Democrats at state convention put focus on Donald Trump

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Massachusetts Democrats gathered Saturday for their annual convention, with the express goals of criticizing Donald J. Trump and developing a plan to stop Republican Governor Charlie Baker, and only one thing was missing.

There wasn’t much of a plan to stop Charlie Baker.

“It’s just not our focus right now, who’s going to run for governor in two years,” said US Representative Katherine Clark, one of a scattered group of Democrats who has publicly criticized Baker, depicted in some polls as the nation’s most popular governor.

While Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, came in for a rhetorical whipping from nearly every speaker who took the stage at the Tsongas Memorial Arena, Baker went almost unscathed.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the party’s most prominent figures both nationally and statewide, spoke critically of her own party’s “superdelegate” process, telling reporters those delegates shouldn’t “sway the election.”

But she saved her sharpest comments for the stage and Trump, escalating her continuous attacks against the Republican in the day’s best-received speech.

She scourged Trump as a “small, insecure money-grubber,” charging him with “ugly racism, his disgusting sexism, or his small-minded vision for America.”

Referring to one of Trump’s more controversial remarks from his reality TV show, Warren said, “Donald Trump says he likes to see women on their knees. Well, that’s not happening, Donald.”

In her prepared remarks, Warren mentioned Trump 37 times, and Baker not once.

Few of the other speakers targeted the governor either, including the statewide officials and legislative leaders who took the podium and aimed straight at Trump.

The lack of an organized initiative to scuff up Baker before he launches a likely reelection bid concerns party strategists, who attribute some of the reluctance to the governor’s positive standing in the polls.

Party officials insist it remains early in Baker’s four-year term for a field of challengers to emerge. But they also acknowledge that the potential crop of Democratic candidates is unusually nebulous, with a vacuum left after the eight-year reign of former governor Deval Patrick and with the party’s top elected officials focused on their current offices.

Baker’s enduring popularity has acted as a double-edged sword against Democrats. His lofty poll numbers have intimidated would-be critics in the opposition party, some acknowledge privately, which in turn serves to maintain their altitude by preventing criticism of him from entering the public discourse.

Democratic Party chairman Thomas McGee, a veteran state senator from Lynn, offered the most sustained critique of Baker from the podium.

But even then, in welcoming remarks on Saturday, he largely confined his criticism of Baker to the governor’s unconventional fund-raising techniques, saying he has used “every campaign finance loophole he can to raise millions of dollars,” including a joint fund-raising venture with the Republican National Committee and state party.

McGee also warned that Baker wanted to “defeat Democrats and win a veto-proof majority so he can start pushing through a conservative agenda.”

A more concerted indictment of Baker’s performance came, but only later when McGee and state AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman presided over a sparsely attended “breakout” session, held in a room with stationary bicycles upon which some attendees chose to pedal during the presentation.

McGee said the party would continue to try to depict Baker as a “status quo” governor who lacks vision and is unwilling to invest in areas like transportation and education.

“We’ve seen instances where the veneer is starting to crack on the governor’s carefully cultivate public persona,” he said during the afternoon session.

Some of the activists gathered for the afternoon breakout voiced dissatisfaction with the party’s messaging against Baker.

“The real question is: What is our plan? How are we going to get our party to rally against the real issues here, to hold Governor Baker accountable?” said Mike Lake, who lost a 2014 bid for lieutenant governor in the primary.

That comment provoked a brushback from state party executive director Matthew Fenlon, who said, “We are very glad to see Mike Lake as an elected official of the party reengaging after 18 months following the 2014 primary.”

The state GOP weighed in early Saturday afternoon, needling Democrats for losing both the governor’s office and legislative seats in 2014 and continuing “to push a highly toxic doctrine of higher taxes and more wasteful spending.”

“The people of Massachusetts have made clear they want their government to measure success by how effectively taxpayer dollars are spent, not how much of their money is taken and wasted — a lesson Democrats have clearly not learned,” party spokesman Terry MacCormack said in a press release.

There was little evidence of the enduring divide within the Democratic Party, split between devotees of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. Clinton narrowly won the March presidential primary in the state and won the most plaudits from the podium on Saturday. But some Sanders supporters hoisted signs or sported campaign apparel.

The party voted Saturday to study the “superdelegate” selection process before the 2020 election, in the wake of a contentious primary, with establishment figures lining up behind Clinton and grass-roots activists backing Sanders.

At an impromptu press conference, Warren deflected a question about whether she, as a darling of the party’s progressive wing, was out to unite the party’s factions. And she demurred when asked when she planned to endorse Clinton or Sanders. “There is no timetable,” she told reporters.

The issue of superdelegates, who are not bound by party rules to vote for specific candidate, has fired up Sanders supporters, who call it an example of the party establishment tilting the scales.

“I’m a superdelegate and I don’t believe in superdelegates,” she said.

Warren was hardly alone in scoring Trump. Nearly every elected official who took the stage Saturday had harsh words for the businessman and reality TV star.

“We need to send Donald Trump and his supporters a special message from Massachusetts: We will not back down,” said US Senator Edward J. Markey, predicting that Trump’s divisive candidacy would unite Democrats as they have not been in a generation.

The convention, in a year with no statewide election, serves largely as an organizing and energizing tool. Democrats are concerned with losing state legislative seats in the fall, but much of the focus — and the ire —Saturday was focused on the presidential campaign.

Bay State Democrats are consumed so thoroughly with Trump that several said it had slowed progress toward the 2018 effort to unseat Baker.

US Representative Niki Tsongas said the race for the White House had diverted attention from state-level politics.

“I’m not worried about it,” said Tsongas, standing in the arena named for her late husband, US senator Paul Tsongas.

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