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.