Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Flanagan kicks off her campaign in style

Last night, I attended the official kickoff for State Rep. Jennifer Flanagan’s campaign for state senate. (News coverage is here and here.)

Flanagan’s event last night was very much a corporate affair. The event was held at the Sheraton Conference Center in Leominster, which has the only real business-class meeting facilities in the North County. Most of the men were in jackets and/or ties and many of the women were in business attire as well. The cash bar was open and the waitresses were circulating with toasted raviolis and stuffed mushrooms and all of the other standard hors d’oeuvres you’d find at a wedding reception or a business meet-and-greet. There were a number of important political figures there to lend support, including members of the Leominster city council, Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, retiring Senator Bob Antonioni, District Attorney Joe Early, Jr., and other elected officials.

Like any stereotypical political event, the candidate was preceded to the microphone by the aforementioned dignitaries. Mayor Wong spoke for a couple of minutes, noting that she knew of Flanagan and her work for the district long before she had met the Representative. The District Attorney told the crowd of Flanagan’s tenacity in working the state house to increase funding for his office so that he could hire more prosecutors. Senator Antonioni praised Flanagan for her hard work for the district and expressed confidence in her ability to continue his work for the constituents.

For her part, Flanagan seems a little uncomfortable with the praise and adulation. While a little shyness and humility can be endearing, it can also serve to dilute and discount the impact of the praise. For instance, when she took to the podium, Flanagan thanked the speakers and then gave a little more background on the stories Early and Antonioni shared. Early had mentioned that Flanagan wrote his budget request on a “pink sticky” that she then carried with her to meetings with the DA the house speaker. In Flanagan’s comments, she mentioned that the reason she had a pink sticky was because Early had called late in the morning and that’s all she had to write on. That served to make her look a little less heroic and dampen the impact of Early’s testimony.

Similarly, Flanagan recounted the call she received from Antonioni when he let her know he was retiring. She recounted that he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “This is your chance, you’re running for senate.” That discussion was probably held in the context of discussions Antonioni and Flanagan had held over a long period of time where the two had discussed their plans for the future, but the way the story was related it sounded as if Antonioni had told Flanagan what to do. Again, in an effort to be self-deprecating Flanagan had undermined herself.

(As a piece of unsolicited advice, I’d suggest Flanagan retire that anecdote, or at least stash it away when she comes to Sterling and Lancaster. At our combined Democratic Town Committee last month, the Sterling and Lancaster delegations were not entirely thrilled with Antonioni’s record in relation to the towns, to the point where a member from Lancaster suggested that Flanagan had done more for the town—despite not representing it in the house—than Antonioni had as Lancaster’s senator.)

But once Jenn got the niceties out of the way, she made a passionate and effective plea for support. She recounted discussions she had with house colleagues who tried to talk her out of leaving her house seat for a run at the senate. They told her that she had it easy in the house as one of the few members whose district included just one city, and that she was crazy to give up her seats since she had already ascended to the vice-chairmanship of a house committee in just her second term. Flanagan said that she understood what she was giving up, but that she believed that she had more to offer the region, and that she saw an opportunity to be an advocate for 110,000 more citizens than she currently represents in Leominster.

She mentioned her ties to other towns in the district, specifically mentioning that her family was originally from Sterling and that Flanagan Hill Road is named after her family. She had recounted that story when she spoke to the Democratic Town Committee last month and I wondered if it was just a little pandering, but last night’s crown was definitely a Leominster crowd—I think there may have been just two of us from Sterling—and she left it in.

I was fascinated at how different Flanagan’s kickoff event was when compared to the announcement tour staged by her opponent, Brian Knuuttila. As I recounted last month, Knuuttila’s event in Clinton was held on the steps of town hall on a dank, dreary afternoon in front of a crowd of about 20, with as many or more out-of-town supporters as Clintonians. He spoke for about 15 minutes and then took questions from a couple people in the audience. After the crowd broke up, Knuuttila and a local newspaperman and I chatted for quite a while before the candidate had to pack up. It very much had the feel of an old-time grass-roots campaign. That impression was further solidified last week when Brian was standing alone in front of the Chocksett School last Monday, greeting Sterlingites who were headed in to Town Meeting. In contrast, Flanagan’s event had all the trappings of incumbency.

One of the reasons I decided to attend Flanagan’s event was the opportunity to meet some people and network a little bit. When I worked as a college basketball coach I had a reputation of being somewhat of a schmoozer, but that quality was based on being in a position of power. It’s easy to work a room or visit with a recruit’s family when you are offering something that someone else wants (admission to college, a spot on the team, a scholarship, etc.). But I find that I have a hard time “schmoozing up.” It’s difficult for me to walk up to an elected official or business executive and strike up a conversation. Going to an event like this and being essentially alone is good because it forces me to either strike up a conversation or sit alone on the sidelines eating toasted raviolis (not that there is anything wrong with that).

I had the chance to talk to a few of the elected officials in attendance. I got to catch up with Leominster city councilor Bob Salvatelli, who I’ve known for a long time from his days as a basketball referee and my days as a coach. I talked for a few minutes with State Committeewoman and Register of Deeds Kathy Daignault about an upcoming rally that the party will be holding in Leominster. I also had a nice conversation with District Attorney Early about some of the changes he’s made at the DA's office since his election in 2006. He was telling me about his work with the Molly Bish Center and his efforts to fight against cyber-bullying and intimidation in schools. I told Early that for years the only Republican I ever voted for was whoever ran against John Conte and that I was happy to see the changes he’s made. That probably came across as a total kiss-up, but it was absolutely true.

I introduced myself to Senator Antonioni and spoke with him briefly (Antonioni has perfected the neutral introduction. When I told him who I was, he nodded and said “yes” in a way that would have sufficed if he had met me before, but was also appropriate for meeting someone for the first time. Politicians need this skill because they meet so many constituents that there is no way to remember them all, even though the constituent probably assumes that the senator would remember an encounter). After I left the event, I was kicking myself for not taking the opportunity to lobby Antonioni to support Representative Naughton’s house budget earmark for the Wekepeke when the budget goes to the joint conference committee. I’ve got to remember when I have someone’s ear not to be shy about talking into it.

My only real disappointment was not getting to meet Mayor Wong. I have followed her rise to the Mayor's office through the news and was hoping to meet and congratulate her, but she had to leave the event before the speeches were over.

Now that I have seen both candidates up close and in their element, I have a decision to make. While I have committed to remaining neutral until after the Sterling Democratic Town Committee’s candidates’ forum on June 23, I will probably jump into the water with one candidate or the other after the event. I’ve decided that I want to be involved in the campaign in some capacity; it’s just a matter of deciding how and with whom.

Photo from the Sentinel and Enterprise.

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