Republican groups forming
The surprise win by Republican Scott Brown in last month’s US Senate election has lit a fire under conservative voters across the country—and even in liberal Jamaica Plain. While fewer than 4 percent of the neighborhood’s registered voters are GOP members, local Republican ward committees are forming for the first time in at least a decade, the Gazette has learned.
“I’m used to toiling in barren soil,” said South Street area Republican Party member Edward Wagner, a former Cambridge resident who is organizing Republican ward committees in JP’s Wards 11 and 19.
JP got a first-hand look at Brown’s populist touch during the campaign, when he went into the lion’s den of Doyle’s Café, the politically wired—and heavily Democratic—watering hole on Washington Street, the Gazette has learned. Brown even impressed Doyle’s co-owner Gerry Burke Jr., a self-described “hardcore Democrat,” by not only showing up, but by actually working the bar for an hour.
“He washed dirty glasses, pulled pints, picked up dirty plates. He did everything I usually do,” Burke told the Gazette. “He worked a good bar. He talked a good game.”
That common-man appeal helped Brown give JP’s conservatives a rare taste of electoral victory.
“Obviously, the instinctual thing would be to say, ‘Yahoo!’ or “Yippee!’” said Aaron Goldstein, a Parkside resident and political writer for the web site of the national conservative magazine “American Spectator.” Goldstein penned a post-election blog for the “Spectator” called “The View from Jamaica Plain.”
The GOP isn’t the only minority party looking to capitalize on Brown’s election, which was driven by the state’s majority of independent voters. Green-Rainbow Party members make up less than 1 percent of JP’s voters, but also have a party member in a local office: City Councilor Chuck Turner, who represents Egleston Square.
“I think the Green-Rainbow Party has always believed that voters are going to become more and more conscious of the need for real change. So this [election result] is to be expected,” Turner told the Gazette. The question, he said, is “how to take advantage of it. The opportunity is there now.”
Jill Stein, a Green-Rainbow Party candidate for governor, announced her campaign this week with a press statement saying a “voter rebellion” is under way.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party seems shellshocked by Brown taking the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, and by John F. Kennedy before that. The Democrats still have the biggest party in the state, and make up over 60 percent of JP’s electorate. But at a recent JP house party, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick—who is facing a strong Republican challenger this fall—spent much of his time quelling fears and potential in-fighting, and speaking of the demise of party politics. [See related article.]
According to the Boston Election Department, voter registration by political affiliation in the JP area (Wards 10, 11 and 19) is as follows: Democratic, 17,859; unenrolled (independent), 9,868; Republican, 1,103; other political designation (any party without statewide ballot status, such as the Green-Rainbow Party), 196; Libertarian, 86. The figures are always in flux and include both active and inactive voters. Some parts of these wards overlap other neighborhoods.
State Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic contender in the Senate race, was unable to energize her base, according to many observers, including local City Councilor John Tobin. The JP election results seem to bear that out.
Coakley easily won the JP-area vote in the Jan. 19 election. But the neighborhood’s voter turnout was around 47 percent—7 points below the statewide rate. And where the turnout was the highest—Ward 19 (Jamaica Hills/Forest Hills/Pondside), at about 60 percent—Coakley did the worst.
Brown drew about 13 percent of the JP-area vote. That’s hardly an impressive number. But it shows that Brown was able to sway a significant slice of the independent voters who make up more than one-third of the JP electorate.
“My roommate is a Democrat who did not support Coakley during the primary but nonetheless voted for her on Tuesday. But there was no joy in his heart,” Goldstein wrote in his “Spectator” blog. “Brown voters, on the other hand (me included), couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and sprint to the polling booth.”
Signs of Coakley’s campaign oddities remained in JP after Election Day, such as a stack of official flyers left at J.P. Licks for President Obama’s failed pro-Coakley rally. Obama’s Boston visit was intended to sink Brown’s rising threat. But the only political information on the flyer was a warning not to vote for a Libertarian candidate in the race, who at the time was expected to draw only 1 percent of the vote, and to pull those voters mostly from Brown.
But most astonishing is what Coakley didn’t do in JP. She did not visit Doyle’s. A candidate not visiting Doyle’s essentially violates a law of nature in Boston politics.
“I never saw her,” said Gerry Burke Jr.
Gerry Burke Senior, the former co-owner and current elder statesman at Doyle’s, confirmed his son’s observation and scoffed when the Gazette noted that Coakley made a late appearance at J.P. Licks.
Turner said he wasn’t surprised by Brown’s win. He noted that Coakley’s campaign was “flat” and that Massachusetts in recent years has had Republican governors—including Mitt Romney, who gained political clout 15 years ago by giving Ted Kennedy a serious challenge for the Senate seat.
“So the reality is that this is nothing new,” Turner said.
But there is certainly new energy in the state GOP, which is beefing up its Boston committee under the leadership of a Dorchester resident, Wagner said.
The JP area has only about 1,100 Republicans out of over 29,000 registered voters—surely an inflated number, because the city rolls include inactive voters. Wagner said he has a few people helping him organize the Republican ward committees, but acknowledged that none of them live in those wards. Independent voters and college students will have to be targets of party-boosting, Wagner said, adding that he intends to reach out to Spanish-speaking voters as well.
“I would say they could meet in a phone booth, but they don’t make them anymore,” Tobin, the Democratic city councilor, joked when informed by the Gazette about JP’s revived Republican ward committees. “Maybe at Doyle’s,” he added, referring to an old-school phone booth built into the pub.
In fact, Doyle’s is exactly where the Republican ward committees were scheduled to hold their first meeting this week.
“Ed Brooke’s up there” among the political memorabilia on Doyle’s walls, noted Wagner, referring to the last Republican to hold a Massachusetts Senate seat.
“Come join the Republican revolution of 2010,” reads Wagner’s pitch for ward committee membership. But, he told the Gazette, “It’s not in reaction to the Brown election.”
Wagner said he filed papers with the state committee to form a Ward 11 Republican committee last spring. “I knew what the Obama election would mean,” he said, explaining it reminded him of the beginning of the President Clinton era.
But Brown’s victory is an important lesson for the state party, said Wagner.
“I hope Republicans see what Scott Brown had to do,” he said. “Over the years, there were a lot of [Republican] candidates who weren’t really serious.”
Republicans are smelling Democratic blood in the water and looking forward to this fall’s state and federal elections. That could mean more tastes of victory for local conservatives such as Goldstein, a 10-year resident who was “very, very left-wing” until the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks changed his politics.
Goldstein reads his political-themed poetry to largely unreceptive audiences in Cambridge, and writes for such web sites as “Intellectual Conservative.” He frequently appears as a letter-writer in the Boston Phoenix as a kind of loyal opposition to the paper’s editorial page.
“You might be surprised. I actually find it quite enjoyable,” said Goldstein when asked what it’s like to live in a largely liberal neighborhood. “When you’re overwhelmed by everybody else, it keeps you sharp.”
“I’m not alone. People may not be as vocal as I,” Goldstein added. He said fellow conservatives sometimes approach him and whisper, “‘I agree with you.’”
“And I say, ‘Why are you whispering?’”