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‘There’s No Playbook’: Massachusetts Political Campaigns Navigate a New Coronavirus Reality
TWO YEARS AGO, Leonard J. Umina had a vision. It involved high technology and it was inspired by Thomas Jefferson.
It was also a vision which would eventually lead Umina into the race for governor of Massachusetts, first as a Republican hopeful, then as the candidate for the as-yet unformed High Tech Independent Party.
Although many people may not have heard of Umina, he is still in that race. He and at least two other independent candidates running for governor--one a socialist and one a former Democrat--are billing themselves as viable alternatives to John R. Silber and William F. Weld.
These independent candidates lack sophisticated campaign strategies and access to large campaign funds. But they do have two assets which they are using to their advantage: anger and creativity.
The anger is due to frustration with "politics as usual" in Massachusetts, and the creativity manifests itself in their unorthodox suggestions for solutions to the state's problems. As a result, many of the freshest ideas--if not necessarily the most practical ones--in this gubernatorial campaign are coming from these fringe candidates, rather than the established political parties.
Take Len Umina and his vision, for example. As he tells it, the vision came to him in the hills of northern Vermont while he was vacationing with his family.
Umina picked up a copy of an essay by Thomas Jefferson in which the patriot extolled the printing press as a valuable tool for keeping the electorate informed and thereby preserving democracy.
It occured to Umina, a technical marketing executive for Digital Equipment Corporation, that the printing press was a bit dated. What the public really needed to keep an eye on government, he reasoned, was "high technology"--vast networks of computer databases accessible to all citizens.
With this idea in mind and Jefferson's tract in hand, Umina descended from the mountaintop and entered the race for governor.
"I wanted to run because my ideas--which build upon the ideas of Thomas Jefferson--can really bring reform to the political process of Massachusetts," Umina says. "By making information about what our government is doing with our money easily accessible, we will be able to make our politicians accountable."
Umina does not yet have a clear idea about how he will implement this program if elected, but he does not anticipate that it will cost taxpayers very much money. And in the long term it will save millions, he says.
"If we just supply data to existing public networks, that would be very inexpensive," Umina says. "If we set up separate terminals ourselves, that would be more costly. But either way, the system will pay for itself very quickly. The corruption that exists in the current system is mind-boggling."
THAT THEME of corruption in the current system is one echoed by the independent candidates. In fact, it is echoed by the Democrats and the Republican as well.
The only difference is in who gets the blame. Silber points the finger directly at Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. Weld takes a broader view of the issue, accusing the whole Democratic party of mismanagement. The independent candidates go a step further and indict the entire political system.
Dorothy L. Stevens, a welfare recipient mother of four who is running for governor as a write-in candidate, says she is similarly disenchanted with party politics. She originally started out as a Democratic candidate, but says she was eventually shut out of the system.
"I was excluded and abandoned by the Democratic Party because I didn't have the money to break in," she says. "What I found out is that the only way you can get into the political process is to be a millionaire."
Umina originally declared his candidacy as a Republican two years ago. But the deals the other candidates had to make in order to gain the support of special interest groups disgusted him, he says.
"What I learned as a potential Republican nominee is that the political corruption begins in the political party," Umina says. "I didn't want anything to do with it. I was going to leave politics. But my supporters came to me and said please don't."
He didn't. Instead of quitting in disgust, Umina recruited other business executives and formed his own political party--the High Tech Independents. He also collected more than 47,000 signatures to put his name on the ballot.
Now Umina heads a political organization, but he still harbors a dislike of big party politics.
"People are beginning to realize that political parties cannot solve the problems because they are part of the problem," Umina says. "The offices are sold to the highest bidder. The reason they can't talk issues is because the special interests have purchased their opinions."
Stevens says that the biggest obstacle in her short-lived Democratic campaign was getting the original $800 to pay for the list of 5000 delegates to the Democratic convention. For a single mother trying to raise a family on a welfare check, the fee was significant.
The Democratic Party eventually accepted a $100 down payment for the list, but by the time she received it, it was too late to gain the support of many delegates, she says. Without a significant margin if support at the party convention, Stevens was forced to take her ideas directly to the voters as a write-in candidate.
BUT WHILE THE independent candidates say they are frustrated with political corruption, that in and of itself is not their biggest concern. The main reason they are running for office is to change the state's taxing and spending priorities, they say.
Predictably, there is a great deal of disagreement among the independents on the question of state revenues. Stevensthinks the state has enough money as it is, andthat only spending patterns need to be changed.
"There is plenty of money in this state,"Stevens says. "We're the third richest state inthe country. It's the priorities we need tochange. We need to invest in human beings ratherthan businesses."
On the other hand, Mark A. Emanation, theSocialist Workers' Party candidate, is in favor ofhigher taxes on business and the rich. And at theopposite extreme, Umina, like Weld, favors theCitizens for Limited Taxation initiative to rollback all state taxes and fees to their 1988levels.
Stevens, who is working toward her mastersdegree in human service management at theUniversity of Massachusetts, favors a $10 dollarminimum wage and increased welfare benefits to theput the state's entire population at or above thepoverty line.
She argues that the entire economy will benefitby transferring money to the poor. "Increasingwelfare benefit levels will bump up everythingelse," she says.
This transfer of wealth is a critical steptoward breaking the subcultures of violence anddrugs which dominate the streets, she says. "In myneighborhood the kids are killing each other leftand right, and it is because this country is notinvesting in its children."
Emanation agrees that more money should go tothe poor, but he is more concerned with reformingthe structure of state government. "There arethings you can do and advocate, but the realproblems cannot be solved unless the whole thingfrom top to bottom is changed," he says.
The real surprise comes from Umina, the formerRepublican and current supporter of the CLT taxrollback. He also believes that more money shouldbe channeled to the poor in order to build up theeconomy--in direct contrast to the "trickle-down"theory propounded by former President RonaldReagan.
"We must institute a program that will rebuildour economy from the bottom up," says Umina."Trickle-down did not work. That sort ofconcentration of wealth has never happened beforein our history.
"Someone forgot to turn on the faucet. Therewas no trickle down."
OF COURSE, ALL THE NEW ideas in theworld won't necessarily help a candidate getelected. Lose in the general election, and anindependent candidate has no way to implement newprograms and, until the next election, no platformon which to stand.
Emanation, the socialist candidate, readilyacknowledges the fact that his party doesn't haveany hope of snagging the corner office--at least,not this year.
"We don't think we'll get elected," he says."We're serious about running, and we're seriousabout campaigning. We're not just in this as apurely propaganda thing. We know though,realistically, that we don't have a chance."
But the other two candidates refuse to give upthe ghost so easily. Stevens says there is agroundswell of support which she fully anticipateswill carry her through the day.
"We expect to win," Stevens says. "This is notjust a symbolic campaign, because our children arenot symbolically dying in the streets. They arereally dying in the streets."
Umina is similarly confident. He thinks thatthe people are disgusted enough with Weld andSilber to put him--as the only other candidatewhose name appears on the ballot--over the top.
"We really think we can win, because themajority of voters in Massachusetts are eitherdisenfranchised or independent," says Umina,adding that his only real competition comes fromSilber.
As evidence of his potential success onelection day, Umina cites a recent unscientificpoll conducted by Jeanine Graf of WEZE radiostation in Quincy. According to Graf, Uminareceived 70 percent of the vote, Silber 20percent, and Weld 10 percent.
Needless to say, Umina has fared considerablyless well in more widely publicized polls.
"I have ultimate faith in the voters, that theywill make the correct decision on November 6," thehigh-tech visionary says. "And we will have thebiggest upset Massachusetts has ever seen."
This confidence against the odds is admirable,but even voters who may have sympathy for theviews of one of the independent candidates mayhesitate before casting their ballots for one ofthem. Voters generally are reluctant to throw awaytheir vote on a candidate they think will lose.
But the independents have a response to thisalso. They suggest that voters should act on theirpreferences rather than try to predict what thefinal outcome will be.
"If they vote for anyone else they will bewasting their vote," Umina says. "If they vote foreither of the other candidates they will wishMichael Dukakis was back in the State House."
"It's better to vote for something that youwant than something you don't want," agreesEmanation. "For the past 50 years we've beenvoting for the lesser evil. We need to startvoting for ourselves.
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