Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Open Letter to my Belmont Neighbors

Dear Belmont Neighbors,

I can understand why you all rejected a Prop 2 1/2 override this month that would pay for road repairs. No one, after all, likes to pay higher taxes.

That said, you quite possibly have the worst roads in the Commonwealth. Yesterday, driving to work, I did not even realize that I had a flat tire until I got to Route 2. I have grown so used to the bumping and shaking and noises while driving your roads daily that it was only after I got on the highway and the shaking didn't stop that I figured out something was wrong.

It's not my place to tell you folks how to run your town, but if you drive through your town as I do, I have to imagine that the amount you're paying on tires, alignment, etc has to be more than any tax increase spread over the next ten years.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Becoming an Insider

About two years ago, David from Blue Mass Group accused me of being a poltical insider in part because I was attending that year's Democratic State Convention. To me, this was quite laughable since the reason I was even able to attend the convention was that I had just organized a coup, defeating the candidate of real party insiders in his hometown caucus.

Two years later, things are very different. In March I was elected the chair of my Democratic Town Committee. Since then, I've lobbied on behalf of others for political appointments, I've been inside the proverbial smoke-filled room, my local paper has even used the dreaded I-word to describe me. I'm afraid that David is finally right. I have become a party insider.

I can even pinpoint the moment the transformation occurred. It wasn't when I became chair of the town committee, though that certainly contributed. Still, there are plenty of members and even chairs of town and ward committees who would still consider themselves party outsiders. It wasn't even when I was calling town councilors, trying to smooth the way for the committee's picks for election commissioner. That was as much me trying to avoid having to find more volunteers to put forward as it was advocating for specific people.

No, the moment I became a party insider, at least in my own mind, was May 21st, 2008, at roughly one or two o'clock in the afternoon. It was then that I received a phone call from my now-former State Rep, Rachel Kaprielian, who informed me that she was leaving to become the new Registrar of Motor Vehicles. This news was so unexpected that I could scarcely process it. At first I thought she was telling me that she was going down to the RMV to renew her drivers license or something and I couldn't figure out why I needed to know that. Eventually it became clear that she was resigning her seat at the state house to head up the RMV and that due to the timing of her appointment and the fact that she was unopposed in the Democratic primary, the Democratic Town Committee would have the opportunity to hold a caucus and replace her on the ballot with the candidate of our choice. As chair, it was my responsibility to guide this process.

The fact that the DTC had any sort of legal power was almost as much of a surprise as Rachel's abrupt resignation -- and not just to me, but to most of the other people I talked to over the next two weeks as well. In fact, the first time I called the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office to try and figure out what our responsibilities were, even they had never heard of the caucus option. This, unfortunately, left me in sort of a limbo for about a day and a half -- a long time in the age of instant communication. In the meantime, I was getting calls and emails from reporters, DTC members, potential candidates, and other interested parties and all I could tell them was that I would let them know the details as soon as I found them out myself. The only thing that was clear in the early going was that we'd have an unfathomably short turnaround time on this.

With the help of state party officials, state election officials and my crack legal team, we pieced together how the process was supposed to happen and who was responsible for all of the moving parts. Since the 29th Middlesex contains all but one precinct of Watertown and all of Ward 9 in Cambridge, our town committee and their ward committee were each responsible for picking delegates to a caucus that would be called by the state party in proportion to the vote that the Democratic candidate received in the last gubernatorial election. All of a sudden, I was glad I did all that GOTV work for Deval -- it turned out that Watertown got 18 delegates and Cambridge got seven. The caucus would be empowered to replace Rachel's name on the ballot. If the caucus failed to meet or failed to nominate someone, the primary ballot would remain blank and whoever got the most write-in votes over 150 would become the Democratic nominee. All this had to be completed by 72 weekday hours after the last day to withdraw names from the ballot, June 4th at 5PM.

The exact method of choosing delegates to this caucus is not specifically outlined in party rules or bylaws. We were instructed to use the method of selecting delegates to the senate district caucuses where Democratic State Committee members are chosen (another arcane process) as a guideline. Those rules allowed only town and ward committee members to vote for delegates, though 20-year and associate members are permitted to participate in that selection. This posed a slight problem since our records of associate memberships were sketchy and there was a challenge to our official list of 20-year members, forcing me to spend an evening sorting through forty years of town committee election results. These rules also required that we hold the delegate selection meetings within the jurisdiction of our town and ward committees, which ruled out having a joint meeting between Watertown and Cambridge (unless we wanted to conduct it in Mount Auburn Cemetery).

Watertown picked our delegates at our next DTC meeting, though I didn't really intend for that to happen. The plan was to lay out the process we were going to follow at our meeting so that everyone knew the rules we were playing by. Then candidates would have three or four days to line up who they wanted to be delegates and have time to lobby individual DTC members.

It didn't work out that way, though. Early on in the packed DTC meeting it became apparent that the majority of members did not feel comfortable putting someone on the ballot, which would essentially anoint Rachel's successor without a general vote. Nearly all those in attendance spoke against replacing Rachel's name, and we passed a near-unanimous motion (none opposed, two abstentions) declaring that the DTC wanted to leave the ballot blank. We spent the bulk of the meeting after that motion trying to figure out the best way to achieve that goal. Since the quorum requirements at the caucus where a potential replacement would be named were so low (10%, or three attendees), we could not afford to boycott the caucus by not selecting anyone to attend. Instead what we did was elect delegates with the instructions that they try to ensure that no name is placed on the ballot and that they would only be seated on condition that Cambridge Ward 9 also selected delegates.

The discussion at our meeting was so one-sided that most of us assumed that the Cambridge delegation would make the same decision and that there wouldn't be a caucus at all. After all, our delegates would only be seated if Cambridge picked theirs, and Watertown had enough of a majority of delegates that we would have the votes to get the outcome we wanted. On Saturday, however, the Cambridge Ward 9 Committee decided to select delegates and so the caucus was on.

The caucus was held June 3rd in the Watertown Town Hall, with State Senator Steve Tolman as chair. Originally I had thought that the caucus would be a quick affair, with the Watertown delegation making a motion to adjourn shortly after the meeting opened. After calling around to some of the Cambridge delegation, however, I changed my mind. Several of the delegates from Cambridge felt that they were shut out of the process and that Watertown had decided what was going to happen regardless of what they thought. This was a fair criticism, though I think it was more of a consequence of the process -- we couldn't have a joint meeting to select delegates and we couldn't expect Cambridge to know anything about Watertown politics (and vice versa). I thought that at least we owed it to the Cambridge delegation to explain why we thought the way we did, even if we disagreed on what we should do. So, I told my committee's delegates that we should allow a debate, even though we had the votes to end the meeting before it began.

This was not necessarily a popular decision with my committee. The danger was that if the Cambridge delegates were to open nominations and nominate a candidate, we could potentially end up in a situation where someone had to win. I was accused of being naive, and threatened (in jest) with being strung up from the town hall chandeliers if someone ended up on the ballot. Luckily for me, things worked out pretty much how I planned. We had a short debate -- about 45 minutes -- on the merits of naming someone to the ballot or not, and at the end the caucus voted 19 to 6 to leave the ballot blank.

Personally, I was glad it worked out the way it did. Even though I'm now officially an insider, that doesn't mean I have to act like a party boss. Not to be overconfident, but the 29th Middlesex is a strong Democratic district. To put someone on the ballot unopposed in the Democratic primary and potentially unopposed (depending on whether someone wins the Republican, Green or Working Families party primaries as a write-in) in the general is basically appointing someone to the State House for at least two years and then giving them the power of incumbency for any challenges in 2010. It just did not seem necessary to do this, at least to me. It would have been different if this were a general election with a Republican opponent on the ballot, but the stakes seem lower since this is a primary and we have a number of good potential candidates.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day

I hope all you fellow dads have a happy Father's Day today!

Gosh, it got dusty in here!