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6:38 pm
Mon August 18, 2014

Progressives, Once Marginal, Are Now Mainstream

Ayanna Pressley, Maura Healey and Don Berwick.
Ayanna Pressley, Maura Healey and Don Berwick.
Credit The candidate's Facebook pages

It’s a basic rule of politics: In primary season, candidates take more extreme positions to please the base of their party — then tack back to the center when it’s time for the general election. Only in Massachusetts, that’s not necessarily the way it works. In this year’s governor’s race, Republican candidate Charlie Baker is wearing his disinterest in the GOP’s right wing as a badge of honor. Among Democrats, meanwhile, there’s scant need to run to the left anymore, because the Democratic left seems to have become the party’s permanent mainstream.

Last week, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley stood inside the Flat Black Coffee Shop in Dorchester’s Lower Mills neighborhood and endorsed Maura Healey, a Democrat running for attorney general. In her endorsement speech, Pressley talked up Healey’s legal background. But using an easily understandable code, she paid even more attention to her values.

"She is highly capable, a civil rights attorney," Pressley said. "But more than that, she is compassionate."

Healey isn’t just a Democrat, Pressley told the small crowd, she’s a progressive — an empathetic, inclusive politician who views the world the same way they do.

"Everyone wants to be understood," Pressley said. "Everyone wants to be respected and wants to be valued."

Afterwards, Healey told me she was thrilled to get Pressley’s stamp of progressive approval, and offered her take on what, exactly, that term means.

"To me, being a progressive means somebody who’s willing to fight for equality, to fight against injustice in all its forms, and willing to think and lead in innovative ways," she said.

These days days, calling yourself a “progressive” also puts you squarely in the Democratic mainstream. A couple decades ago, when conservative Democrats like Ed King and Tom Finneran were a potent presence on Beacon Hill, the term “progressive” was an identification most mainstream pols wanted to avoid. But the 2014 elections show how much times have changed.

Healey’s primary rival, Warren Tolman, touts himself as a “progressive,” too. For that matter, so do two of the three Democrats running for treasurer, all three Democratic candidates for treasurer, and all three Dems running for governor. According to Stonehill College political science professor Peter Ubertaccio, the Democratic rebranding that’s playing out in 2014 is the culmination of a trend that started eight years ago, when a little-known newcomer won the Democratic nomination for governor over then-attorney general Tom Reilly.

"I think you have to go back to Deval Patrick’s first victory in the gubernatorial election of '06, his reelection, and then the subsequent election of Elizabeth Warren," Ubertaccio said. "I think Gov. Patrick and Elizabeth Warren have helped to remake the Democratic Party in this state.

In the wake of Patrick and Warren’s success, Ubertaccio says, even moderate Dems feel obliged to embrace the “progressive” label nowadays — even if it’s only for campaign-branding purposes. In fact, Ubertaccio says, even Republicans feel that leftward pull. Case in point: Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker’s ad, “Brothers,” in which Baker talks about supporting his brother Alex when he came out of the closet.

Of course—in 2014, both gay marriage and abortion rights enjoy widespread support from the electorate, so it’s safer to support them than it is not to. For Democrats who push even further to the left — and watch their more moderate rivals embrace the “progressive” label — that can lead to some frustration.

"I’m the only candidate who’s against casinos, for example," said Don Berwick, a Democratic candidate for governor. "These are multibillion dollar corporations coming to our communities, and I’m the only one saying 'Stop, that’s not right!' I’m the only candidate for governor that’s committed to single-payer healthcare."

But Berwick trails both Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman in the polls — even though, as he sees it, their progressive credentials don’t measure up.

"I am the most progressive in the race!" he said. "If you look at the stands I’m taking, they’re bolder, and they’re more connected to the needs of the disadvantaged, people who really are at risk in our society."

Whether Berwick’s struggles are the result of his stands or his style is debatable. But do they make one thing abundantly clear: while calling yourself a “progressive” has become a must for Massachusetts Democrats, the meaning of the term is still up for debate — and embracing it is no guarantee of success.

On Greater Boston, Democratic political analyst Mara Dolan and WGBH News political analyst David Bernstein discussed whether embracing a progressive platform is a winning strategy for Democrats in Massachusetts:

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