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What is the Matrix…uh, Establishment?…

Opponents of Vietnam War at the Pentagon (wikipedia)
The answer to what the “establishment” is has never been clear, but use of the term “establishment” has escalated since it was used as a generic stand-in for the enemies of 60’s radicals.  Today, in political spheres, the term implicitly refers to the power brokers of a party or region, party elders, or special interest groups.  No candidate wants to be affiliated with the establishment or at least be described as such in public.  Still, the malleability of the term suggests that when the media or even other candidates use it to describe another candidate, greater care needs to be taken.

Today in Boston, Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor and consumer advocate who set up the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau at President Barack Obama’s request, spoke to the Greater Boston Labor Council at their annual breakfast.  Her speech was seen as further, if not explicit evidence that Warren is on the verge of joining the race officially.  There was some minor griping by Bob Massie, the one-time candidate for lieutenant governor and liberal activist, that other candidates were not given a chance to address the group.  Others like Alan Khazei, who can be defined as the candidate with the best fund raising record, welcomed Elizabeth Warren to the race, but indicated he would contrast himself her status as the favored pick of Washington and Massachusetts “establishment” Democrats, as the Boston Globe phrased.  But is that description fair?

Elizabeth Warren (Facebook)

The way that Democrats in the nominating race are likely to paint Warren in a bad light by linking her to the establishment consists of two components.  First of all, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray rocked the boat of the implicitly non-establishment Massachusetts Democratic establishment by announcing a new candidate would emerge “in a few weeks.”  It has been months.  Murray, who is tasked with holding the US Senate for the Democrats, has been accused of issuing pronouncements to the insult of the Bay State’s grassroots.  At the time, Massachusetts Democratic Party chief John Walsh was supportive of the candidate field at the time.  More recently, he has appeared to encourage Warren’s entry into the race.  Many other Democrats in Washington and in Massachusetts have followed suit.

The other component of the attack will be stirring up the argument that Martha Coakley, too, was the “establishment” candidate and that bore no fruit.  Notably, Coakely announced her intention to run at the same breakfast two years ago that Warren spoke at today.

However, the second part of the attack runs aground the facts.  Coakley, was not, actually, widely pushed by the establishment.  She received substantial backing from state and national party folks, but there was a definite split within the party.  Many Congressman who serve with Rep. Mike Capuano, including Richard Neal, supported their colleague over the popular Attorney General.  Many liberals broke from the centrist Coakley and voted for Khazei, who also ran in 2009.  The splits were deep enough that it became one of a number of secondary contributing factors to Coakely later loss to Scott Brown.

AG Coakley (wikipedia)

To assign Warren, who has never run for elective office, to the establishment also oversimplifies what it means to be “establishment.”  Coakley, like the last “establishment” candidate to fail statewide, Tom Reilly, came up from the Middlesex District Attorney’s office and took her old boss’s job when the former Springfield resident ran for governor. 

Similar processes can play out locally.  Former Senator Stephen Buoniconti served on West Springfield town government before being elected State Rep in 2000 and then Senator in 2004.  State Senator Jim Welch has followed a similar path to Buoniconti.  While it is too early to know if Welch otherwise fits the “establishment” dimension, Buoniconti almost certainly did.  Buoniconti’s ultimately hoped his own establishment status would propel him to District Attorney of Hampden County.  However, a week out from the election, it was patently clear to the establishment and the establishment Democratic party that Buoniconti was foundering and kept him from speaking at a party rally in Springfield.

This line of attack also does not illuminate what an establishment person is or is not.  Any one of the declared Senate candidates could gain the imprimatur of “establishment” if endorsed at next year’s state party convention ahead of the September primary.  Even without that, many candidates could and will be so pigeonholed.  Setti Warren has worked for John Kerry and Bill Clinton.  Alan Khazei has run massive charities popular with liberal activists and can owe his fund raising prowess to his connections.  Even Bob Massie could face that attack, however laughable, because he was once nominated by the Democratic party for statewide office. 

Sen. Brown (WMassP&I)

The point is that any of them could face that establishment charge once the general election begins in earnest, perhaps with varying degrees of credibility.  That line of attack will seem bizarre coming from Scott Brown, however, as he has quickly become the poster child of the Massachusetts business establishment gleaning support from–and returning favors to–the commonwealth’s monumental financial services sector.

If anything, Elizabeth Warren would have as much to refute the “establishment” charge, if not more, as there is to sustain it.  Warren’s efforts to prune the weeded overgrowth of power possessed by banks and financial institutions has not won her many friends on K Street, the epicenter of lobbyist activity in Washington, D.C.  As a consumer advocate and defender of the middle class, it may be difficult to lay “establishment” at her feet, since that label usually suggests an indifference to the trials of the middle class.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)

It is also worth asking whether “establishment” credentials mean anything bad.  In Springfield we can find some examples.  Ward 2 Council Mike Fenton clashed with Thomas Sullivan in 2009 for the seat he now holds.  Both young men had significant ties to past and present officials and politicians in the Springfield area and ultimately Fenton came out on top.  However, Fenton has been a consistent thorn in the side of Mayor Domenic Sarno, whose own election in 2007 has been described as the return of the political establishment.  Notably, Fenton’s support for the recently passed foreclosure ordinances, which the real estate community in the city have grumbled over, predates the arrival of Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera, who later became lead sponsor.  Yet Fenton remains well-connected and respected by many both inside and out of the city’s political establishment, even earning a prominent speaking role at the above mentioned Democratic rally last year.

Certainly many establishment figures in Springfield, on Beacon Hill and in Washington have done many, terrible things to the detriment of the city, commonwealth and nation.  However, the description is terribly subjective and, too often, misleading.  Back in the 1960’s, the establishment was virtually anybody in government either as an elected official or as a civil servant–plus the occasional squares. 

Not that the term had much value back in the 60‘s, but it has, in its present incarnation and absent any context become another hollow political term like transparency and accountability.  If there is one continuity between the 1960’s version of establishment and the modern one, it is that the term can still be applied quite broadly.

Gov. Deval Patrick (WMassP&I)

We have described many of those who steadfastly opposed any involvement from party Illuminati in Washington as organics.  Gov. Deval Patrick described a desire for a seemingly organic process in the Senate race.  It is possible to approve of that process without determining that the Democratic field may need some stirring up. 

Nobody is crowning Elizabeth Warren the nominee.  She will need to earn it the same way as any other candidate and, unlike Martha Coakley, will not have the advantage of a compressed time line to win the nomination through shock and awe.  However, her desire to meet in small groups on the outset and her populist credentials undercut the image of her being solely savior being parachuted into the race.  If any in the “establishment” want her to win, it is because they feel, she may succeed, where they have failed, that is fight for the middle class…and mean it and win.