Joan Vennochi

What is Pagliuca’s political identity?

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 20, 2009

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THIS is Camelot’s heir?

Stephen Pagliuca, the super-rich co-owner of the Boston Celtics, backed Mitt Romney against Ted Kennedy in their epic 1994 Senate fight. As treasurer of Romney’s Senate campaign, his wife, Judy, wrote the checks for Romney’s attack ads, figuratively at least.

Now, Pagliuca is running for Kennedy’s seat, as a progressive Democrat.

Without his $400 million fortune, Pagliuca’s campaign would be a joke. He’s unknown outside business circles and untested in political circles. But money makes rivals seeking constituencies and consultants seeking employment take him seriously.

Voters should be less impressed by cash and more impressed by recent political history.

The last businessman who tried to reinvent himself for Bay State political consumption was Romney. Selling himself as a pro-choice, socially moderate Republican didn’t work against Kennedy. But, in 2002, Romney moderated his views enough to win election as the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Then, like a GPS gone wild, Romney recalculated to the right when he launched his presidential campaign.

After Romney, why should Massachusetts trust a Romney supporter?

Pagliuca’s wife is entitled to her own political beliefs. Pagliuca now says he backed Romney’s Senate bid only because of their close professional relationship as colleagues at Bain Capital, and not because of any shared ideology, whatever that might be, given Romney’s vacillations. It’s not so easy to explain why he supported Republican Bill Weld when he tried to knock John Kerry out of the Senate, or gave money to Republican George W. Bush when he ran against Democrat Al Gore.

Will Keyser, a Pagliuca spokesman who once worked for Kennedy, said that the newly-minted candidate is progressive on litmus-test issues: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and pro-public option for health care reform.

“The sense that people might have, that he is a closet Republican, is wrong,’’ said Keyser.

He may not be a closet Republican. But he looks like an out-of-the-closet dilettante.

Pagliuca made his money as a managing partner of Bain Capital, the Boston venture capital firm. Bain creates some jobs, through investment, and kills others, by chopping up companies, laying off workers, and reselling at a profit. Romney’s Senate campaign collapsed when laid-off workers from a Bain-owned Indiana paper company demonstrated against him in Boston.

Pagliuca was part of a consortium that bought the Boston Celtics in 2003, rebuilt the team, and watched it win its first championship in 22 years in 2008. His Celtics partner, Wyc Grousbeck, has a higher social profile, which might explain Pagliuca’s itch to switch venues. He was part of a small investment group that toyed with buying The Boston Globe. And now, he is putting his wallet behind a political career in Washington.

In his announcement speech, he tried to strike a classic common-man theme. He is the grandson of an Italian immigrant who worked in a shoe factory. He grew up in a small house in Framingham. His mother was a history teacher, who taught in the same middle school her son attended. From Framingham, it was on to Duke University, Harvard Business School, Bain, and fortune.

Pagliuca is prepared to spend millions on the campaign to fill Kennedy’s seat. He put together a circle of advisers that includes Doug Rubin, Governor Deval Patrick’s former chief of staff; and Tad Devine, a Washington-based political consultant who was a top aide to Kennedy and a key strategist to Kerry’s presidential campaign. The Pagliuca campaign is so new, the advance firm it hired for the announcement sent out an e-mail offering to pay people $15 an hour to help out with press and logistics.

Voters don’t really care how much money a candidate has or spends to win election. Over the years, the Kennedy family has stood accused of buying elections for various offspring. Ted Kennedy was a wealthy man, but once in office, he stood for a cohesive set of political principles that appealed to the less fortunate.

Pagliuca’s money isn’t the problem. It’s his lack of political identity. What are his core beliefs? All the money in the world can’t buy the comfort level he will need to persuade Democratic primary voters he should be Kennedy’s heir.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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