Elizabeth Warren's Other Opponent: Mumbles Menino

by Simon van Zuylen-Wood | April 10, 2012

Scott Brown may not be Elizabeth Warren’s only opponent after all. In late March, Boston Mayor Tom Menino was asked by a television host if he was leaning toward a particular candidate in the Massachusetts senate race. Seems like an odd question. Wouldn’t a high-profile Democratic pol happily wield his influence to help reclaim Ted Kennedy’s seat? Not this one. 

Menino, as is his wont, mumbled something--to the effect of “it’s a secret ballot”--and refused to endorse either candidate. This is not your typical political politesse. Menino is friends with Scott Brown, and is mistrustful of liberal candidates from outside the Beacon Hill political orbit. 

Menino’s non-support could prove costly to Warren. While it’s a virtual certainty that he would never endorse a Republican, Menino could discourage his expansive political organization—the most powerful in the state—from supporting Warren, even if it came out strong for Barack Obama. And while Warren won’t lose liberal Boston, Menino could stunt her margin of victory there, in effect handing Brown a narrow statewide win. He could, in other words, pull another Harshbarger. 

In 1998 Republican Paul Cellucci—a veteran state politician—ran for governor against Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger—a Democrat with a penchant for prosecuting Menino’s buddies. In his half-decade as William Weld’s Lieutenant Governor, Cellucci had developed a good relationship with Menino, and the mayor refused to mobilize his army of city employees to vote, campaign, or GOTV for Harshbarger.  

From the Boston Globe election post-mortem:

Menino, who made no secret of his distaste for fellow Democrat Harshbarger, did as little as possible to help him, sources said. "We don't have a suppression thing going on, but we aren't lifting a finger to get out the vote for him," said one Menino insider.

When I spoke to a former Harshbarger campaign operative, he went further, telling me it “wasn’t just a case of not having support, but a case of actually having people work against you.”

I think it was over in Charlestown. The night before election day [the Harshbarger staff] are out putting up signs. And pretty much as fast as they could get them up it was clear there was a crew from the city coming behind them to take them down.

It’s unclear exactly how many votes Menino can swing. In 2006, Governor Deval Patrick cruised to victory in the Democratic primary and the general election without the mayor’s support. Two years later, Barack Obama took Boston despite Menino’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Still, according to data collected by Commonwealth Magazine, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien—with Menino’s backing—received 23,000 more votes in greater Boston than Harshbarger did.

Whatever Menino’s influence, it’s a strike against Warren that one of her chief political advisers, Doug Rubin, ran Deval Patrick’s campaign against the mayor’s man Tom Reilly, in 2006, and was a staffer for one of his opponents in the 2001 mayoral election. (A Warren campaign spokesman was intent on reminding me that Menino and Rubin worked together in 2010 to re-elect Patrick.)

As for Menino’s affinity for Brown, it has less to do with policy—the two agree on very little—than with cultural politics. Brown, who has planted his campaign headquarters in blue-collar South Boston, is courting the Reagan Democrat base that Menino also relies upon. In March, at a St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast run by veteran Democratic politicians, Warren was not seated at the main table with Brown, and one city councilor treated her to a version of “Danny Boy,” singing that for liberals like her, “Southie’s a foreign land.”

All this speculation of intra-party sabotage may be overblown. For all we know, Menino is just hedging his bets, and driving up his own media profile while he’s at it. Nonetheless, Warren will have to decide how much she should court Menino, who doesn’t like being snubbed himself. While the Harshbarger operative says he regrets wasting time trying to sway Menino, he had good reasons for doing so: “He’s definitely someone who wants you to get in line and kiss his ring…Cross him and it’s a tough road back.”

 

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