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CLT&G Update
Friday, November 6, 1998

The Boston Herald
Friday, November 6, 1998

No splendor in the crabgrass
By Jon Keller

How lush is the local political landscape? It depends whose lawn mower you're riding on.

To Massachusetts Democrats, Tuesday's plentiful electoral harvest was the happy result of assiduous political fertilization. To the Republicans, save for Paul Cellucci's nail-biting win, it was the scorched earth of partisan backlash. But the most notable aspect of this year's crop may be the dominance of an unwelcome weed -- the crabgrassroots.

From Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill's maxim that all politics is local, to the baby-boomers' insistence that small is beautiful, worship of grassroots populism runs deep in modern political culture. And the modern political. And the crabgrassroots voters, like their namesake cousins, prefer to see political power decentralized.

They account for the soaring numbers of unenrolled voters who make a sham out of the party nominating process. If the crabgrassroots don't take to a party convention choice, like Democratic attorney general endorsee Lois Pines this year or gubernatorial nominees Frank Bellotti and Steve pierce in 1990, they're toast.

As a rule, crabgrassroots voters don't like taxes, and their clout has candidates of both parties tripping over one another to offer appealing tax-cut plans. These voters couldn't make head or tail out of ballot Question 4 (who could?), but voted a resounding yes to the notion of deregulation anyway, damn the details.

But when you've siphoned power away from political and economic elites, it comes with a responsibility to improve on their performance. And that's where Tuesday's performance by the crabgrassroots gets problematic.

Crabgrass thrives in bare spots, and its human counterparts are no different.

When times are bleak, as in the 1990 and 1992 elections, the crabgrassroots turn out in force. This year most sat home in a mist of righteous indignation over the behavior of candidates.

Unlike their more activist cousins, crabgrassroots voters are often uninformed. This helps explain a portion of the huge majority in favor of ballot Question 1, a trick question that made a yes vote seem against a legislative pay raise when in fact it locked in undeservedly automatic salary hikes.

And while the grassroots voter is usually pluralistic, not so the crabgrassroots women who abandoned their yearlong support for Cellucci in an 11th-hour spasm of knee-jerking on education.

Poor Cellucci thought that lavishing money and attention on education reform -- and opposing teacher-union efforts to undermine accountability -- would buy him standing on the issue. But the exit polling showed Scott Harshbarger winning 75 percent of the vote of women who cited education as their top priority.

Harshbarger supporters were elated at the effectiveness of the Massachusetts Teachers Association's phone-bank operations, but how many of the women pulled out at the last minute for Scott realized how anti-reform the MTA really is? For too many of them, say the exit polls, the clincher was the bogus characterization of Cellucci as a teacher basher, the MTA's pet stereotype for anyone who suggests teacher accountability is part of the solution.

The smarmy national GOP leadership deserved a good spanking. But by ignoring local Republican pleas for even a smidgen of partisan balance in Congress and the Legislature, the crabgrassroots moved us one step closer to the horrific combination of the late 1980s -- declining federal aid, expansive state spending in response to relentless public demand, and no loyal opposition to cry foul. Parallels with the late '80s are ominous, says House Speaker Tom Finneran, an avid gardener.

In a working democracy, the judgment of the grassroots provides forgiving, durable footing. But crabgrassroots, unchecked, could smother the desirable growth. Rev up the mower.

Jon Keller is political analyst for The Ten O'Clock News on WB56-TV.

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