BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Shannon O’Brien, scrappy scion of a staunchly Democratic family, has an opportunity to make Massachusetts history for the third time Tuesday.
Shaking her hips and raising her fists, O’Brien challenged her opponent on primary election night, “Bring it on, Mitt,” just after she had defeated three men, including formerU.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, to become thefirst woman to win a major party nomination for governor here.
If she wins, O’Brien would become the first female elected governor of the commonwealth, although Acting Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican who is most famous for giving birth to twins while in office, got to the corner office first. GOP regulars quickly eased Swift out of the 2002 race after Mitt Romney moved back from Utah, where he had run the successful Salt Lake City Olympics.
The latest polls show O’Brien slightly ahead, but there is still a crucial swath of undecided voters.
Romney, 55, whose only electoral claim to fame is coming the closest anyone ever has against U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, in 1994, asserts that his business acumen is just what this deficit-wracked state requires. He started attacking State Treasurer O’Brien, 43, even before she won the nomination, calling her a Beacon Hill insider with a lobbyist husband who would continue “politics as usual.”
Although the last “debate,” with only Romney and O’Brien at a table with NBC’s Tim Russert, addressed economic issues more directly than in previous joint appearances, the candidates still seem bent on ripping into each other’s records. Romney has even gone so far as to compare O’Brien to a dog in TV spots featuring a droopy Basset hound who peers sleepily into the camera while the state treasury is looted in the background.
Oâ€™Brien has been state Treasurer for four years, becoming the first woman elected to statewide office. Soon after she took office, she and the attorney general discovered a scandal. O’Brien takes credit for cleaning that up and for alerting authorities to massive overruns in the largest public works project ever, the huge highway and bridge program dubbed “The Big Dig.”
Candidates Avoid Religion, Focus on Differences
As the campaign has turned increasingly nasty, one issue has stayed largely off-stage: religion. O’Brien is a pro-choice Catholic and Romney, a Mormon, does not believe government should get involved in such issues. There are sharp differences between Romney and O’Brien on such emotional issues as the death penalty (he favors it; she does not) and gay marriage (her boldest stroke in pledging unequivocal support).
Meanwhile, three other candidates, all women, have enlivened the campaign in its final weeks as they joined two televised debates. While two barely register in the polls, Jill Stein, a physician who heads the Green Party ticket, has attracted the endorsements of newspapers in Newton and Cambridge, two of the state’s most liberal cities, which usually vote overwhelmingly Democratic. That scares O’Brien backers, likening the situation to Ralph Nader’s role in the 2002 presidential election.
Libertarian candidate Carla Howell contends the projected $2 billion budget deficit is “phony” and pledges to “eliminate all central control.” She is also promoting her ballot issue to end the income tax in Massachusetts.
At one debate, Romney boasted that he was “basically in the Investors Hall of Fame.” O’Brien countered, as she frequently does, that he “puts politics before people” and reiterated her management experience.
“Who cares who’s the better bureaucrat?” snarled Independent Barbara Johnson, a 67-year-old Bennington graduate who later went to law school.
That’s exactly what voters should care about, contends Cape Cod activist Mary LeClair, 68, an ardent Romney supporter who says whoever wins Tuesday is going to have a tough job getting the state back on a sound fiscal footing: “Youâ€™ve got to be a leader.”
Both major party campaigns have been helped by the vast wealth of Romney for the Republicans and Chris Gabrieli for the Democrats. Gabrieli is a venture capitalist picked by O’Brien as her running mate months ago even though the governor and lieutenant governor candidates run separately in the primary. Romney plucked a relative unknown, Kerry Healey, to run with him.
Political Insiders and Outsiders
Both Romney and O’Brien are bright, self-confident progeny of political families. She was captain of the women’s soccer team at Yale and earned a law degree from Boston University. He went to Stanford for his freshman year, before a 2 1/2 -year missionary stint near Paris, and then transferred to Brigham Young University. He married Ann Dailey when she was just 19 and he was 22. A year later, the young couple and their infant son, the first of five boys, moved to Boston where he pursued MBA and a law degree from Harvard, earning both with high honors. After graduation, he became a business consultant. In 1984, he was asked to head Bain and Company, Inc., a firm that provided millions in seed money for Staples and Domino’s Pizza, Inc., but also, the Democrats contend, ruthlessly presided over the elimination of thousands of jobs in other companies.
His father George W. Romney, in addition to heading American Motors Corporation, was governor of Michigan, a cabinet official and a contender for the Republican nomination for president. Many believe that is his son’s ambition as well, and that he has no problem pledging to serve his entire four-year term if elected Massachusetts governor because he hopes to succeed George W. Bush as president in 2008. The two previous governors of Massachusetts, William Weld and Paul Cellucci, both Republicans, resigned before their terms were over, elevating their lieutenant governors to the “acting” job, which is how Swift became the much-maligned first woman to run state government here. Her task has been difficult because of her youth, inexperience, the economic downturn and Democratic dominance of the legislature.
O’Brien’s political heritage has been by far the bigger factor in this race, both because her father Ed is a longtime activist and minor officeholder, and because she is supported by Thomas Finneran, the powerful House leader. Some of Romney’s ads attack O’Brien’s husband, Emmet Hayes, whom she met when both were state legislators. An expert on utility regulation, he resigned from the lobbying company he co-founded to avoid any potential conflicts of interest with his wife’s career, and has become the stay-at-home caretaker for their 3-year-old daughter.
Dr. Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Romney is clearly targeting suburban voters, a demographic O’Brien dominated in her primary. Now she has to retain the historic Democratic base in urban areas and fight with Romney for the older and Baby Boom suburbanites–hence the emphasis by both candidates on gaining control over health care and prescription drug prices.
“It is disturbing,” Hardy-Fanta, a national expert on Latino politics, said, “that you don’t see much minority presence in their campaign offices or their own backgrounds.”
Romney endorses English immersion, a prominent issue here because of a ballot issue promoted by the same team that got it passed in California four years ago. O’Brien favors a more gradual approach to bilingual education.
That’s not a make-or-break issue for Patricia Thomas, 54, an author who was the first woman and first non-physician to edit the prestigious Harvard Health Letter. She volunteered in the O’Brien campaign months ago after she heard her speak to a diverse group of women.
“Shannon spoke for maybe five minutes with prepared remarks, and then took questions with a cordless mic, from every direction, on every topic,” Thomas said.
“I was tremendously impressed with her mastery of inside-baseball political stuff and especially budget stuff.”
She is baffled that some people think it’s a liability, “automatically pejorative,” to come from a family that has devoted itself to politics in Massachusetts for generations.
“She wants to be governor. I feel like it is a job she has been training for her whole life,” Thomas said.
Nancy Day is director of Advanced Journalism Studies at Boston University and a freelance writer and editor.
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Ourstory: Shirley Chisholm Becomes First Black Woman Elected to Congress
(WOMENSENEWS)–Election day, 1968. Shirley Chisholm becomes first black woman elected to Congress.
Her role models, she said, were Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt and her own proud, strict Barbadian grandmother. When Shirley Chisholm ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against civil rights leader James Foreman in the Brooklyn district of Bedford-Stuyvesant, she won handily. At 44, she had already garnered degrees from Brooklyn College and Columbia University, taught nursery school and worked as a school administrator and served a four-year term in the State Assembly.
“Unbossed and unbought,” she called herself and surely she was that, along with being a practiced and effective debater and an unwavering advocate for poor communities and for women. Her first legislative wins were unemployment insurance for domestic workers and a reversal of state law that caused teachers on maternity leave to lose their tenure in the school system.
In Congress, she opposed to war in Vietnam and supported abortion rights. Her first major speech on the House floor opened with a description of a young female graduate on a job interview: “The first question she will be asked is, ‘Do you type?’ A calculated system of prejudice,” she said, “produces both ‘the happy little homemaker’ and the contented ‘old darkey’ on the plantation.”
Chisholm personally had been “far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black,” she said. The following year, she, Gloria Steinem and others formed the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 1972, in a move seem by some as serious, others as quixotic or symbolic, Chisholm campaigned for–and lost–the Democratic presidential nomination. She remained in Congress until 1983.
The chain of inspiration continues. In 2001, a resolution honoring Shirley Chisholm was introduced in the House by a woman who had been a college student drawn to the 1972 Chisholm presidential campaign. Her name was Barbara Lee and she was a black, female, anti-war Congresswoman from California.
–Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.