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The Mythology of Massachusetts Liberalism

Which state, other than Montana, South Dakota and Utah, has gone longest without a Democratic governor?

Which state saw prolonged strife and violence over school desegregation, two full decades after the earliest upheavals of the civil rights movement?

Which state sent a white-gloved segregationist to Congress as recently as 1970?

And which state’s Democratic voters preferred a hawkish Cold Warrior to a liberal icon and a Kennedy in-law in the 1976 presidential primary?

The answer to all these questions?

Massachusetts.

Yes, the Bay State. The same “liberal” Massachusetts that conservatives love to bash and lampoon.

So what’s going on here? Is the Democratic National Convention’s host state’s liberal rep some creation of the vast right-wing conspiracy?

Well …

“The question in Massachusetts is always, Liberal compared to what?” said Robert Keough, editor of CommonWealth magazine, which covers Bay State politics and government. “I’m not sure we’re quite as off the charts as people would have you believe. … I think it gets more complicated when you drill down and try to define what liberalism means.”

Massachusetts is the home of the Kennedys, the quintessential liberal dynasty (though true students of history would concede that JFK, and even RFK, were not the liberals that their little brother Teddy is).

And Massachusetts was the sole state in the union to vote for luckless George McGovern in 1972.

And Massachusetts did give to the Democratic Party — and the nation — Michael Dukakis, the three-term governor and 1988 presidential standard-bearer who was, in the sneering words of the first President George Bush, “a card-carrying member of the ACLU.”

And Massachusetts’ 12-man Congressional delegation — and they are all men — is 100 percent Democratic.

And today, Massachusetts is the only state in the union where gay couples can legally get married.

These facts, among others, fill Republicans with delight as they contemplate a fall presidential campaign against the Bay State’s junior Senator, “liberal” John Kerry.

Kerry being nominated in his own home town has a certain symmetry to it. It makes the GOP salivate, and has made centrist and conservative Democratic candidates from across the country all the more determined to stay away from this week’s convention.

But if they looked a little closer, conservative Democrats might find a home in Massachusetts.

“Massachusetts is perceived as a one-party state,” said Michael Goldman, a Boston-based Democratic consultant. “That is not true. It’s a one-party, two-ideology state.”

Since at least the 1960s, Goldman said, liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats have been at each other’s throats, fighting for supremacy every election cycle, with the balance of power shifting back and forth.

Today, Kerry and Kennedy notwithstanding, the most powerful Democrat in Massachusetts politics is probably state Speaker Thomas Finneran, a fiscal conservative who opposes abortion rights, is uncomfortable voting on gay rights measures and has been the chief obstacle to a major statewide campaign finance reform measure.

Sounds like a Democrat that any conservative could love.

“There are Democrats here who would probably be Republicans in other parts of the country,” Keough said.

And Massachusetts has its conservative history, from the Salem witch trials to the bloody fight over school busing in the 1960s and ’70s, which sent anti-busing champion Louise Day Hicks (D) to Congress for one term. Even as she preached separation of the races, Hicks was very polite. In the South, racists wore white sheets. Day frequently wore white gloves.

In 1976, as the embers from the busing controversy continued to burn — and four years after the peacenik McGovern captured the state’s 14 electoral votes — Democratic primary voters chose Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington in the presidential primary. Jackson, a veteran anti-Communist commonly referred to as the Senator from Boeing due to his love of expensive defense projects that benefited his home state, finished ahead of Mo Udall, the popular liberal Congressman, and Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy brother-in-law, among others.

Finishing a strong third in the Democratic primary that year — and first in the city of Boston, a fact that delighted him until the day he died — was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the old segregationist who liked to rail against “pointy-headed liberals” (the type you might expect to find in … Boston).

And how to explain the Republican domination of the governor’s office since 1990? When Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s term ends in 2006, the GOP will have occupied the governor’s office for 16 years — equalling the length of Democratic dominance during the Dukakis era.

(Dukakis, it should be noted, though scorned for his supposed liberal views, said in 1988 that the presidential election “isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence.”)

Democrats have a lengthy list of alibis for their shutout: from lack of party unity to flawed candidates to bad luck.

Republicans say their candidates have simply been better, and that voters want a Republican governor in the statehouse who will put a check on the Legislature, which is 85 percent Democratic.

“They feel more comfortable with Republicans in the corner office as a sort of balance,” said Tim O’Brien, executive director of the Massachusetts GOP.

Still, the Republicans have not been able to translate their success at the gubernatorial level into wins for federal seats or other statewide offices.

“Socially, this is a liberal part of the country,” O’Brien conceded. “Ethnic politics are still at play here. Unions still have a lot of influence.”

This week, there are signs that national Democrats may be embracing some of the people they’ve been embarrassed to be associated with in the recent past.

McGovern, for example, was feted at a party in Boston Sunday night.

And Dukakis? The former governor who lost 40 states to George H.W. Bush in 1988 was so busy this week with party events and media requests that he had no time to be interviewed for this story.