Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Knuuttila's stormy Tuesday

The line of thunderstorms that descended on the North County yesterday wasn’t the only ill wind blowing. Heavy weather also has engulfed the campaign for the senate seat being vacated by Bob Antonioni, as charges of broken promises, double-dealing, and confidentiality breaches have begun to swirl.

The basic question is this: Did Brian Knuuttila tell Jennifer Flanagan that he was dropping out of the race, only to renege a couple of days later, or did the Flanagan campaign publicize a private conversation between the candidates to try to force Knuuttila out of the race? And why was Knuuttila so evasive when asked about the meeting?

At least three stories have been published in the Telegram and the Sentinel over the last 24 hours and by piecing the three together, we might be able to come to some sort of a comprehensive narrative. First, the Telegram posted the following update on its web site yesterday afternoon:

Brian A. Knuuttila said this morning he will make today's 5 p.m. deadline to file nomination papers for the Worcester and Middlesex state Senate seat.

Mr. Knuuttila, a former state representative who lives in Gardner, said a glitch with signatures obtained in Townsend delayed his filing.

He said the Townsend issue has been resolved and the signatures certified.

The delay in filing might have led to speculation that he would drop out of the race, Mr. Knuuttila said, but he vowed he's in it to stay.
Now I’m not the most tapped in observer in the North County but I think I am better informed on local races than most, and I hadn’t heard one whisper that Knuuttila might be jumping out. Where might that sort of speculation come from? Let’s go into the Sentinel’s coverage in this morning’s paper for a clue:

BOSTON -- Former state Rep. Brian Knuuttila had everyone guessing over the weekend about whether he would continue his campaign for Senate after telling his opponent he was prepared to call it quits.

Knuuttila, of Gardner, turned in his nominations papers Tuesday to the Secretary of State to campaign for retiring Sen. Robert Antonioni's seat, but not before he told both Antonioni and state Rep. Jennifer Flanagan on Friday that he planned to bow out Both he and Flanagan are competing for the Democratic nomination to replace Antonioni in the Worcester and Middlesex County state Senate seat...

Antonioni said Knuuttila asked for the weekend to notify his supporters, and tentatively planned an announcement for Tuesday morning at Antonioni's Leominster district office.
If this account is correct, the “speculation” mentioned in the Telegram story is probably a cryptic way of saying that the press had been told to be ready to head to Leominster on Tuesday for Knuuttila’s withdrawal. The press had been tipped off, everyone has settled in for a nice holiday weekend, and then, according to the Sentinel’s account, Knuuttila changes his mind:

...On Saturday night, Knuuttila called Antonioni to tell him he was reconsidering. Knuuttila told the retiring Senator he now believed he had been given bad information about how much money Flanagan had already raised for her campaign and thought he could compete.

With renewed confidence, Knuuttila told Antonioni he was still trying to make up his mind.

"The whole thing just sounded very different. It had all been decided until he called me that night," Antonioni said.
So whoever tipped off the press (and it must have been someone involved with either the Flanagan campaign or Antonioni’s office, my money is on the Senator) has to call the reporters back, tell them that there is no withdrawal announcement after all, and then starts spilling the beans about the meeting. In both the Sentinel account and the follow-up in today’s Telegram, the accounts from Flanagan and Antonioni are remarkably consistent. Each contains the following claims:

  • Knuuttila was looking to get out because he couldn’t raise enough money to compete

  • He wanted to mend fences between Flanagan and Sheriff Guy Glodis

  • He might be moving to Florida in the fall

  • He gave Flanagan a hug and told her she would be a “great senator”
If all of that is true (and let’s be clear, these versions of the story are based on discussions the newspapers had with Flanagan and Antonioni), it makes a pretty convincing case that Knuuttila’s heart isn’t really in it. But I haven’t seen any indication that Knuuttila’s enthusiasm is waning. On the contrary, I’ve seen him out on the stump a handful of times and he looks like he is working his tail off, and enjoying himself to boot. The man was standing alone outside the Sterling Town Meeting a couple of weeks ago holding a sign and waving to voters. Not what I’d expect from someone who was getting out.

(Even so, the mental images that go along with the accounts in the paper can’t be good for Brian. If this were a high-profile, nasty campaign, a mass mailer with Knuuttila in a Disney hat with a cold drink in one hand and a speech bubble with the caption “Jenn Flanagan will make a great senator” inside would probably be forthcoming. But I don’t think it would ever come to that.)

Knuuttila didn’t help himself when he tried to deny to the Telegram that the meeting never took place. He probably figured that what happens in Gardner stays in Gardner, and when the Telegram confronted him with the story of the meeting, he was caught completely off guard:

Yesterday, Mr. Knuuttila initially denied that he even met with Mr. Antonioni and Ms. Flanagan on Friday, and said he had no idea how any rumor that he was leaving the race might have gotten started.

“No” he said when asked by a reporter, “Didn’t you meet with them?”

After an interruption during a telephone interview, he then said, “I apologize. There was a discussion,” and he acknowledged that, in fact, he had met with the Ms Flanagan and Mr. Antonioni….

At one point yesterday, Mr. Knuuttila said he had not even, at any point, considering dropping out of the race. “No, I did not have second thoughts about running last week,” he said. At that time he attributed what he called “rumors” about his dropping out to “some desperation tactic on the part of people supporting my opponent.”

Later, however, after being told of Ms. Flanagan’s and Mr. Antonioni’s account of the meeting, Mr. Knuuttila acknowledged that he did meet and talk with them about concerns he had that Ms. Flanagan might outspend him many times over and that he might find that campaign funding advantage “insurmountable.”

“We told them if that fiscal information was correct, things looked pretty bleak for us,” Mr. Knuuttila said of the conversation at the meeting.

“We didn’t come out and say we were formally out of the race. We didn’t come out and say that … It was never actually said. I was looking at it very seriously based on the information we had, because of the huge margins,” Mr. Knuuttila said last night.

“I did not say I was dropping out of the race. There was a misunderstanding and I don’t know what to say more about that misunderstanding,” he said.
It seems pretty clear to me that Knuuttila didn’t expect to get that phone call. He absolutely made a pigs’ breakfast out of his explanation. By the time the Sentinel got to him, he had honed his response:
"We had a short conversation about keeping the race positive. We had heard she had been raising a significant amount of money and we had to face the possibility of her outspending us seven to one,"

Knuuttila said. "I said let me sit on this awhile. I never made a commitment. This was all supposed to [be] kept in confidence."
Which is what he should have said in the first place.

So what does all of this mean? Ultimately, I don’t think it will mean that much to voters. I doubt many of them are paying much attention this early in the process. The first debate of the campaign won’t be held for another four weeks (shameless plug: June 23 at 6:30 pm at the First Church in Sterling, hosted by the Sterling Democratic Town Committee), and while this issue might come up, I don’t think too many voters are that interested in this kind of inside baseball. And it certainly won’t be an issue come September.

Where it may hurt Knuuttila is in the wallet. If he wants to be able to compete financially, he needs to start raising money and this sort of story can only hurt. He claims to be afraid he might be outspent seven-to-one, and it seems like the worst way to keep the money flowing is to signal to donors that your heart might not really be there. No one wants to give money to someone who doesn’t think he can win. (Check out Save Fitchburg for another take on the race and a more detailed breakdown of what a “seven-to-one” money edge might look like.)

I hope Knuuttila is in it until the end. The district deserves a spirited race with candidates who hold divergent views on many issues, so that the voters have a clear choice. Filling an open seat with an unopposed candidate would not be the best thing for the district.

Who knows, perhaps this little kerfuffle might make for a more lively campaign, or at least fewer hugs between the candidates.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Post a Comment


No Drumlins Copyright © 2009 Premium Blogger Dashboard Designed by SAER