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Mr. High-Touch

Can Steve Grossman persuade voters that he’s more than a party insider or a fundraising machine?

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In the days following the freak tornado that hit Springfield on June 1, 2011, politicians from around the state flocked to the city. They met with municipal officials, toured devastated neighborhoods and, to a person, vowed to help Springfield recover from the damage.

Whether each of those visiting politicians was motivated by a sincere desire to help the city or by the presence of so many news cameras is subject to debate. But for Springfield City Councilor Kateri Walsh, one visitor in particular made a deep impression: state treasurer Steve Grossman.

Grossman, who chairs the state School Building Authority, promised to do all he could to help repair two Springfield elementary schools, Elias Brookings and Dryden Memorial, that were badly damaged by the tornado. Last month, Grossman was back in the city to announce that the SBA would cover 100 percent of the school repair costs not covered by FEMA (normally, SBA reimbursement is capped at 80 percent). Dryden has already undergone a $15.2 million renovation. A new, $27.9 million Brookings is now being built and is expected to be completed in about a year.

The SBA’s commitment to the Springfield projects won the treasurer many fans in the city. But to Walsh, what was impressive was not just that Grossman came through with the money but the genuine, personal interest she believes he’s shown in Springfield. In the aftermath of the tornado, she said, he was on the ground with a team of staffers ready to offer concrete assistance. When he visits schools that have benefited from SBA funding—like Forest Park Middle School, which last fall re-opened after a $43.4 million renovation, 90 percent of it covered by the state—he doesn’t rush off after the photo op but lingers to visit classrooms and talk with students and staff, Walsh said.

“He’s very sincere about that,” she said. “When he comes to a school and does things like that, he makes people feel good, and they feel good about Springfield.”

Those sorts of personal connections will be crucial for Grossman in the coming months, as he competes in the crowded field of Democrats seeking the party’s gubernatorial nomination. Although relatively new to public office—the treasurer’s position, which he won in 2010, is the first he’s held—the 67-year-old Grossman is far from a political newcomer. A long-time party activist, he’s chaired both the Massachusetts Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee and has been a formidable political fundraiser over the years. But while that mostly behind-the-scenes work has earned him the loyalty of many key political insiders, it hasn’t necessarily translated into the sort of name recognition enjoyed by other candidates—specifically, Grossman’s presumed chief rival for the nomination, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Grossman’s well-honed political skills will, of course, be crucial to his campaign. But he also needs to persuade voters that he’s more than a party insider or a fundraising machine—labels that have limited appeal among the electorate. Instead, as he travels the campaign trail, Grossman is employing what he calls a “high-touch” approach, meeting voters and working to convince them that his background as a progressive business owner leaves him well suited to promoting a healthy economy in which “no one is left out and no one left behind.”

Invoking a quote from the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, who once wrote “You cannot redistribute wealth that is never created,” Grossman told the Advocate about his vision for an economy that’s both thriving and just. “To create wealth and economic opportunity is something we should celebrate, as long as it’s broadly shared and as long as those who are willing to work hard, play by whatever the rules are, are able to benefit and to share,” he said. “Income inequality has become a devastating fact in the lives of too many people.”

 

That no-one-left-behind theme has been front and center in Grossman’s campaign from the moment he formally announced his candidacy last summer at the Democrats’ annual convention in Lowell.

In a speech before 3,000 party faithful, Grossman focused on his commitment to passing an earned sick time law, which would guarantee workers paid time off when they’re ill or need to care for a family member. (A bill now pending at the Statehouse would grant workers at least 40 hours of paid sick time a year; for employees at very small companies, the time off would be unpaid but would come with guaranteed job protection.)

“There are 975,000, almost a million people [in Massachusetts] who got up this morning who didn’t have any earned sick time—not one day, not one hour. They worry about losing their jobs if they stay home because they’re sick, so they come to work sick,” Grossman told the Advocate. “It’s morally wrong, and it’s economically unwise from almost every objective measure.”

To business owners who protest that providing the benefit would make their companies uncompetitive, Grossman points to the experience at his family’s business, Grossman Marketing Group. “I would submit as a business owner who’s had it in his company for decades and has built a great workforce because of the benefits, including earned sick time, that it is the right thing to do. … We treat [employees] with respect, what do we get in return? We get loyalty, flexibility, craftsmanship, productivity. We built a great company that’s profitable.”

Grossman’s business background is a key element of his campaign. A resident of Newton, he’s spent the bulk of his career working for the family business, which began in the early 20th century as an envelope company founded by his Russian immigrant grandfather and, over the years, has expanded its scope, eventually becoming the Grossman Marketing Group. Grossman joined the Somerville-based company in 1975, after earning an MBA at Harvard and serving in the military. He was the company’s president for 35 years before resigning in 2010 to run for treasurer but still retains about 50 percent ownership, according to the Boston Globe. Two of his sons succeeded him as co-presidents.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, a supporter, said he backs Grossman in part because of his background running a successful business while maintaining progressive values. (In addition to earned sick time, Grossman also supports an increase in the minimum wage. And his company, he said, is a longtime union shop that has never had a matter go to arbitration.)

“These are things he not only talks about, but he’s implemented them,” said Narkewicz. “I think he’s got a commitment to trying to promote economic growth and do it in a way that’s sustainable and doesn’t leave anybody behind.”

Grossman’s business experience, Narkewicz added, makes him the Democrat best suited to take on the presumed Republican nominee, Charlie Baker, whose resume includes time as a healthcare executive. “He’s been a CEO, he’s run a business, he’s created jobs, so he can certainly go toe to toe with Charlie Baker on that,” Narkewicz said.

But in other respects, Grossman’s business background could be a political liability. In December, the Boston Globe reported that some of his family company’s “high profile clients,” including the Bruins and Celtics, J.P. Morgan Chase and the law firm of Mintz Levin, “have lucrative financial relationships” with the Treasury or Lottery. The treasurer, according to the Globe, “was involved in the awarding of public contracts and gave lucrative financial and legal work to businesses and law firms that are substantial clients of his marketing company. Rarely did he recuse himself.”

State employees, by law, can have an ownership stake in a family business that has contracts with state government. In the article, a Treasury spokesman defended Grossman’s actions, noting that he has disclosed potential conflicts and sought guidance from the Ethics Commission on how to handle such situations.

But, Globe reporter Frank Phillips wrote, those relationships create “possible ethical conflicts. … There is no evidence [Grossman] has acted illegally. He can rightfully boast that he has been transparent and that his disclosures constitute compliance with state ethics laws. But now that he is running for governor, those business dealings will probably receive greater scrutiny.”

 

Grossman’s liberal credentials go beyond his support of a higher minimum wage and earned sick time. He’s pro-choice and pro-gun control and opposes the death penalty. A supporter of marriage equality, last year he joined three other former DNC chairs in calling on the national party to add a “freedom to marry” plank to its platform. (It did.)

Grossman also supports voting reforms such as same-day registration and early voting, which, he said, would help engage more people in the electoral process and address the low turnout rates seen in too many elections. (The state Senate and House recently passed bills that would allow same-day and online registration and early voting, among other reforms; a conference committee will now address differences between the two bills.)

Grossman called same-day registration a “common sense” measure. “Other states have adopted it, and we’ve seen the results. This isn’t just guesswork. This isn’t just speculation. [Those other states] have had significant increases in voter participation,” he said. “There are just any number of ways in which we can rethink the customer/citizen experience in voting and in participation, which is all about citizen empowerment, which is something that’s really driven me all my life in politics.”

For Grossman, politics has been as much the family business as manufacturing and marketing, going back to his grandfather’s work on John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald’s Boston mayoral campaign in 1910. Steve’s uncle Jerome Grossman, who died last year at the age of 96, was a well-known anti-war activist who wrote a memoir of his political career called Relentless Liberal.

Grossman says his first foray into politics came in 1960, when the then-14-year-old hung a JFK poster out his dorm window at Philips Exeter Academy—“until the teacher who ran the dormitory … banged on the door and told me to take the poster down,” he recalled. “Exeter, New Hampshire was definitely Nixon country in 1960, no doubt.” In 1968, while in business school, Grossman, along with his father, Edgar, and other family members, worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

But, in a story he’s told often over his political career, the “definitive experience” that hooked him on politics, Grossman said, came in 1970. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and Jerome Grossman was running the campaign of the Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest and peace activist who was challenging the local member of Congress, Philip Philbin, a fellow Democrat who supported the war.

Drinan wasn’t the only one challenging Philbin for the party’s nomination; John Kerry, who’d recently returned from Vietnam and become a war protestor, also wanted the nod. The two faced off at a caucus of liberal Democrats at Concord-Carlisle High School. “Hundreds and hundreds of people showed up to try to find a progressive candidate around whom to unify,” Grossman said. “It was a battle back and forth all day, speeches and all kinds of organizing. It was incredibly, incredibly energizing.”

As the day wore on, it became clear that Kerry didn’t have the votes to beat Drinan but did have enough support to deny the priest the caucus’ nomination. “There would have been no clear winner, there would have been no consensus candidate,” Grossman said. In the end, Kerry withdrew and backed Drinan, who went on to beat Philbin.

After the caucus, Grossman and his wife, Barbara, went out to dinner. “I looked across the table,” he recalls, “[and] I said, ‘Wow! If that’s what grassroots organizing is all about, the power of citizens to change the face of their communities, to elect a man who could help end the Vietnam War, who may very well serve as the conscience of the country, that’s something to which I’m going to devote a significant portion of the rest of my life.’”

 

Grossman was elected chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party in 1991, at a time when the organization was in desperate need of a turnaround. Democrats were still feeling battered by Gov. Mike Dukakis’ bruising loss in the 1988 presidential election to George H.W. Bush. In 1990, Dukakis opted against running for another term as governor, touching off an ugly intra-party battle that ended with the eventual Democratic nominee, John Silber, losing to Republican Bill Weld. (The Republicans also took the lieutenant governor’s and treasurer’s seats.) In the aftermath, the sitting chair, Chester Atkins, resigned, and Grossman decided to run for the position.

His candidacy met with some criticism after the Boston Herald reported that Grossman had made $5,000 in contributions to Republican Senate candidates over the previous five years. At the time, Grossman told the press that the donations were no more than “an occasional check to honor a request from a friend” to contribute to senators who’d shown strong support for Israel, a cause that he’s long been involved in. Those donations, Grossman added, paled in comparison to the fundraising he’d done for Democrats over the years.

Ultimately, the controversy did not derail Grossman’s bid to lead the state party. “We had lost the governorship; we had lost the lieutenant governorship. ... I went all over the state, and we built this winning hand. We had a great election in ’92, and I loved doing it,” he said of his time leading the organization.

Not long after, Grossman left the state party and became president and then chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which describes itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” He stayed with AIPAC until 1997 when, with the backing of Bill Clinton, he assumed the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. His tenure there was short—he stepped down in 1999 to be closer to his family, including his ailing father, he said—but successful: Grossman is credited with engineering a strong mid-term election for the party in 1998, with Democrats scoring some key upsets over Republicans and stymieing GOP hopes to expand its majorities in Congress in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal as well as Democratic fundraising scandals.

In 2002, Grossman made his first run for public office, as a candidate for governor. As it is this year, the field was crowded, thanks to a decision by the incumbent not to seek re-election. (In that case, the incumbent, acting Gov. Jane Swift, was prodded to her decision by GOP operatives eager to instead advance Mitt Romney, who was newly returned to Massachusetts from a successful stint leading the Salt Lake City Olympics.) Grossman left the race before Election Day, when, he said, polling showed he couldn’t win. In the end, Treasurer Shannon O’Brien won the Democratic nomination, then lost to Romney in the general election.

“I dropped out of the race, went back to business, went back to philanthropic activities, and always stayed involved politically,” Grossman said. In 2010, he ran for and won the state treasurer seat, defeating Republican Karyn Polito, who this year is Baker’s lieutenant-governor running mate.

 

Treasurer might not be the highest-profile or most glamorous position in state government, but it’s an important one. “You’re running the financial affairs of the commonwealth,” Grossman said, explaining why he was drawn to the job. “You’re running major pieces of the commonwealth’s enterprises: the Lottery, the Mass. Water Pollution Abatement Trust, the state pension funds, the retirement system, unclaimed property and other things as well.”

As treasurer, Grossman said, he’s “revolutionized” hiring practices within the department to make it more diverse, instituted an “open checkbook” system that puts state spending information online, and overseen the raising of record levels of local aid through the Lottery.

He speaks with particular pride about the launching, during his tenure, of the Small Business Banking Partnership, which deposits state funds in Massachusetts community banks that commit to lending money to small businesses, with priority given to those owned by women, minorities and veterans. So far, according to his office, the program has resulted in $870 million in loans. The program, he noted, helps both small businesses and the regional banks and credit unions “that really helped stabilize the economy” when big national banks slashed their lending during the recession.

As governor, Grossman said, he could do even more: “As treasurer, I’ve got some tools in my tool box, and I’m trying to use every tool I have to have an impact. The governor has a really big tool box with a lot of power tools.”

A centerpiece of Grossman’s platform is a commitment to creating 50,000 new manufacturing jobs over five years—a key, he said, to providing economic stability for middle-class families. “This is not my grandfather’s manufacturing, in an old envelope factory with glue and ink flying all over the place, and dust and noise,” he said. “This is clean room precision manufacturing.”

With more companies returning advanced precision manufacturing jobs to the U.S., Grossman said, communities with a history of manufacturing (and a present-day problem of high unemployment) like Springfield, Holyoke and Pittsfield should be poised to receive them. To help that effort, he calls for partnerships among businesses, labor groups, regional employment boards and schools to help ensure that students are graduating with the skills employers need. He also calls for continued investment in vocational and technical schools around the state, such as Springfield’s Putnam and Holyoke’s Dean high schools—both of which, he took care to note, have received recent upgrades with funding from the School Building Authority. (Grossman also advocates for upgrading technology in all schools across the state, to make them “digital-learning ready” by 2016.)

So, too, does Grossman see opportunities in “clean technology and green technology,” a fast-growing field that, if it keeps expanding at its current rate, could employ 150,000 people in Massachusetts within six years, he said. It’s a field, he added, that seems particularly well suited for the western counties: “I don’t know of a part of the state that’s more committed to reducing the carbon footprint than the people of Western Massachusetts.”

 

To become governor, Grossman first has to get past four other Democratic hopefuls: Coakley; Juliette Kayyem, a former Homeland Security official; Donald Berwick, one-time administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; and Joseph Avellone, a former Wellesley selectman. (On the Republican side, Baker is competing with Mark Fisher, a small business owner and Tea Party member. Several independent candidates have also announced campaigns: health company executive Evan Falchuk, venture capitalist Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively, an evangelical minister from Springfield.)

Early polling suggests that, among Democrats, Coakley is the one to beat. In a Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll released last week, Coakley was the only Democrat to beat Baker in a one-on-one match-up, 44 percent to 31 percent—a finding that echoes several earlier polls. In a Grossman/Baker scenario, respondents favored the Republican 33 to 28 percent. (That was not the case in an October poll by Western New England University, in which Grossman beat Baker by 43 to 30 percent. Coakley, however, had the stronger showing in that poll, leading Baker 54 to 34 percent. Grossman does appear to be inching up on Baker; in a January WBUR poll, Baker also bested the treasurer, but by a wider margin: 33 to 23 percent.)

The Suffolk/Herald poll, like earlier ones, also showed that Coakley has much higher name recognition than Grossman: only 3.67 percent of respondents to the most recent poll had never heard of her, while 36 percent had never heard of him. (That, however, is an improvement for Grossman over earlier polls as well.) Twenty-two percent had never heard of Baker.

Interestingly, while Coakley had a higher favorability rating than Grossman in the Suffolk/Herald poll—53.67 percent versus 24.67 percent—she also had a higher unfavorable score: 28.67 percent versus Grossman’s 10.17 percent. Some of those bad feelings about Coakley no doubt spring from lingering soreness among Democrats over her failed 2010 candidacy for Senate, which resulted in the seemingly unthinkable: Ted Kennedy’s seat going to a Republican, Scott Brown. But in her favor, Coakley’s position as attorney general gives her a visibility boost, and her work in support of issues like marriage equality, abortion access and relief for foreclosed homeowners appeals to many Democrats and left-leaning voters.

The Treasurer’s office doesn’t offer the same opportunities to snag the public spotlight; while municipal officials might appreciate the school building funding their communities receive, for example, do their constituents associate the new schools with Grossman? (Voters are perhaps more likely to connect, and connect favorably, the treasurer with programs like the Lottery, which in fiscal 2012 generated $840 million in local aid, and the Unclaimed Property Division, which reunites happy residents with old bank accounts and insurance credits they’d long ago forgotten about.)

One major reason Grossman supporters aren’t losing sleep over the early polls: he far surpasses his rivals in fundraising. His most recent campaign finance report, which covered the period through the end of January, shows him with a war chest of $1,046,300; the next richest Democrat, Coakley, had less than half that, at $494,328. (Coakley’s fundraising, however, is coming on strong; she raised about $493,000 in December and January alone.) Baker’s campaign has $562,808.

Will Grossman’s money make the difference? As more than one political activist pointed out to the Advocate, Grossman and Coakley are in agreement on major issues like the minimum wage, paid sick time, marriage equality and reproductive rights. Can Grossman, then, set himself apart in a way that would overcome Coakley’s higher visibility?

Yes, the candidate—not surprisingly—responded. “There’s no doubt she’s the frontrunner and she has higher name recognition,” Grossman said. But, he added, he brings to the table the experience to address the state’s pressing needs—“our economic future; economic security, or economic insecurity; the creation of jobs, good jobs; how to keep our 18- to 35-year-olds living here, working here, playing here and staying here because they have an economic future they can believe in. I’ve spent my life in business and politics and philanthropy and now, as state treasurer, am doing exactly that: creating opportunity, creating jobs, using public policy to advance economy security broadly and fairly.”•

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Excellent article! I have a clear picture of how Steve Grossman has prepared himself to be our next governor. He has all the right qualifications and job experience to lead the state. Thanks for the insightful coverage.

Posted by David O'Reilly on 2.19.14 at 9:32
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