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Nellie Taylor Ross, the first female governor of an American state, was elected in Wyoming when her husband died a month before the 1924 election. Fifty-four years later there are only two women holding that office --Connecticut's Ella Grasso and Washington's fireball, Dixie Lee Ray. A Cambridge woman hopes to join the lonely twosome this fall by challenging incumbent Gov. Michael S. Dukakis for the Massachusetts governorship. That woman is Barbara Ackermann.
She faces stiff competition in the September 19 Democratic primary from Dukakis (who is wowing crowds in his "Blizzard of '78" sweater) and from Ed King (former Massport director and All-American footballer). Operating on a shoestring budget (her sevenmember staff receives just $500 a week), Ackermann must compete with the media blitzes and black-tie fund-raisers of King and the "Duke." "Massachusetts voters are very sophisticated," says the former Cambridge mayor and veteran of five years on the Cambridge School Committee and ten on the Cambridge City Council. "Often, it's those who didn't go to Harvard who are more sophisticated," she says from her Central Square headquarters.
"There's enough running water in Lawrence," someone is saying, "to provide electricity for a town SIX TIMES ITS SIZE!" The Candidate is impressed, interested. "Hey, that's good. Tell that to [a staffperson] and be sure he writes it down."
Talking about energy, Ackermann explains almost apologetically, "I got hooked into this nuclear energy thing--it wasn't my issue at first. Like a lot of other people, I was led to believe nuclear was the only answer." She seems frankly surprised that a "bread-and-butter" candidate like herself should have strayed into the chic, dangerously emotional world of the anti-nuclear movement, but as she talks, she carefully dissociates herself from the "liberal, middle-class attitude," pointing out that she supports alternate energy sources from a "jobs point of view. Comparatively few jobs will be created by nuclear plants which are so...so..." "Capital-intensive?" I suggest.
She smiles. "I was trying to think of another word," she says.
While maintaining essentially liberal positions on most issues, Ackermann must serve them up in a way which is appetizing to the blue-collar, middle-income voting bloc targeted by all three candidates. Perhaps this problem undercuts the potency of Ackermann's image. And when you can't afford TV spots, daily newspaper ads or consultants, the problem becomes a major one.
Eliminating waste, Ackermann claims, is what allowed her to improve the human services in Cambridge without raising taxes. But state government, she believes, needs more than efficiency, it needs someone who cares.
It takes its toll on Ackermann herself. As we speak, she is at times the young windblown woman on the campaign posters, hot on a favorite topic like the treatment of troubled youth or the mentally ill. At other times she seems halting, uncomfortable and downright tired as she runs through her paces on standard topics.
A key factor in her campaign, says Ackermann, is pointing out the waste, mismanagement and insensitivity of the present administration. "I don't think I have to differentiate myself from Ed King," she says, citing his support for George's Bank drilling, capital punishment and his opposition to abortion.
"Massachusetts lags behind the rest of New England in human services, yet living here is more expensive than in any other state. We contract out for temporary personnel and don't keep track of them. Unqualified people often occupy permanent positions; everyone agrees that the Civil Service has got to be reformed; and Dukakis has just applied for another 300 executive-level positions!"
More efficient management could go a long way toward ending our energy dependence as well, she says, as if we conserved energy, insulated our buildings, gave strong encouragement to solar energy and utilized our local resources--wind, water, solid waste and manpower.
Ackermann speaks emotionally of the inhumane treatment of special needs children in Massachusetts' institutions. And she speaks with eyewitness experience gained while serving as a delegate to the Commonwealth's Inter-Agency Planning Group on Children with Special Needs.
"We asked for the amount and the nature of State expenditures for these children, and they couldn't tell us! They weren't even keeping records."
The committee's findings at Northampton State Hospital were typical. "The staff, especially the weekend staff, served as mere custodians. They had been given no sense of the worth of their jobs and they had no treatment to offer. In such places," says Ackermann, "very often no one even knows who is in charge." It is the children, patients and inmates who inevitably suffer most in these environments.
The 53-year-old Ackermann was born in Sweden, where her father was a foreign service officer. Ackermann attended schools in Dublin, France, and Washington D.C. before graduating from Smith College in 1945 with a B.A. in Greek and Latin. During that year she married Paul Ackermann and spent the next 17 years teaching, proofreading, editing and writing while she raised two children.
"I had never dreamed of getting into politics until I did it, but I took to it like a duck to water. There was a zoning case in my neighborhood and I was trying to be a writer. It was the first time I realized that words could have an effect."
The 25-year-old from the poster is speaking now. "You have to learn where the buttons are that do something. Certain things have been very gratifying -- opening a clinic in a housing project, keeping schools open after hours --these things make a difference in peoples' lives. Keeping peoples' heads from being broken! (she is recalling Cambridge's more radical decade, during which she was mayor and city councilwoman).
"But of course it takes more than words to press those buttons." (she's looking tired again). Dukakis speaks well but people are often hurt more by a politician who doesn't act. In some ways, it's simply how much money and how many endorsements you can get. The voters here are sophisticated, though. TV ads may or may not help. We've been getting good responses from the press." On August 31, Ackermann will participate in a televised debate with Dukakis and Ed King.
Her simultaneous responsibility to the city and to her family posed no conflicts, she says. "It was a great part-time job. More and more women are realizing that they can do both. It is really difficult for an intellectual woman, a doer, to stay home. Some women do a kid more damage by staying home."
As the September 19 primary approaches, King supporters hope that Ackermann will deprive Dukakis of enough votes to put their candidate over the top. Barbara Ackermann persists doggedly in her scrupulously honest, low-budget campaign. And Michael Dukakis remains supremely oblivious of them both.
Barbara Ackermann, the Intellectual Woman, has been stimulated by her work: "It's interesting," she insists, "using personnel practices and affirmative action and turning money into action." The latter, she says, is very interesting. Barbara Ackermann, the
Barbara Ackermann, the Intellectual Woman, has been stimulated by her work: "It's interesting," she insists, "using personnel practices and affirmative action and turning money into action." The latter, she says, is very interesting. Barbara Ackermann, the Doer, seems excited by the possibilities.
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