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En Route to the Convention: Picking Delegates

A Day at the Caucuses

By Chip Cummins

It was snowing. It was cold.

But 85 Democratic voters braved the inclement weather Saturday afternoon to meet in the Peabody School behind North House to take part in the first step toward electing a new governor. And despite the snow, similar scenes were taking place across the state, as party members caucused to choose approximately 4000 delegates to the convention in June.

"It's part of the democratic process here," explained caucus participant Thomas H. Eliot '28, a former U.S. representative. "The more people that take part in that process, the more you have democracy at work. That's why I'm here."

Amid pink construction paper valentines taped to the tile cafeteria wall, the 85 caucus-goers massed around their slate's tables while nomination and referendum petitions circulated through the room.

But while the nominal business of the day was to elect the ward's seven delegates, several participants had their own agendas.

Bill Harris, a long-time Cambridge activist, floated from one lunchroom table to another, reminiscing with other political veterans about the Mondale candidacy in 1984 and discussing strategy with the members of his Mass. Future coalition.

A host of Boston University students showed up to campaign for B.U. president and gubernatorial hopeful John R. Silber.

"We came here to represent Silber in numbers, and show that he is a viable candidate," said Patricia H. White, a B.U. sophomore.

Meanwhile Eliot, political patriarch and grandson to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, sat quietly with his wife on the formica seats, listening to the speeches of delegate hopefuls and scratching the names of his choices on the blue paper squares which served as ballots.

Harvard Contingent

Among the caucus-goers were 11 Harvard students, seeking to make sure that student issues would be represented at the June convention. Although they did not meet with as much success as the Harvard contingent in neighboring Ward Six, Terri E. Gerstein '90 of Quincy House and Joel D. Kaplan '91 of Eliot House, walked out of the two-hour caucus as alternates.

"I've always been interested in government but I've had little hands-on experience. I wanted to be involved," said Gerstein.

The only prize to be carried away from the June convention by the actual candidates for governor is a non-binding endorsement from the state party in the primary election held in September.

But for many of the candidates in the race, the convention serves as a litmus test in which passing is not only important, but essential. Democratic hopefuls who receive less than 15 percent of the delegate pool at the convention will be forbidden to run on the Democratic ticket.

Murphy trails former Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti by a slim margin in most state polls. State Rep. John H. Flood (D-Canton) and Silber both are expected to come out far behind the two frontrunners in the race for delegates. But if a large number of uncommitted delegates won seats last weekend, candidates will have a chance to woo them to their side before the convention.

Many state politicos had predicted that the vast majority of delegates would be elected from special-interest slates uncommitted to any specific candidate. Running uncommitted will "sharpen the focus on the debate so more issues will be heard," said Harris, a longtime Cambridge activist.

But while statewide results of the 578 caucuses have yet to be tabulated, Lt. Gov. Eveyln F. Murphy's camp swept the caucus in ultraliberal Ward Eight, winning six of the seven delegate spots.

Both Gerstein and Kaplan, who began the afternoon uncommitted, came out of the caucus wearing green Murphy stickers.

"I think what they did was unwise," said Margaret A. Blood, executive director of the Massachusetts Children's Caucus and the only uncommitted delegate to be elected from the ward. Uncommitted slates like Mass. Future, she said, were more likely to address student issues than the Murphy campaign.

But the Harvard Democrats said they were happy with their choice. "We accomplished both of our main goals," said Kaplan, explaining that the Harvard group had set out to do two things: get involved in the state convention process and support the candidate who would best serve the state.

Harris, whose wife and son came to vote for him, lost on the uncommitted slate along with ward committee officers Lansing Fair and Gerry Ryan.

Ryan, who said he could not remember the last convention he did not attend as a delegate, appeared unfazed by his defeat, however. After the votes were counted out from a Bloomingdales shopping bag and the final results announced--sending the Murphy supporters into cheers for their victory--the group of uncommitted activists said their goodbyes at the table in the corner and congratulated Blood for winning her seat at the convention.

"You win some and lose some," said Ryan. "I'll be there, probably working for a candidate."

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