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Diamonds in the Rough: Capuano, Tracy Strong Candidates in an Otherwise Weak Field

Michael J. Ring

Next January, MIT and the other organizations and residents within Massachusetts' Eighth Congressional District will have a new representative in Washington. Current Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Brighton), a son of the late New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, is retiring after six terms.

This geographically small but ethnically and economically diverse district has a storied political history unparalleled by any other congressional district in the nation, at least in this century. The Eighth sent the colorful rogue James Michael Curley to Washington. Then the district played the role of kingmaker, launching the national political career of a young Irishman named John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy's election to the United States Senate, representation of the district fell into the able hands of Tip O'Neill, who served his final decade in the House as its Speaker.

It is more than likely, however, that the Eighth will next elect not a rising star, but a falling one. Perhaps the two most prominent politicians in the district, Massachusetts Senate President Thomas Birmingham (D-Chelsea) and State Senator Warren Tolman (D-Watertown), passed on this race. Now, as the Democratic primary draws near, a group of has-beens or never-will-bes struggles for attention and votes.

As Republicans are an extremely endangered species in the Eighth, the Democratic primary to be held on September 15th is the de facto general election. With this in mind, let us examine the ten Democrats racing to take the district's seat in Washington.

Heading the field currently are two carpetbaggers who parachuted into the district in an attempt to satisfy their rabid salivation for political office. Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, seeing his gubernatorial campaign fade faster than the Red Sox in September, jumped into this congressional race. Moving from South Boston to East Boston in order to become a resident of the district, Flynn proclaims himself the friend of the working man. He has held to the top ranking in the polls despite his social policies, which are considered much too conservative for this progressive district.

The former mayor and Vatican ambassador, however, is by far the weakest choice in this field. Flynn has been haunted by campaign finance scandals that have seen former aides land in jail. On a second front, Flynn's alleged inability to control his appetite for alcohol has also been made an issue, thanks to a scathing series in the Boston Globe last year. Flynn has no supernova star power; instead he is a washed-up, burnt-up dwarf star with little credibility and respect amongst many of the district's voters.

Our other carpetbagger is the flamboyant ex-state legislator and 1990 lieutenant-governor candidate Marjorie Clapprood, who has moved from posh Sharon to gritty Watertown to contest this race. Outspoken on feminist causes and in strong support of abortion rights, Clapprood in recent weeks has been playing these cards in one of America's most liberal districts in an attempt to weaken Flynn, who is pro-life.

While Clapprood's skeletons are not nearly as disconcerting as those of Flynn, she has one major obstacle to overcome: her big mouth. Clapprood has served most of this decade as the liberal loose cannon of Boston's talk radio circuit. If she is still a major contender in the final weeks, don't be surprised if her opponents start rummaging through tapes of her radio show looking for wacky statements.

Another traveled politician in the field is ex-Watertown State Senator George Bachrach. He ran for this seat in 1986, losing to Joe Kennedy. Most recently, he unsuccessfully contested the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994. A liberal with a voting record that would please most district residents, Bachrach must nevertheless overcome the has-been image if he is to become the choice of voters looking for a fresh face.

Also joining the fray is Boston City Councilor Tom Keane, who represents some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Portraying himself as a Tsongas Democrat, he tows a fiscally conservative line while supporting socially progressive policy. It is unlikely that his campaign will catch fire in this crowded field.

The Eighth is home to some of Massachsuetts' richest residents, so it is no surprise that two millionaires have thrown their hats into this ring. Cambridge environmental activist John O'Connor has been spending his campaign coffers recruiting a strong grassroots organization, while Beacon Hill venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli has been blanketing local airwaves with campaign advertisements. Both are ready to spend big money; Gabrieli especially is thought to be willing to spend several million in this race. That's a lot of money when your likely finish is fifth or sixth in a 10-candidate field.

While O'Connor and Gabrieli may not win the election with their money, it is a foregone conclusion that South End attorney Alex Rodriguez and Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey will lose the election because of their lack thereof. Unable to keep up with the spending blitz that will likely come in the first few days of September, each will probably only muster a few percent of the vote at the polls.

While there are candidates whose fires are extinguished or never will be lit, there is good news for residents of the Eighth. There are two strong, attractive candidates who have the political skills and the understanding of the people of the district to make excellent representatives in the United States House.

Somerville Mayor Mike Capuano has presided over the renaissance of that city from blue-collar industrial center to bedroom community. Under his guidance, the City of Somerville has cut taxes to one of the lowest rates in the Boston area. He has also developed a program contributing city funds for neighborhood projects. The mayor has made Somerville a leading community in developing new parklands and environmental management programs. Capuano's campaign is gaining steam, and it appears he will provide Eighth District voters with a strong alternative to Ray Flynn.

The other appealing dark horse is ex-Brighton State Representative Susan Tracy. She shares many of the other candidates' progressive views, but her style and presentation are radically different. Tracy is cool and calm, in contrast to the often wildly-energetic Clapprood. Tracy's working-class roots and longtime residency in the district enable her to understanding the needs and concerns of this district's neighborhoods. Current conventional wisdom is that Tracy's campaign is faltering at the hands of Clapprood's, and it has even been suggested that Tracy withdraw from the race. Tracy should buck the advice of the talking heads and hang tough; with some vigorous campaigning her issues and methods should be a good sell in this district.

Flynn is currently the odds-on favorite to win in a fractured field, with the liberal base of the district splintering in nine directions. Consolidation in the field is probably imminent and necessary to defeat the former Boston mayor. As Clapprood has not hesitated to say, "United we win, divided it's Flynn."

Hopefully the progressive candidates whose political careers have faded or whose campaigns have failed to ignite will bow out of the race. Mike Capuano and Susan Tracy are both deserving, exciting candidates who offer the best hope of defeating Ray Flynn.