(Host) In a special series today and over the next two weeks, Vermont Public Radio reports on the “home-state records” of the Democratic presidential candidates. The profiles of the candidates in their home states have been prepared for VPR by public radio station reporters around the country.
In part one, Susan Kaplan from public radio station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, reports that Bay Staters do not hear a central theme in Senator John Kerry’s campaign.
(Montage of Massachusetts voters)
“I would say that I’ve been very happy with him as a senator.” “I think it’s the Gore syndrome. There’s this dynamic piece that’s missing…”
“I wish he’d stop saying so much about his war days…”
“I would love to see a president from Massachusetts.”
(Paul Robbins) “Depending on who you ask, John Kerry is something different to a lot of the people that follow him.”
(Kaplan) Paul Robbins, a political consultant who worked on Michael Dukakis’s campaign – the last presidential candidate from Massachusetts – says John Kerry suffers from an image problem.
(Robbins) “There’s not a monolithic ‘who John Kerry is’ in Massachusetts, as there might be for Howard Dean or somebody else from the state they come from. To some people, John Kerry has been a kind of professional politician that has always been striving to go to the next office. Some people would describe him as an opportunist. On the other hand he’s very passionate about public service.”
(Kaplan) Political ambition for John Kerry, at 60, is nothing new. His father was a diplomat, his mother was related to one of the founding families of Massachusetts. Kerry describes his parents as caring but distant. He was sent to boarding school when he was 14. There, at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., he shot up in height and he developed a passion for debating and politics. He graduated from Yale in 1966 and enlisted in the Navy. Three purple hearts and a bronze and silver medal later he returned to become a leader in the anti-war movement.
In 1972, bolstered by national exposure from his work at the helm of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he ran for Congress and lost. Paul Robbins says early defeats can stick with a politician.
(Robbins) “He lost at the beginning. You know, when you lose at the beginning of your career – which about half the people do – and go on, you don’t ever lose that. And I’ve worked with people who’ve lost and then won, and they run scared in their lives. It creates some sense of caution politically in them.”
(Kaplan) Of course, Kerry hasn’t lost since then. After the congressional defeat he went to law school at Boston College, became a prosecutor and later opened up a private law practice. In 1982 he ran for and won an election for lieutenant governor, joining Michael Dukakis on Beacon Hill.
Just a few years later, in 1984, when Sen. Paul Tsongas announced he wasn’t seeking re-election, Kerry stepped in. Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal, also a Democrat, says it was in the next campaign, when then-Governor William Weld ran against Kerry, that the senator fine-tuned his campaign skills particularly during debates.
(Neal) “I think that anyone that watched him perform against Bill Weld – who is as good a candidate as Massachusetts has produced – would come to grips quickly with the fact that John Kerry is one tough customer.”
(Kaplan) Following his defeat of Weld, Kerry thanked voters for what they taught him.
(Kerry, from speech after 1996 election) “I heard your voices over the course of this campaign and I want you to know that I learned from all of you. In fact, I think it is fair to say that I learned more in this campaign about you, about politics and about myself, than I have learned in any run that I have ever made.”
(Kaplan) And many Massachusetts voters say John Kerry is a good senator, even though they may be hard-pressed to list his accomplishments. While he’s led the charge on several major investigations on money laundering, and the Nicaraguan Contras and has been the lead sponsor of legislation supporting marine research and women in small business, his signature is not carved on a lot of legislation. Still, Congressman Neal says Kerry’s accomplishments in the Senate may be under- appreciated but they shouldn’t be underestimated.
(Neal) “On domestic issues he’s been a great champion of Medicare and Social Security, and I also think that John Kerry has been a very steady voice on international issues for as long as I can recall.”
(Kaplan) Kerry, now in the most intense fight of his political career, wants to change the way people think of him. It may be an uphill battle for a man not entirely comfortable with patting people on the back. But he has proven before, on and off the battlefield, that he’s a fighter.
For the Home-State Record Project, I’m Susan Kaplan.
(Host) The Home-State Record Project on the Democratic presidential candidates is a production of Vermont Public Radio. On Tuesday in our series: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.