Reporter's Notebook: Governor hopeful Kayyem focused on a single number

“Fifteen percent. Fifteen percent. Fifteen percent.”

Juliette Kayyem, one of five Democrats running for governor, is sitting in McKenna’s on Savin Hill waiting for the BLT she had ordered and talking strategy.

In less than four months, Democratic delegates will gather in Worcester, and if she clears a 15 percent threshold, Kayyem will make it onto the Sept. 9 primary ballot. “That is all that we’ve been focused on,” she says. “It is not about name recognition. It is about getting out to communities, to the Democratic town councils, to the activists.”

Democrats are holding caucuses across the state, electing the Worcester-bound delegates and alternates looking for the person who will take on Republican Charlie Baker and two independents in the November election. By most accounts, State Treasurer Steve Grossman has the delegate lead, with Attorney General Martha Coakley and Kayyem behind him. Bringing up the rear: former health care executives Donald Berwick and Joe Avellone.

But many delegates remain undecided. “That means the party is open for another voice,” Kayyem contends.

Her campaign says she did well in the Natick and Brockton caucuses, two different groups of Democrats. Organizers who were once with state Sen. Dan Wolf – a candidate who had to drop out of the race after the Ethics Commission red-flagged his ownership of an airline – are helping her on the Cape. She won Boston’s Ward 19, which includes the hyper-liberal Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Out of 24 potential delegates, they won 13, Berwick picked up 3, and Grossman took 1. The other 7 were uncommitted.

“Tactically, it’s not rocket science,” Kayyem says. “If I’m on the ballot, I represent a new generation of leadership. I am getting people excited about the race, I have state and federal executive skills that are different than everyone else, and I have ideas about my vision for the state, but also things that have to be fixed.”

That includes the state’s criminal justice system. “We’re so bad as a state,” she says. “It is a system that is so unforgiving, and is often not working, because of our 50, 60 percent recidivism [rate].”

She would push for decrease in incarcerations of nonviolent offenders and increase funding for education and job training programs for former inmates.

Asked whether she supports the three-strikes bill Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law, Kayyem said, “I think given the balance of good issues and good policies in that law, with the compromise he had to make, I guess I would’ve signed it. I’m opposed to mandatory – I think there’s too many mandatory minimums, three strikes.”

Kayyem worked on homeland security issues for both Patrick and President Obama before taking a job as a Globe OpEd page columnist, opining on national and foreign affairs. She left that job to run for governor. Appearing on last week’s “Talk of the Neighborhoods” show with Boston Neighborhood News host Joe Heisler, a confident Kayyem said, “I don’t do suicide missions or ego trips.”

The night before her lunch with the Reporter, Kayyem didn’t have dinner, so along with her BLT, she orders onion rings for the table. She and her husband, David Barron, had a “date night,” slipping out to a bar in Cambridge for some finger food, but now she’s starving. She notes, as an aside, that Obama has nominated Barron for a seat on the First Circuit Court of Appeal, and as a result, he is legally prohibited from helping out with the campaign.

“He’s home. He has become this amazing chef over the course of six months.” His presence at home has also helped in the managing of their three children. In addition, her mother and father have moved to Massachusetts from California to add some stability to the home life and help out with the caucuses.

At this point in the 2006 race for governor, Patrick, then a little-known Clinton Justice Department official, was already on the road to victory, with a serious advantage in delegates over then-Attorney General Tom Reilly. “No one should make any assumptions about this race,” Kayyem says. “I mean, I think there’s safe ones. She has high name recognition, he has a lot of money” – a reference to Coakley and Grossman, respectively – “but the undecideds prove that there should be no assumptions about this race or what the party wants.”

Every race is different, Kayyem says. “There’s two big names in the race,” she said, again referring to Grossman and Coakley. “[George W.] Bush is not president. [Mitt] Romney is not governor. Every race is different, and I’m a different candidate.”

Everyone wants to compare her to someone else, she says, with a mix of humor and frustration. “Am I the breakout candidate? Am I the next Deval Patrick? Am I the next Elizabeth Warren? I’m like, ‘those are really high standards.’ I want my 15 percent.”

Dang drops out of race for Walsh seat

Tony Dang, a write-in candidate for Marty Walsh’s former House seat, said this week he is quitting the race. The Vietnamese American activist, who works as an MBTA policeman and had volunteered on Walsh’s mayoral campaign, did not rule out running again in the fall.
Dang was forced to mount his brief write-in campaign when it became apparent that he had not enrolled as a Democrat in time for the race. He was originally unenrolled, a designation many Massachusetts voters choose.

Five Democrats are on the ballot: Liam Curran, Gene Gorman, Dan Hunt, PJ McCann and John O’Toole.

“I haven’t decided who I’m going to endorse or [if] I’m going to endorse anyone,” Dang said, adding, “Now it is clear to me after getting to know the candidates that they will be a better representative for the district than I can be.” But he said he could possibly run in the fall, when the winner of the special election will be up for the full two-year term. “I hope that they will shine and win the trust of the people in this district and I hope they can prove me wrong, that I don’t need to run,” Dang said.

The special election primary is March 4; the final vote will take place on April 1.

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