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Where the Liberals Roam

A House race in Boston pits a colorful pol and a talk-radio star against a rich unknown with ideas

By JAMES CARNEY/BOSTON

TIME

At a street corner in a gritty Boston neighborhood, a truck driver leans out his window and hollers a question at congressional candidate Raymond Flynn. "Hey, Ray! Can I have a job if you get in?"

Flynn, the former Boston mayor, jogs over to the truck. "Sure," he says with a laugh. "I appreciate your support."

Trading jobs for votes may be one Boston tradition that's fallen by the wayside, but the city's politicians still do most things the old-fashioned way. There aren't many other places in America where a candidate can declare himself an "unabashed, unrepentant, unreconstructed liberal"--and leave most of his opponents wishing they'd come up with the line first. But Massachusetts' Eighth Congressional District isn't like anyplace else. Encompassing nearly half the city of Boston, all of what locals call the People's Republic of Cambridge, and several limousine-liberal suburbs, the Eighth has sent just three Congressmen to Washington since 1946: John F. Kennedy, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Joseph P. Kennedy II. It is a shrine to old-school liberalism and one of the safest Democratic seats in the country. And so, when Joe Kennedy announced his retirement earlier this year, it wasn't long before 10 local Democrats had swarmed into the race to replace him.

Which would be great news for the district's voters--if there were more to distinguish one candidate from another. But almost all of them are as "unreconstructed" and predictable in their liberalism as George Bachrach, the former state senator who made the remark during a televised debate last week. In fact, the most prominent contenders for the seat, Flynn and former talk-radio host Marjorie Clapprood, are known less for what they would do in office than for the controversial things they have done in the past. A once loved mayor with nearly universal name recognition, Flynn has a gift for working a crowd and a reputation for excessive drinking that was examined last fall in a front-page story in the Boston Globe. Clapprood is a raspy-voiced bleached blond who jumped from a stint in the state legislature to a gig as one of New England's most famous--and raunchiest--radio personalities. (On the air she once asked Fabio, the romance-novel cover model, if he has "big private parts.") The mayor of Somerville, Michael Capuano, showed strength in a recent poll, but the best hope for an upset may be a wonkish venture capitalist named Chris Gabrieli, who's spending his own millions to run a campaign focused on, of all things, policy ideas. Can his fortune beat their fame?

Flynn and Clapprood hail from two sides of the liberal tradition. An Irish Catholic who rose to prominence in the early 1980s as a populist champion of the working class, Flynn, 59, is an F.D.R. Democrat who's tight with organized labor. He left city hall in 1993 to serve for four years as Bill Clinton's U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, but he still sounds more like a ward heeler than a diplomat. "I've always been a fighter for the poor people of this city, and I'll continue to do that," Flynn says one morning as he waves at rush-hour traffic. It's a well-earned boast, but it isn't backed up by much in the way of new ideas. Asked what he'd do in Congress, Flynn ticks off a laundry list of Democratic perennials, like raising the minimum wage and increasing spending for early-childhood education.

Flynn's low-budget campaign intends to use the remnants of his once mighty grass-roots operation to get out the vote. But the residual goodwill from his 10 years as mayor is ebbing. After he left office, two of his top aides were convicted of fund-raising-related crimes. And Flynn's tenure as an ambassador earned him a reputation for erratic and often unstatesmanlike behavior in Washington and Rome. After the Globe published an eyewitness account of him appearing drunk in the late afternoon, Flynn went on 60 Minutes to rebut the charges. Now he dismisses the controversy. "I don't think [voters] take it seriously," he says.

Clapprood, 48, is the only other candidate who can match Flynn's backslapping style. When a motorist honks approval at an intersection in East Boston, she shouts, "I love you," then totters after a voter on her 4-in. heels. Suddenly, she stops short, whirls around and asks her campaign adviser, Jim Spencer, "Do I have schmutz on my face?"

Spencer shakes his head no, and Clapprood accosts two women on the sidewalk, one of whom has just declared, "It's her!"

"This is very important," Clapprood tells them. "You gotta help me win, O.K.?"

Spencer, who worked for Joe Kennedy, insists that Clapprood is more than a celebrity. And he's right. She served six years in the state legislature, then ran a credible race for Lieutenant Governor in 1990. Her loss was blamed on her famously acerbic running mate, Boston University President John Silber, who was defeated by William Weld. Clapprood has a record of involvement in groups that help poor women and children, and she is trying to exploit Flynn's biggest vulnerability in such a liberal district, his opposition to abortion. She touts herself as the pro-choice candidate who can beat Flynn, and in last week's debate, she essentially asked voters to elect her because of her gender. "We've never sent a woman to Washington to stand for us," she said. "I'd like to be that woman."

Of the eight others angling to sneak by Flynn and Clapprood, the most visible is Gabrieli, 38, a nerdy, prematurely gray father of four. Gabrieli has visibility because he paid for it. Since early summer, the multimillionaire has spent more than $2 million of his own money, most of it on television. But unlike other self-financed candidates, who spend their early money on get-to-know-me ads aimed at raising their name recognition, Gabrieli has been running substantive spots about issues like setting standards for teachers and HMO reform. He wants voters to associate him with progressive ideas, even ones that are controversial in traditional Democratic circles, such as charter public schools. Gabrieli distinguished himself in the debate, promising "to step on some toes" to get things done. His strategy seems to be working. At a subway "T" stop in Somerville, most of the morning commuters who pause to take a leaflet recognize Gabrieli and know his positions on the issues. Some are not impressed, like the woman who badgers him for being "against teachers." But others are more positive. "My husband just said he's probably gonna vote for you," says Cynthia Close, 53. "I might too."

So far, Flynn has remained atop the few polls that have been made public, but his margin is small and the number of undecideds high. In any case, voters aren't likely to start paying attention to the race until just before the winner-take-all Sept. 15 primary. (Its victor has a virtual lock on the November general election.) By September, Gabrieli hopes, a summer's worth of provocative issue ads will have kicked in with voters. In a field of 10 candidates and as few as 100,000 people expected to cast ballots, 11,000 votes could conceivably be enough to win. For Gabrieli, who will end up spending around $3 million, that would mean that victory cost $273 per vote.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 24, 1998

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Where the Liberals Roam


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