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Attacks in Governor's Race Getting Personal

Massachusetts contest is heated, nasty and too close to call. The state also has a reputation as being a springboard for presidential hopefuls.

October 24, 2002|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- From one perspective, it is a battle between an experienced pro and a callow political neophyte. From another, it is a showdown pitting a fresh-minded outsider against a tired Beacon Hill hack.

Whichever, the Massachusetts governor's race between Democrat Shannon O'Brien, the insider, and Republican Mitt Romney, the outsider, is heated, nasty and too close to call. The spirited election has drawn national attention because of Massachusetts' reputation for spawning aspiring presidents.

"One of the ways to get into the national game is to become either governor or a U.S. senator from Massachusetts," said political analyst Lou Di Natale of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "Just look over the last 40 years. We've had Jack Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Bill Weld, Paul Tsongas -- and now John Kerry."

Entering the final days of campaigning, Romney and O'Brien have engaged in personal attacks after pledging to avoid them. Rather than emphasize a host of substantive issues, both sides have focused on competing portrayals of themselves. This venom could carry over into a debate tonight between Romney, O'Brien and three minor-party candidates -- all women.

Romney -- former chief of Bain Capital and this year's Salt Lake City Olympics -- spent much of this week attacking O'Brien's husband, contending that lobbyist Robert Emmet Hayes collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from projects overseen by O'Brien, the state treasurer.

"I think it is absolutely clear that it is wrong for the treasurer of the commonwealth to have her husband working as a lobbyist at the same time," Romney said at one of dozens of appearances. "It may not be illegal, but it is wrong."

O'Brien retaliated by calling her opponent "Tricky Mitt," a nickname echoing the bad old days of fellow Republican Richard Nixon, and by blasting a new series of television attack ads.

"Let me be quite clear," she said. "We should not be bringing spouses into this race.... We should be talking about which candidate will do the most for working families."

She also accused Romney of reaping profits from what she suggested were dubious venture capital deals, calling on him to disclose more about his finances.

Friends of O'Brien, 43, say that even in grammar school it was clear she would follow in the footsteps of four generations of Democratic politicos. As the oldest of five children, she set her sights on attending Yale well before her father's alma mater began admitting women. She was 19 when her Yale roommates started asking when she planned to run for governor.

After graduating from Boston University Law School in 1985, she ran for state representative from western Massachusetts, squeaking into office in 1986 over three more experienced candidates. She won in part because she was a tireless campaigner, but also because so many people in the area knew her from years of tagging along with her father.

The strong paternal influence gives O'Brien an ironic bond with Romney, whose late father, George, was governor of Michigan and an unsuccessful GOP candidate for president. Ed O'Brien, Shannon's father, was elected in 1970 to the governor's council, a position dating from Colonial times that involves approving gubernatorial decisions. Besides time off for a failed run for Congress in 1976, he has held the job ever since.

O'Brien lost one election: in 1994. It was her first bid for the position she now holds. Running again four years later, she won.

The candidates share ground here too. Romney, who settled outside Boston when he attended Harvard Business School more than 30 years ago, leaped into politics here in 1994 by challenging the Democratic party's war horse, Edward M. Kennedy, for the U.S. Senate. Romney lost, but the high-profile bid established him as an ambitious asset to the state GOP.

Romney returned from his triumphant role as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and immediately cast his gaze toward the governor's office, occupied the last 12 years by Republicans. Party leaders told acting Gov. Jane Swift -- a Republican who rose through state ranks -- that she would have to make way.

After braving a Democratic challenge to his residency based on taxes filed for several years in Utah, Romney depicted O'Brien as an insider beholden to a crumbling statehouse establishment.

The 55-year-old venture capitalist also said repeatedly that O'Brien lacked the kind of business experience needed to bolster the state's sagging economy. "It is increasingly clear that this is a campaign about who has the most experience in the private sector," he said this week while touring a Cambridge high-tech company. "This is about who can speak with enterprise around the state and around the world."

Romney, hammering O'Brien's lobbyist husband, vowed this week, if elected, to immediately establish a policy barring the appointment of Cabinet officers or senior staff members who have family members who are lobbyists.

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