By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
ARLINGTON -- Hundreds of metro Boston political activists won their ticket to the state Democratic Party's nominating convention Saturday, though many are unsure which candidates they will support at the Worcester convention in June.
Political aides aligned with several candidates for governor agreed that Steven Grossman, the state treasurer, saw more committed supporters elected as delegates, although it's early in the caucus season. Grossman trails Martha Coakley, the attorney general, in the polls, and there are three other candidates seeking the 15 percent threshold of delegate support needed to compete in the Sept. 9 primary.
Political aides and politicians said a plurality of the delegates elected Saturday, which represents 35 percent of the total convention, according to a party official, remain uncommitted.
"They've all asked me for my support, and I've made it clear to every one of them that we want to make sure that after the process, after the debates, after listening to the candidates, we feel that we have the best candidate," Sen. Ken Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, told the News Service during the town's Democratic caucus. He said, "There's some hard support, obviously, but I think a lot of the support is soft support."
After a slate of 19 uncommitted delegates, Arlington is sending 15 delegates committed to Coakley, according to Paul Schlichtman, a school committee member who is uncommitted and leaning towards Coakley - the most widely known candidate.
After Brookline - where Coakley supporters were shut out as 24 Grossman supporters won tickets to Worcester - Arlington is the most delegate-rich town.
Arlington State Committeewoman Deborah Sirotkin Butler told the News Service it was the "strongest push for an uncommitted slate that I've ever seen," noting she has participated in caucuses for about a decade. She said, "I support that. I'd rather see first-time candidates work for it."
There are three lesser-known candidates with experience in government and campaigns but little-to-no experience running for office.
Juliette Kayyem, a security expert and former Boston Globe columnist seeking the Corner Office, won election as a delegate from her ward in Cambridge, which swept in a slate of delegates committed to voting for her on the convention floor.
Joe Avellone, a former Wellesley selectman and health care executive, received a sweep in his hometown where his wife Sandy will be among the 15 delegates committed to supporting him on the floor, according to his campaign.
Don Berwick, a pediatrician who ran Medicare and Medicaid, has made an appeal to the contingent of Democrats who want government to directly provide health insurance to everyone, which is known as single-payer.
"A lot of people seem interested," Berwick said after speaking to a roomful of Cambridge Democrats.
Berwick and Grossman are Newton residents, which could turn what is often a hometown advantage into a turf battle. Grossman's mother will fly up from Florida to participate in her caucus, which falls on her 92nd birthday, Mary Ellen Grossman told the News Service. Mary Ellen is Grossman's sister, treasurer of the family business and part of the campaign.
Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern said he decided not to run for delegate in Kayyem's ward because he is undecided, and said the city is split between Coakley, Grossman and Kayyem.
"When you have a strong field, people get split up," McGovern said.
On the other side of the political aisle, polls show voters have coalesced around Republican Charlie Baker, who ran in 2010, and bests all the Democrats except for Coakley in head-to-head matchups.
"Charlie Baker certainly has name recognition and a resume, but I am confident that the Democratic platform really speaks to the vast majority of the people in this state," McGovern said.
The AFL-CIO, a major advocate for labor, will hold its State of the Union Conference in a few weeks and another meeting before Memorial Day when the subject of an endorsement could be raised, Massachusetts Building Trades Council President Frank Callahan, an Arlington delegate, told the News Service.
"There's going to be discussions about this. I don't know if we're going to have enough. It requires a two-thirds vote," Callahan said. He said, "I don't know if anybody's got the two thirds."
Callahan, who said all the gubernatorial candidates have sought his support, said a major labor endorsement - though a tough prize - would be a potent force in Worcester, where many others with union ties will be on the floor.
"Nobody's as organized as we are," said Callahan, who said mobile phone technology has allowed organized labor to be more coordinated than before.
Grossman's showing among the party faithful appeared better than his showing in public polls, the last of which had Coakley winning 56 with Grossman trailing at a distant second with 11 percent. Coakley lost the 2010 special election for U.S. Senate to Scott Brown.
"I know there are some residual feelings about the last campaign. But I feel as though I believe her when she says she's learned an awful lot from the last time she ran, and I think one of the things that she didn't do right last time she ran - she didn't capitalize on her record," said Pearl Morrison, an Arlington delegate and former school principal, who said she wants to see plans to finance special education.
She said, "I don't know how she's going to do it but she has to let people know that that's in the past, that she's going to run a different kind of campaign. I think that almost every politician right now is going to copy Katherine Clark. She got out early, she bombarded you with telephone calls, with 'dear friend' cards, with all kinds of mailbox publicity."
Next weekend, caucuses will shift to the central part of the state and the west - an area that has traditionally turned out for Coakley, who was raised in North Adams and now lives in Medford across the Mystic Lakes from Arlington.
The undecided delegates could determine who makes it onto the primary ballot. The priority for Kayyem remains the 15 percent delegate vote at the convention that will allow her to continue her campaign.
"That is the most important thing, because then when I'm on the ballot the differences with the other candidates, and I think the energy that I can bring to the race, will shine," Kayyem said. She said, "Uncommitted simply means that there's room for a new voice and new leadership and that's thrilling."
John Walsh, the former state party chairman who now runs Gov. Deval Patrick's federal political action committee, told the News Service all five candidates could emerge from the convention with enough support to appear on the ballot.
"It's mathematically possible," said Walsh, who declined to say whether he thought it likely that all the campaigns will emerge from the convention and said he doesn't have a sense of which way Abington voters are leaning. He said, "There really is an opportunity for people to go out there and get their 15."