Renee Loth

The timely return of Bob Massie

By Renee Loth
January 16, 2011

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REMEMBER BOB Massie? The 1994 candidate for lieutenant governor doesn’t think so, and he’d like to reintroduce himself. “I’ve been away a long time,’’ he said in an interview.

And it was a trying time: a worsening of hepatitis C associated with his hemophilia; painful medical treatments and a more painful divorce; a seven-year wait for a liver transplant, languishing on a Somerville couch, hating the winters.

To see this promising newcomer to politics — some thought him the better half of the Democratic ticket with Mark Roosevelt — brought low by disease was, of course, much worse than the crushing political defeat by Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. But today, at 54, Massie is happily remarried, has the liver of a much younger person, and says he is in better shape physically than he’s ever been. His hepatitis viral load is essentially zero.

How does a person respond to such a Lazarus-like rebirth? For Massie, it’s deciding to challenge Senator Scott Brown for reelection in 2012 — the first Democrat to so publicly declare his candidacy. “We shouldn’t have to cajole our junior senator to do the right thing,’’ he said. “Someone strong, or unusual — or both — needs to run against him.’’

Massie is certainly an unusual candidate. An ordained Episcopal priest with a PhD from Harvard Business School, he is an award-winning author and social entrepreneur who also happens to be one of the longest-surviving HIV patients on the planet. He was infected during a blood transfusion 32 years ago but never developed AIDS symptoms — a much-studied medical marvel whose case may lead to an eventual vaccine for HIV-AIDS.

Is he a strong candidate? His ability to raise money and build an organization will tell. There’s probably room for one unorthodox entry in the Senate race: the role Alan Khazei played in the 2010 campaign. (Massie genially reminds people that he got roughly 250,000 votes in his primary to Khazei’s 89,000.)

But he also knows he needs to get an early start on 2012, and is performing the necessary obeisance to political figures around the state. He formed a campaign committee, is establishing a depository account, and will have a website up shortly.

Democratic Party chairman John Walsh welcomes a competitive race for the Senate nomination. “I am one who celebrates primaries,’’ he said. “I hope someone with Bob Massie’s life experience and energy can be a viable candidate.’’

Massie’s exceptional journey surely gives him insight into one major domestic policy issue: health care. He believes the American medical system (at least until the recent reforms) is a disgrace: tending to deny care to those who need it most. “In addition to the burden of illness, people are being punished — there’s no other word for it — with bankruptcy, misery, poverty,’’ he said. “In my view that’s un-American.’’

That’s nice liberal orthodoxy. But Massie has also deeply studied the health care system, its economics and history, from the inside out. At age 12 his family spent a year in France, where all his hemophilia drugs and treatments were covered “as a fundamental right of citizenship.’’ Health care policy is not theoretical with him.

Besides, Massie is no anti-business scold. He has worked with many of the world’s largest companies, including Sunoco and Ford, to develop the first standardized measures of corporate social responsibility. The Global Reporting Initiative, which he founded in 1998, created guidelines still used by over 1,400 major firms worldwide.

All that time spent contemplating on his living room couch has given Massie a self-awareness rare in any politician. He describes his boyhood, with leg braces and frequent blood transfusions and long stretches of missed school. He is sensitive enough to understand that what he calls his “white, privileged, straight’’ background contrasted with an illness that marked him as different, both as a child with hemophilia and later, when so few understood the HIV virus. “In many ways people’s first reaction to me was fear,’’ he said. The ripple of anxiety that could greet his entrance to a room “affected me very deeply.’’

How, exactly? “I’m always looking for how to connect with people,’’ he said. “I don’t let superficial difference deter me from reaching out. If you can touch that human quality, combined with practical and rational thought, you can make progress. I think that’s a critical piece of what’s needed in politics, and in the US Senate.’’

Bob Massie. Remember the name.

Renee Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.