Bay State Democrats Search the Party's Soul

NEW BEDFORD-Sixty miles south of Boston, this city of blue collar workers, crumbling textile mills and double-digit unemployment rates has long been a stomping ground for the state's Democratic party.

But typical of the Massachusetts that was left behind when industry headed south, the local philosophy has always been anchored more to workers, immigrants and the poor than to any collection of Beacon Hill politicos.

And now, after a summer of political earthquakes, some are saying that the Democratic party has actually been knocked out of line with the local agenda.

Throughout the state, Democratic stalwarts who would all but kill for a Kennedy and die for Dukakis are having trouble finding it in themselves to vote for the new front-runner in the party's gubernatorial primary, Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger '64.

"Those of us who are strong frontline Democrats will have a hard time supporting the Attorney General," said David Alves, a New Bedford city councillor who is now running for mayor.

Alves, who heads Ward One, home of the city's highest concentration of registered Democrats and Portuguese immigrants (which often amounts to the same thing), said that New Bedford residents know Harshbarger only for his outspoken opposition to casino gambling and his extended battles with cigarette manufacturers.

For many, it is unclear whether such a record will translate into a new governor committed to New Bedford.

"I want a Democrat who's going to do something for my community. I don't want him to assume that just because he's a Democrat he can count on my support," Alves said.

Although the thought of Democrats like Alves looking elsewhere may seem akin to the Red Sox playing in Yankee uniforms, some say there is a simple explanation.

According to Lou Dinatale, a senior fellow at UMass Boston's McCormack Institute of Public Policy, the state's Democratic party sits on two separate foundations: suburban liberals (usually fiscally conservative but socially liberal) and ethnic urban Democrats (usually fiscally liberal and socially conservative).

Up until the end of August when he withdrew from the race, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Brighton) had been able to bridge the gap between the two constituencies.

Harshbarger-seen by most as only a suburban liberal-has not yet been able to engineer his own bridge.

Still, such cracks in the Democratic structure are not entirely new.

Over the past six years, the popular Republican governor William F. Weld '66 consistently won votes in urban areas known for their democratic roots.

But Weld's broad-based support always seemed more a cult of personality than a fissure in the state's Democratic bedrock. The ex-governor's mercurial, foppish air appealed as much to fishers and factory workers as to his former Fly Club friends and Adams House chums.

Now, with Kennedy out of the governor's race, some say Weld's underrated understudy, Acting Governor Argeo Paul Cellucci, is becoming the new blue-collar urban candidate.

"I think it's sort of an interesting dynamic," said Richard S. Armstrong, a Cellucci advisor who ran against the acting governor in the 1992 lieutenant governor's race. "People are beginning to see Paul as a kind of working person's governor."

The numbers seem to agree with Armstrong's analysis.

In a poll commissioned by the Boston Herald immediately after Kennedy dropped out of the race, Bay State voters gave Cellucci a 44 percent favorable rating and Harshbarger a 39 percent rating.

Those numbers contrast markedly to a similar poll taken in April when Cellucci received a 27 percent favorable rating and Harshbarger a 42 percent favorable rating.

Cellucci, or Cell-ooch as many aides affectionately refer to the new governor, is not winning urban voters with Weld's charm. Instead, he is doing it with a sort of shared culture.

A former selectperson in the town of Hudson who plays bocce in his spare time, Cellucci has a gritty Main Street quality that appeals to many working class voters.

"Cellucci has an Italian heritage and he is very wise about how he plays it,"Alves said.

"It will play much better than someone who has never been to New Bedford and doesn't celebrate the culture,"he added.

But many say that while it may be helpful, culture will not win the election for Cellucci.

According to Dinatale, Cellucci's gains in the cities will likely be offset by his losses among Weld's suburban constituency. Harshbarger, Dinatale said, "plays in that world."

And still a year away from the primary, many insist that Harshbarger has ample time to make his case with urban voters.

According to Marty Xaifaris, a former member of the Democratic National Committee and a strong Harshbarger supporter, Cellucci's appeal to urban voters will begin to wane as soon as the issues become more focused.

"I think that there is an appeal [to Cellucci], but when push comes to shove, the issues will separate the Democrat from the Republican," she said.

Xaifaris points to a record of work on job growth, civil rights issues and health care issues that will carry Harshbarger through the election.

And in Cambridge-one of the two municipalities that did not vote for Weld (who lives a few blocks from Harvard Square) in his second run for Governor-there is a similar faith in the former Eliot House Democrat.

"On what issue does Scott Harshbarger not come across as an advocate for working class, blue collar voters?" asked City Councillor Francis F. Duehay'55.

But the gulf between Cambridge and New Bedford is wide, and Democrats like David Alves are not sure Harshbarger can bridge the gap