Kayyem's Candidacy Reminds Us that a Governor's Race Is No Place for the Self-Effacing

Friday, March 21, 2014

One may subscribe to the theory that we need more good people running for office and more people of diverse backgrounds and professions running for office without surrendering the capacity to be astonished at the immoderate ambition of the occasional candidate for governor who arrives in the public arena out of the blue, never having run even for school committee, and avers that he or she is the best person at this time to lead the Commonwealth.  One may be taken aback by the candidate’s self-possession and confidence and still welcome that person’s candidacy, although I personally do not find myself in so welcoming a mood in most such instances.  No, I am more of the ilk of Sam Rayburn, the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, (1940-47, 1949-53 and 1955-61).  Rayburn famously remarked to his protégé, Lyndon Johnson, on the occasion of Johnson extolling the intelligence of John F. Kennedy’s advisors to him in the summer of 1960: “I’d feel a hell of a lot better about that bunch if just one of them had once run for sheriff.”

What is it about the Juliette Kayyems of the world that keeps them from ever considering a run for sheriff?  What compels them, as she is now compelled, to seek the top job in Massachusetts politics, governor, on her first try at politics?  The obvious answer is they believe they’re at least as well qualified as anybody else who wants the job, and they have the confidence to put that belief to the test.
Kayyem, who is 44 years old, has reason enough to be confident.  A graduate of Harvard University (1991) and Harvard Law School (1995), she has been an advisor to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a member of the National Commission on Terrorism, a homeland security advisor to Governor Deval Patrick, in which capacity she oversaw the Massachusetts National Guard; a member of President Obama’s transition team, and an Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the federal Department of Homeland Security.  She’s also been a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a columnist for the Boston Globe.  Last year, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for a series of articles she wrote on allowing women soldiers to fight in combat.  Then there’s Kayyem’s marvelous family: she’s married to David J. Barron, a fellow Harvard and Harvard Law grad, whose nomination by President Obama for a judgeship on U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, is pending before the U.S. Senate.  Juliette and David have three children they’re raising in Cambridge.

I went to see Kayyem this past Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the Rappaport Center at Suffolk University Law School.  She spoke for about 20 minutes and took questions for 45 minutes or so.  I liked how she delved into every subject with unselfconscious enthusiasm.  She was very knowledgeable, articulate, and engaging.  Her physical presence is strong: she’s tall and thin, with long, dark hair and big, bright, warm eyes.  She appears to be a dynamo at the height of her powers, a force of nature.  Yes, she’s got charisma. 
It’s hard not to like Juliette Kayyem.

If you look at her campaign web site, it’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth of her campaign platform, and the degree to which she has thought out the issues, which she identifies as: reforming the criminal justice system, honoring veterans, finding opportunities for business growth in solutions to climate change, providing education “from birth to career,” growing the economy through a “connective infrastructure,” ensuring women’s health and workplace economy, and reinvigorating the state’s “Gateway Cities.”
If I had any criticism of Kayyem’s performance at Suffolk, it's that her answers were too long, so long in some instances that she was far from the point of origin by the time she finished.  With an affirming kind of audience before her, she could not resist the urge to over-communicate.

I’d also say that she has to be careful to avoid comments and asides that may grate on people who will never be able to afford a place in Cambridge, which is to say most of the voters in statewide elections.  Kayyem was rolling along the other day when she happened to mention in the middle of an answer that her husband had been nominated for a federal judgeship, which had caused one-half of the Kayyem-Barron union to observe (and the other half obviously to agree): “The higher we go, the less we make.”  
It was a throwaway line, barely noticed in the torrent of her policy-speak.  But, if Kayyem were to win (by some incredibly fortunate series of events) the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, it's the kind of comment that could come back to bite her.  I don’t know anyone who’s ever going to feel sorry for a federal judge and his high-achieving, Harvard-lawyer spouse.

The danger of being perceived as an elitist is, overall, the greatest threat to the Kayyem candidacy.  If she gets the nomination, some pundit or pontificator is bound to dig up that old William F. Buckley, Jr., quote and hurl it at her like a grenade -- you know, the one where Buckley said:  “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
Kayyem, however, has two more immediate problems.  First, she has to get 15% of the vote at the Democratic nominating convention to qualify for the September primary ballot.  Then, she has to face off, most likely, against a seasoned campaigner like Martha Coakley or Steve Grossman.

Coakley started small in politics, running for a Dorchester seat in the Massachusetts House and losing, and subsequently running for Middlesex District Attorney and Massachusetts Attorney General (successfully), U.S. Senate (unsuccessfully), and Attorney General again (successfully).   Sam Rayburn would appreciate her paying her political dues.
The Democratic primary would be Coakley’s fourth time on a statewide ballot and Kayyem’s first.  Pondering that possibility, Kayyem is no doubt heartened by the fact that: (a) one of her mentors, Deval Patrick, won the governor’s job in his first-ever run for office, (b) Patrick beat Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly for the nomination, and (c) attorneys general more often fail than not when trying to move up to the governor’s suite.  Historically in the U.S., AG is not a great springboard to governor.

NOTE: The U.S. Senate confirmed Kayyem's husband, David J. Barron, as a justice of the First Circuit Court of Appeals on May 22, 2014.  The court hears appeals from the U.S. District Courts for the districts of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island. 


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