'Idealist' Fights for the 'Working But Worried'

T hey represent opposing parties, but that hasn't stopped critics from accusing state Sen. Michael J. Barrett '70 (D-Cambridge) of being too similar to the man he hopes to unset this November Republican Gov. William F. Weld '66.

Barrett vehemently denies he is a Weld clone; indeed, he concedes only one similarity--both men are residents of Fayerweather Street in Cambridge.

But since becoming the first Democrat to announce his candidacy for the state's highest office in April 1993, Barrett has had to deflect accusations that he and the governor are too much alike.

In campaign rhetoric, Barrett is quick to distance himself from the incumbent.

"The case I'll be making to Democrats in the coming weeks is that the candidate who beats Bill Weld will be the candidate who can beat him at every level--concern for people, commitment to values and command of ideas," Barrett said in a statement in April 1993. "I'm ready to begin."

In an interview at the State House last January, Barrett said that while Weld is a popular incumbent an opponent who focuses on the middle class can beat him.

"Weld has the conventional advantages of incumbency, name recognition and money," Barrett said. "An imaginative and daring challenge can capture the imagination of all the people who feel trod under by Bill's aloof and insensitive way of carrying himself."

So far, Barrett's "imaginative challenge has included a walk across the state. Last summer, Barrett walked more than 400 miles, visiting numerous small businesses and towns.

While pundits coined the term "Teflon president" to describe former President Ronald W. Reagan's ability to emerge untouched by potential problems, Barrett has invoked the cartoon character Mr. Magoo to make a similar point about Weld.

"His political operatives are pretty good at damage control, so he passes from crisis--like the near-sighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo--oblivious, and he escapes unscathed," said Barrett at his campaign kickoff. "But he escapes leaving disaster in his wake for the people of Massachusetts."

Barrett attended Harvard in the 1960s, where he largely avoided radical student politics. Instead, He remained close to his family and took the less-traveled road to electoral politics.

"He was very serious and straight arrow, which was off the bell curve in the 1996s," says David W. Siktberg '70, a suitemate of Barrett at Harvard. "He wore suits frequently, I recall."

Perhaps the only burst of radicalism for Barrett at Harvard came from using marijuana--which didn't happen much. Still, unlike President Clinton Barrett admits he inhaled.

"I inhaled once or twice," Barrett says. "I sort of lost interest in that stuff at the conclusion of my college years."

Barrett, a government concentrator, graduated magna cum laude. He began his service in the state House of Representatives in 1979. And since 1987, Barrett has represented Belmont, Watertown and parts of Cambridge and Boston in the State Senate. He presently chairs the Senate Health Care Committee.

Barrett has called Massachusetts' "insecure, high-anxiety economy" the campaign's most important issue.

Consequently, Barrett has proposed several measures designed to aid small businesses in Massachusetts including tax credits for job training, government support for businesses attempting to meet international standards and promotion of exports. To the latter end, he supports the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But Barrett insists he still supports some more traditional progressive ideals of the Democratic party including the graduate income tax.

"As a candidate for governor, I am stating insistently that Democrats must chart a new course," Barrett says. "But Democrats must remain true to our commitment to working people and to the middle class. That means support for a decent degree of tax fairness."

Barrett has received national recognition for a 1990 article on education reform in The Atlantic Monthly. Barrett supports strengthening educational standards through longer school days to help Massachusetts students remain competitive with their counterparts in other states.

As a state legislator, Barrett has also sponsored bills intended to guarantee gay and lesbian rights ban assault weapons and strengthen the rights of housing tenants.

Like Weld and his Democratic opponents, Barrett is pro-choice on abortion rights. Unlike his opponents, however, Barrett opposes the death penalty which has led him to criticize his leading Democratic opponent, Mark Roosevelt '78.

"Mark has just changed the commitment of a lifetime to come out in favor of capital punishment," Barrett says. "I want to be governor but I'm not willing to kill people to be governor."