Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kerrigan's strategy comes into focus

When he first announced his candidacy for State Representative, I questioned whether or not Steve Kerrigan’s campaign was a Quixotic quest or shrewd politics. Well, yesterday’s news that incumbent Harold Naughton had applied for three court positions last year confirms that Kerrigan is shrewd; whether or not his quest will have been Quixotic will be answered at the polls on Tuesday. Here’s the story:
State Rep. Harold P. Naughton Jr. sought a judgeship and two clerk magistrate positions last year and embarked on his seventh re-election campaign in the spring with two of the judicial applications still pending.

The Clinton Democrat, a lawyer who will face Stephen J. Kerrigan Tuesday in the Democratic primary for the 12th Worcester District seat, has denied rumors that he was interested in a district court clerk magistrate post.

But the Telegram & Gazette has obtained copies of documents submitted to the state Judicial Nominating Commission showing that Mr. Naughton applied for a Leominster District Court judge seat, which was filled in June by former Worcester lawyer Mark E. Noonan, and clerk magistrate posts in the Fitchburg and Uxbridge district courts. . . .

Mr. Kerrigan, 36, a former Lancaster selectman and aide to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said his opponent “clearly has got to make a decision about what his priorities are.”
The leak of Naughton’s job applications is the “A-ha!” moment that I’ve been waiting for as I’ve been trying to figure out what Kerrigan has been up to. Looking back at the campaign as a whole, it’s clear to me that yesterday’s news is the culmination of a summer-long strategy to paint Naughton as uninterested and uncommitted. In a May 1 Telegram article announcing his candidacy, Kerrigan had this to say:
"I want to do this job," he said. "This has nothing to do with Hank (Naughton). When it comes right down to it, I just want to work in the Legislature. I have a desire to serve."
The article also included unsourced “rumors” about Naughton’s lack of desire and commitment:
Mr. Naughton yesterday denied rumors that he is in line for a district court magistrate post, passing it off as expected because he is a lawyer and former prosecutor, and because there are a few court magistrate positions open in Central Massachusetts.

"I've had several fundraisers, and there is one coming up on June 16. I am running for re-election," he said. "I look forward to the campaign, and I hope the people of the 12th District come forward once again to support me."
I can’t prove it, but there is little doubt in my mind that it was Kerrigan who planted the seed with reporter Karen Nugent regarding these “rumors.” I think he knew concretely that Naughton had applied for the three court jobs a year earlier. He innocuously reminds the reporter of the “rumors” and sets the hook for the rest of his campaign. (To be fair, he also set the hook with me. I have surmised that he is running to build a reputation so that he can win a special election if Naughton were to step down after the election, which means that I, too, have given credence to the rumors of Naughton’s job search. )

If you have been reading Kerrigan’s literature (and to his credit, I get something in the mail almost every week), his message is consistently about representing the people of the district at 100%. That is his entire platform. If he mentions issues at all, it is using very broad strokes. I am not sure that I have heard or read of a specific policy that he would propose or a specific position of Naughton’s that he opposes. Kerrigan did very well at the forum we hosted in July, but the one time he seemed at a loss for words was when I asked him what his first bill would be.

Last month, Kerrigan turned up the heat on Naughton just a little more when he mentioned that the representative had not voted on the final budget. Naughton missed the vote because he was on active duty with his Army reserve unit. I was critical of Kerrigan’s attack, but it was consistent with his “100%” theme.

Now comes the confirmation that Naughton applied for court positions over a year ago. Make no mistake that the Kerrigan campaign or one of its supporters leaked the job applications. The first clue is that the article was written not by Nugent, who is the regular Clinton reporter, but by Shaun Sutner, a writer who has covered statewide political issues. The Kerrigan campaign is savvy enough to make sure that the local stringers don’t screw it up, so the info was leaked to a writer who would know what to do with it and who has not written one story about this campaign the entire cycle.

It appears to me that the Kerrigan campaign has been planning on leaking this story at this time from day one. This story is the next to last brick in the wall that they have been constructing since jumping into the race in May. If I am correct, I would expect that Kerrigan has another mailing at the print press as we speak using this story as the hammer. The only thing the printer has been waiting for is the T&G masthead with the exact headline and a callout quote to plug into the blank space. I’ll bet a dollar to a donut that tomorrow, Saturday or Monday the mailman will deliver one last Kerrigan flyer prominently featuring this story.

What is Naughton to do? Hit back on a couple of fronts. First, it appears that whoever released the information to the Kerrigan campaign or its supporters was at best being unethical and at worst breaking the law. In the list of instructions on the Joint Nominating Commission website, this stands out:
8. This application does not constitute a public record. For confidentiality reasons, once the application is filed with the JNC, applicants should not provide a copy of the application to other individuals. However, upon approval by the JNC, applications, including the confidential portion, are forwarded to the Governor for review. In addition, applicants should note that a portion of the application may be reviewed by the Chief Legal Counsel, the Joint Bar Committee as well as the Governor's Council.
Further, if it was a commissioner who leaked the info, he or she would be in violation of Executive Order 500:
1.5.4 Confidentiality: Except as otherwise may be necessary for purposes of conducting due diligence of an applicant's qualifications and during Commission meetings, each Commissioner shall keep confidential all information concerning any applicant, except that information which may reflect unfavorably on an applicant's suitability for judicial office shall be disclosed to the Chairperson. The Chairperson shall disclose any such information to the Commission and to investigators employed on behalf of the Commission for purposes of due diligence. No discussions, motions, opinions, votes or facts revealed during meetings of the Commission may be directly or indirectly disclosed by any Commissioner to any person other than another Commissioner in accordance with this Code of Conduct. Except as may be required to conduct due diligence, all substantive communications with applicants outside of meetings and interviews shall be conducted by the Chairperson or her designee.
Will Naughton accuse the Kerrigan campaign and its contacts on Beacon Hill of an unethical and possibly illegal breach of confidentiality? Maybe something like this: “Steve Kerrigan’s cabal of Boston lobbyists and Washington insiders will do anything, including releasing confidential records, to get him elected. Steve Kerrigan should condemn this breach of ethics and demand that his supporters in Boston come clean and reveal the source of their information.”

Naughton also ought to point out more forcefully that Kerrigan has mischaracterized his earlier denial of interest in a position. Back to today’s story:
“I’ve made my decision. That’s why I’m running for office,” Mr. Kerrigan said. “I certainly read that denial, that he’s never applied for these jobs, and that appears not to be the case.”

Mr. Naughton, who in 2006 initially supported Mr. Patrick’s primary opponent for governor, former Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, said also he was told not long after applying for the Leominster judgeship that he would not be appointed.

“I got a letter saying I wasn’t going to be considered for that,” he said.

The Clinton lawmaker, who also represents Boylston, Northboro and parts of Lancaster and Sterling, maintained that his assertion in a May 2 [sic] Telegram & Gazette story that he was not in line to be a clerk magistrate was accurate because he believed that the Fitchburg and Uxbridge jobs would not be filled by permanent appointments.
Perhaps this is a little too (Bill) Clintonian in the parsing of the words, but Naughton never denied that 10 months earlier he had applied for magistrate positions. He said that he was not “in line” for those positions. Based on the way the May 2 article was written, I don’t think Nugent ever asked him if he had applied. Here it is again:
Mr. Naughton yesterday denied rumors that he is in line for a district court magistrate post, passing it off as expected because he is a lawyer and former prosecutor, and because there are a few court magistrate positions open in Central Massachusetts.
Kerrigan cannot accurately claim that he “read that denial, that he’s never applied for these jobs” because Naughton has not denied applying for the position and looks like he has never been asked the question.

Even so, a candidate can only gain so much by playing defense, and Kerrigan is trying to put Naughton in a defensive position for the last week of the campaign. Will it be enough to overcome Naughton’s lead in fundraising and the advantages of incumbency? We’ve got a fun five days to find out.

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