On the periphery of the main event were the usual fringe features. Tables of souvenirs: donkey ties, Clinton buttons, "Kiss Me, I'm a Democrat." There were special interest booths promoting platform accountability and individual pols. There were Lyndon LaRouche representatives.
But the biggest side issue at last week's state Democratic Party's "Issues" Convention was the new front that had opened for embattled University of Massachusetts President William Bulger, also the former president of the state Senate.
Tom Reilly, the most visible Democrat thus far to urge Bulger to yield his UMass post, was met with boos when introduced to the crowd in Lowell's Tsongas Arena. Bulger, who did not appear, had both supporters and detractors in the crowd.
And, while the feud between the two and the fate of the South Boston politician provided the intrigue for the day, the substantive issues of the day curried more weight with the delegates, who heard speeches, met in issue workskops, and voted on the platform of the state party.
"Everyone's asking about [the Bulger issue]," said Ed Geary, Jr., a delegate from Dorchester's Ward 13, who launched a challenge to state Rep. Martin Walsh in last year's primary. "But it's not really a distraction. I'm more concerned about Reilly trying to get the press than Bulger. If there is some kind of evidence that could prove something, then let's get it out there. If not "
James W. Hunt, Jr., chairman of Dorchester's Ward 16 and president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, called the convention "pretty subdued," and found more pro-Bulger delegates than Reilly delegates.
"In our delegation, particularly, there was a lot of support being expressed for the UMass president," said Hunt,
The other cause celebre of the event was the presidential candidacy of John Kerry, which received throaty support from his home state. Kerry banners plastered the arena's balcony façade, and his speech received several ovations from the crowd.
Ralph Cooper, a staunch Kerry supporter and executive director of the Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse, called the building "a sea of John Kerry." Lurking, too, were Howard Dean supporters and Cooper said he was "totally shocked" to see the Vermont governor's labcoat-wearing supporters challenge the Kerry contingent, but relieved by their evident retreat.
Cooper called Kerry's appearance a success, saying, "Every time this man comes out publicly, he gets better. All those charges of being aloof and stiff are melting away."
Other local Democrats were more concerned with bread-and-butter issues than big names and media hoopla.
City Councillor-at-Large Felix Arroyo said that if the Reilly-Bulger battle was a distraction, it was "a distraction from the real issues that affect our communities in general," listing budget cuts that slash at health care and education funding.
Dorchester City Councillor Charles Yancey called for increased focus on "routine Democratic issues that we need to commit ourselves to," such as health care and affordable housing.
Yancey was approached briefly by his opponent in September's Council election, Ego Ezedi. The two shook hands, but Yancey's greeting was frosty, hinting at bad blood created by Ezedi's challenge of the 20-year incumbent.
Comedian Jimmy Tingle added some levity to the slow-moving proceedings, skewering President George W. Bush, Governor Mitt Romney, and a host of other Republicans with humorous barbs. Tingle, spoofing on Bush's push for faith-based programs, said, "I pray for Connie, God; I pray for Rummy, God; I pray for John Ashcroft, God, he's probably listening," a line that drew big laughs.
When the convention did get down to brass tacks, voting on the party's charter, delegates voted by a roughly 60-40 margin to create a "report card" that would hold Democratic legislators "accountable" to the party platform. While both sides of the issue were argued forcefully, the measure's progressive advocates gathered 1,000 signatures from the more than 2,000 delegates who attended, and seek to use the report card to judge the adherence of legislators to the party platform on 10 key votes.
Dorchester State Rep. Martin Walsh called the new wrinkle "absolutely ricidulous" and "a flaw in the party."
"Who decides who's going to score us on those issues?" Walsh asked. "I think the party is taking steps backward rather than forward."
Hunt said that the convention was more productive than last year's, noting that his ward was among many to question state party Chairman Philip Johnston's leadership.
"It appeared to me that the logistics and operations were run much more smoothly this year," Hunt told the Reporter on Monday, qualifying his statement by allowing that this year's convention was more sparsely attended than last year's Worcester event.