weeks ago, I received an angry phone call from Cambridge and
Somerville State Rep Tim Toomey's campaign manager. It was both
deserved and expected; the week before, I'd published a deep and
positive profile of Mike Connolly, who's running as a progressive
independent candidate in the 26th Middlesex district.
Toomey often runs unopposed, and here I was informing voters about an
energetic college athlete turned tech attorney who wants to extract
big money from politics. I'd be pissed at me too.
campaign manager, who attacked my publication's credibility, was
understandably angry with my not calling them for comment. I'm sure
that Toomey would have loved to throw a jab in these pages, or defend
his dual role as a Cambridge city councilor and state rep (he says
that he's “proud” of holding two offices). But I'm not a Globe
reporter, striving for some impossible objective standard. I'm a
feature writer who's intrigued by Connolly, whose odds of unseating
Toomey – with or without raising tens of thousands of dollars, and
with or without Phoenix coverage – are bleak considering how
past challengers have fared.
I promised Toomey's people that I'd check the second of their two
debates. I'm glad that I did, too, because the race for the 26th
is one of the most exciting spats anywhere. Toomey is absolutely the
sort of rank-and-file Beacon Hill creature I deplore – pro-casino,
pro-“three-strikes” – but he's a popular guy and for good
reason. Two decades of pushing a mostly responsible left-leaning
agenda has earned him faithful allies from the immigrant community to
prominent LGBT groups. And now, he's met a formidable left-wing match
in Connolly, an independent progressive who was active at Occupy
Boston, as well as in the young Republican nominee, Thomas
Tuesday's United States Senate debate was cancelled, the
Toomey-Connolly-Vasconelos showdown – which was scheduled for the
exact same time as the Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren hunger game –
went forward as planned. For anybody who was disappointed by nature's
impact on statewide politics, the show at Cambridge Community
Television could have served as a phenomenal consolation. As
moderator Joe Lynch of “Greater Somerville” noted at the outset,
this anomalous triumvirate already made history when there was
literally an earthquake in the heat of their first debate.
opening statements were boilerplate across the board: Connolly talked
about growing up and out of public housing projects, and reached out
to bleeding hearts: “No matter how hard we work, it always seems
like the political system is stacked against us.” Toomey spoke
about how “public service is [his] life's work,” and how his
native neighborhood of East Cambridge “was multicultural before
anybody knew what multicultural was.” The rep also flaunted his
southpaw laurels: “Anyone who tells you that I'm not a progressive
leader isn't being honest.” The last opener, Vasconelos, dipped
into his highlight reel, reminding debate viewers that, in the prior
face-off, neither of his opponents knew how much debt the
commonwealth was in.
then they got right into it, responding to a question about “clean
elections.” Specifically, Connolly railed Toomey for his part in
the 2003 repeal of the state's Clean Elections Law, which 58 percent
of voters statewide passed in a 1999 ballot measure. Always selling
his “no money” tagline, Connolly used that stain on Toomey's
record to juxtapose his own campaign, which he twice called a
“grassroots, low-budget affair.”
response, Toomey said that clean elections were fully funded in 1999
and 2000. That's true, though the rep neglected to mention the
ruthless battle against campaign finance reform that his colleagues
fought all the way to the state's highest court, or the more than
half-a-million dollars that banks and insurance companies spent to
gut clean elections. Toomey also claimed that he personally voted to
repeal the law because it was handcuffed to the entire budget.
Thirty-seven of his colleagues, however, disagreed, and instead
followed the binding will of voters.
mood remained tense as the candidates moved on to discuss the
McCarthy overpass section of McGrath Highway in Somerville, which is
in awful disrepair. Connolly dished his argument, though not so
compellingly, that legislators could and should have acted to
expedite an immediate overhaul. Responding, Toomey led viewers
through the bureaucratic labyrinth involved with getting such a
project done. Overall, the incumbent's view on the issue came off
similar to his stance on medical marijuana, which would come up later
on – sure, it's urgent, but it will get done when it gets done (on
pot, Toomey wants to further consult law enforcement officials like
Middlesex district attorney Gerry Leone, who thinks that an ounce of
weed yields 1,000 joints).
on, Lynch asked all three candidates to address the sequential
indictments of House speakers Charlie Flaherty, Thomas Finneran, and
Sal DiMasi – all of whom Toomey voted into the top leadership spot.
Answering as if he were in a high school history class, Vasconelos
fumbled in his attempt to list the disgraced pols and their offenses
– even though nobody asked him to try. Toomey ran with the only
angle that he possibly could – that those guys betrayed his trust,
and that he saw none of it coming. That despite his sending DiMasi
back to the speaker's chair just weeks before he was indicted, even
as dark cloud hovered over Beacon Hill.
this, of course, was just foreplay for the coming scrum. As he did in
their first duel, Toomey dug into Connolly's pledge to raise no
money. “We don't know who's financing your campaign,” said
Toomey, referring to the roughly $4000 that Connolly has personally
given. Along with Vasconelos, the incumbent called his opponent's
campaign a “gimmick,” and also argued that the $630 worth of
in-kind donations that Connolly has accepted negates his promise.
Twisting the knife, Toomey also compared the independent candidate to
the Wizard of Oz, and threw a veiled punch alluding to Connolly's
employment with a Hewlett Packard-owned company (which is a boggling
attack line considering that HP employs people in Cambridge).
profile favored Connolly, then other local media is making up for it.
Moderator Lynch, who I doubt has bad intentions, helped gang up on
the independent candidate about his in-kind donations, and even
cracked a joke at Connolly's expense during the debate. Then there's
the Cambridge Chronicle, which endorsed Toomey the day after.
On top of all that there's Vasconelos, who kissed Toomey's ass
throughout the evening. Given a chance to ask one final question to
one or both of his opponents, the Republican went so far as to spare
the incumbent and aim straight at Connolly.
former Duke football lineman defended himself well, and even
delivered substance on a range of local issues. Still, Connolly's
debate performance was hardly stellar – his opening was stiff, he
dropped an awkward Rosa Parks analogy, and, finally, he used his
final question to ask Toomey about the rep's pro-life stance, which
has little to do with his role as a state lawmaker. Those whiffs,
however, don't speak to the big question at hand – whether the 26th
would be better off with an optimistic rookie like Connolly, or with
an entrenched Beacon Hill vet like Toomey. That's another issue
altogether, and one that voters in the district should consider. As
for me, I'm happy to confirm my hunch that “No Money” Mike is a
giant breath of fresh air who deserves every bit of attention that's
been paid to him.