Boys Network?

I think Joan Vennochi's column today about Coakley facing an "old boys network" impediment for endorsements is partly accurate and partly off the mark. It's certainly true that political officeholders, especially direct colleagues, tend to help one another back and forth over time, and since Massachusetts politics has been so male-dominated for so many years, that means men owing men in those favor banks. That's a serious thing, and creates a major barrier to getting more women into elected office.

But contrary to Vennochi's assertions, that network worked to the advantage, not the detriment, of Niki Tsongas in 2007 and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Both were on the inside of that network, due to their husbands as well as their own efforts. Tsongas was backed by Democratic insiders and heavyweights galore, including pretty much every woman, and most of the men. As I wrote during Tsongas's campaign: 


...some observers are wondering: why did all the party powerhouses take her side in a race that features several strong Democratic candidates? ... Tsongas’s contributors comprise a virtual Who’s Who of the state’s Democratic fundraisers (Ronald Ansin, Steve Grossman, Alan Solomont, Barry White), former officeholders (Cheryl Cronin, Scott Harshbarger), lobbyists (Thomas O’Neill, Robert White), developers (Robert Beal, Jay Cashman), and cultural leaders (Charles Ansbacher, Susan Paine, Josiah Spaulding).

Barney Frank endorsed Tsongas (and Hillary, and Deb Goldberg, BTW), and while outgoing Marty Meehan technically remained neutral, his wife spent the whole election at Niki's side. I don't believe any congressmen endorsed any of Tsongas's opponents. In the Presidential primary, Clinton had practically every elected official in the state working for her, including such old-boys-network stalwarts as Sal DiMasi and Tom Menino. The exceptions were high-profile, of course: Kennedy, Kerry, and Patrick. But they were exceptions.

Getting back to this race... Vennochi says that the old-boys network explains why seven male congressmen have endorsed Capuano. That is surely a large part of the reason, and gets back to the self-perpetuating problem I mentioned above. But another reason is that the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is very strongly backing Capuano, and congressmen don't generally like to cross their Speaker without a decent reason. (This also helps explain why no congressman or -woman outside Massachusetts has endorsed or contributed to anyone other than Capuano, to my knowledge.) Tsongas had a good reason to endorse Coakley: the powerful women who helped get her elected (including sen. pres. Terri Murray) pounded on her night and day to return the favor until she gave in.

As for Bill Delahunt, who Vennochi focuses on: he's betwixt and between. He has a long and, to my understanding, very good relationship with Coakley, dating back to his days as a prosecutor. He clearly doesn't want to choose sides between two friends and past/current colleagues.

I don't want to downplay Vennochi's general point. Consider this: of the 40 current Senators who have taken office since the start of 2003, just 5 are women. If they're getting less than 15% of the new slots, it's hard to see how the overall gender balance will go up much over time. And it's hard to argue that a hiring gender ratio of 7-to-1 happens without institutional biases. I wouldn't even disagree that the biases exist in this race, despite the counter-evidence of Coakley's frontrunner status. I just think that the political networks in Massachusetts have been more peculiar in recent years than she credits.

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