for her to take in a five way local primary. But it makes sense, because of all the five, Hunt alone spoke like a voice of clout who can back up his claim.

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John O’Toole ^ stressed his long history of neighborhood activism, and commands maybe the largest Labor contingent ; all good ; but Labor is split in this race, and neighborhood activist isn’t the office being elected. Liam Curran emphasized how Marty Walsh he is ; but the voters want a voice unique as Walsh, not his duplicate. Gene Gorman has all the issues command that anyone could ask ; but a policy wonk can be the Representative’s issues person. Then there’s PJ McCann : respected, articulate, Harvard graduate, experienced in legislation, with a public heath issues priority vital to city life today, McCann seems more City Councillor than State Representative, a voice among collegial voices, not an advocate going to a place where more are strangers or opponents than allies.

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^ likeable, smart, and gentle : “PJ” McCann at the Cedar Grove Forum

Hunt started first, raised $ 59,365 before the special election was called, and — so he said to me — “has personally knocked on the door of every super voter in the district.” 4,000 doors in two months time, I asked ? “Yes,” he said. And : “I’ve attended every civic association meeting at least twice,. No neighborhood association is too small, I visit them all.”

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^ door-knocking at night in a winter campaign ; Dan Hunt with voter list in hand

Yes, the race continues. Yes, John O’Toole, especially, is working to catch up. Yet the race looks Hunt’s to lose. Basic work every waking hour, no mistakes, much money, the largest social media presence, strong support from most of the District’s leaders — including Bill Walczak, who ran for Mayor and got 136 votes in his crucial, Savin Hill precinct even with Walsh on the ballot; City Clerk Maureen Feeney, who was Dorchester’s City Councillor; and Supreme Court Clerk Maura Doyle — and a resume that fits the image. Little wonder that this election is looking like a Dan Hunt victory on March 4th

— Mike Freedberg / for Here and Sphere

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^ “freezin’ for a reason,” says John O’Toole, door knocking in savin Hill.

13TH SUFFOLK : CAMPAIGNING IN THE DARK, COLD & SNOW

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^ door-knocking alone on a winter cold day ; John O’Toole working Savin Hill’s Grampian Way

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Six men seek the State Representative office that Marty Walsh resigned to become Boston’s Mayor. Since the beginning of January, they’ve ben out and about meeting voters. It’s hard enough to run a race with five rivals on your case. Try doing it in a Boston winter !

If you look closely at the snap of John O’Toole above, you’ll see that he has a voter list in his hand, and a pen. He isn’t just door-knocking. He is seeking out specific doors, at which he is trying to meet a “good voter” — someone who will almost definitely vote in the cold-blast election he is moving toward.

This is campaigning the way one-finger hunt and peck typing is writing.

You HAVE to door-knock. A door here, another door there, two doors on the next street — a lot of walking. With the sun setting at 5 pm — as early as 4.25 pm when January began — by the time that voters get home from work, it’s already dark. Many voters won’t open their door when it’s dark, older voters in particular. The most reliable voters are the older voters. How do you meet them ? OK, you can door-knock older voters on the weekend, in the daytime. Oh wait : only four weekends remain before the March 4th election Tuesday. Five weekends have gone. How many voters can you door-knock, anyway, on a weekend ? If you work seven hours on Saturday and seven on Sunday — Saturday night and Sunday morning aren’t wise times to door-knock — you can knock maybe 120 doors. (In Dorchester, houses are packed so closely together that, at least, you don’t have to walk much to go from one door to an other. it’s all right there for you.) Of those 120 doors, if you’re lucky there’ll be 60 people at home. Nine weekends of 60 voters means you’ve met 540 voters.

But 11,635 13th Suffolk votes were cast in last year’s mayor election…

So let’s say that of the 540 voters you meet, one of four commit to you — 135 votes — and of those, 15 agree to volunteer. The 15 each host you a coffee party, at which you might meet 25 people — of whom some won’t live in your District, while others you’ll already have met. Maybe of the 25 voters in the room, 15 can actually vote and are new to you. Why even bother ? Answer : because maybe 3 of those 15 will volunteer for the campaign, and, just as significant, the house party host, to get 25 people in her living room, will probably have sent out 250 invites, all of which publicize your name.

Of course in winter a snow blast can cancel that houseparty on you. ¬†Oh well…Image

^ speaking intensely to listeners cool : “PJ” McCann at the Columbia/Savin Hill Civic association on a snowy night Monday

During the week, you can only door-knock from 6 pm to 8.30 pm, all of it in the dark. Some houses don’t have street numbers; on many that do have them, the numbers are hard to read in the dark. More time wasted on logistics — but you keep at it, and on each weekday night you can door-knock maybe 80 doors, meet 40 people, commit maybe 20 votes. It does add up, slowly. Each week, if all goes well, you commit 100 votes.

You warm your feet later. On March 5th.

Sounds somewhat good, all this one-at-a-time work : but it isn’t even that good, because every voter you meet is also meeting, or thinking about, your five rivals. Of these voters, only those who actually volunteer for your campaign are your votes for sure. Those who only commit verbally can end up going to one of your rivals. My rule of thumb is that each rival can take ten percent of your committed non-volunteer votes. If this rule of thumb holds, each week you only commit 50 votes on the weekdays and 67 each weekend. By March 4th, that totals 1,053 committed votes that do not go elsewhere.

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^ is going everywhere in a parka enough ? is shivering each snow gust with a hat on ? Dan Hunt intends to find out.

There’s also the weather. Many of the six have campaigned on snow days; but in the snow everything moves more slowly. The only advantage is that more people will actually be at home when you door-knock. You’re happy to have even that advantage, because in this kind of campaign there aren’t many advantages available.

If all goes well — and in campaigns much usually doesn’t — by March 4th you’ll have those 1,053 committed votes plus maybe another 500 who you’ve met here and there, out and about, or who’ve read your literature and like it, or whose best friend is supporting you. So now it’s time to get these 1,553 people actually to vote. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. In a special election, with nothing else happening, if two thirds of your voters vote, you have been graced by the election gods.

And what if there’s a nor’easter on voting day ? Unlike school, elections don’t get canceled. But I digress…

Will that number — 1,036 — be enough to win ? Probably not. In a District as politically attuned as Dorchester, there’ll be a substantial number of voters who vote simply because there’s an election happening; voters whose preferences none of the six knows. As many as 2,500 such voters can do their duty. You had better win a fat portion of them.

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^ warm among friends — but most times, handshaking in snow : Liam Curran says he “will not be out-worked”

My guess is that 1,850 votes wins the race. Maybe less, because as I see it today, there’s two strong candidates and two gaining strength rapidly. Even the fifth candidate is moving vigorously, knows how to campaign, and speaks eloquently about city life. The five candidates could end up winning 1,600 votes, 1,450, 1,350, 1,250, and 1,000 respectively. (The sixth candidate is running on stickers. Who knows how many will be counted ?) That’s a total of 6,650 votes — a large number for a special election in March, but par for the course in a neighborhood as politically energized as Dorchester. Energized by the indomitable campaigning love of those who, like Dorchester pols before them going way, way back, take to the streets, eateries, senior citizens groups, civic association meetings, and house party living rooms in search of elected office.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere