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State Democrats seek to streamline primary process

Democratic Party leaders will attempt tonight to make it more difficult for statewide candidates to qualify for the primary ballot in 2006, as part of an effort to limit contentious party primaries that strategists say have prevented them from winning the governor's office since 1990.

A key part of the latest plan would require each candidate for statewide office to get at least 15 percent of the delegate support on the first ballot of the party's convention in order to get on the party's primary ballot. Current rules allow candidates who fail to reach the 15 percent threshold to get a second try.

Also under the proposed rule change, only the top two candidates from the first ballot will square off for the party's endorsement on the second ballot.

The 376-member Democratic State Committee will take up the proposed changes at its meeting tonight at the Ironworkers Hall in South Boston. Party officials expect that the plan, drafted by a commission headed by former governor Michael S. Dukakis and US Representative James P. McGovern, will win easy approval.

The proposed rule change is drawing complaints from Secretary of State William F. Galvin and others, who say that the move would be undemocratic.

''The focus of this entire effort is a power grab to make it more difficult to have an open primary that brings diverse points of view together," Galvin said.

The commission's recommendation, along with a party-led move to get the Legislature to move the state primary elections from mid-September to May or early June, reflect the growing frustration among Democrats that their nominee often emerges from the primaries sapped of money and energy before the sprint to the November general election. The Democrats are ready to throw out their reforms of the 1980s, when party leaders sought to expand participation in the convention by creating special delegate slots for minority groups, women, the disabled, and other groups.

In recent conventions, the sessions have bogged down in chaotic late night sessions, in which candidates and their operatives cut backroom deals to bargain and trade delegate support, all designed to get some candidates on the ballot and block others.

One classic battle involved lieutenant governor candidate John F. Kerry, who in 1982, after getting the required 15 percent of the delegates, dropped out of the endorsement race and shifted delegates to a female candidate, Lois Pines, assuring that she and front-running Evelyn Murphy would split the women's primary vote. The maneuver worked. Kerry eked out a victory in the September primary, clearing the way for him to win his first elected office.

Party leaders also want to reduce the number of delegates at each endorsement convention, saying the event is the largest political conventions in the nation. The current rules call for 6,257 delegates, but the commission wants to reduce that number to 4,777. The largest cut, some 1,100, would come in those elected from the caucuses. Delegates who are party officials and are not elected are given more representation.

State Democratic Party chairman Philip W. Johnston said the rules are designed to bring some order to what has become an often chaotic endorsement convention. ''It is absurd to have that many delegates," he said. ''It is extremely difficult to manage a convention with that many."

The Dukakis-McGovern commission cited the wheeling and dealing created by the 15 percent rule as a major reason for their push to make the hurdle more difficult. ''Clearly through the use of paid signature-gathering firms and back-room dealmaking at the convention, candidates have found the ability to get around these hurdles," the commission's report states.

But Galvin said the party leaders are trying to tighten their grip on how party nominees are chosen. He said that in doing so they are shutting down the democratic process that he says brings new blood into the activist ranks and fosters voter participation. He said this proposal, coupled with Democratic leaders' attempts to move the primary date back from September to May or early June, would shut out minorities, women, and those with diverse ideological views. Galvin, who also strongly opposes moving the primary to the spring, said the party's failure in gubernatorial races is often attributed to the way the nominees and the party run the campaigns.

Indeed two gubernatorial candidates -- Robert Reich and John Silber, both with opposite ideological positions -- barely made the 15 percent threshold. The liberal Reich, a latecomer to the 2002 governor's race, sparked an insurgency in the Democratic caucus in February, building momentum to get 16 percent on the first convention ballot and win a place on the September primary ballot.

In 1990, Silber, then on leave as president of Boston University, needed two ballots to reach the 15 percent threshold, but then went on to stun the party by winning the Democratic primary nomination. Under the proposed rules change, Silber's candidacy would have ended at the convention.

''Both were very serious candidates, from the opposite ideological perspective, but they were very close to being denied access to the primary ballot," Galvin said. He said Reich, who placed a strong second in a four-way primary fight, only made the threshold after Galvin directed 66 delegates to Reich, the former US secretary of labor.

Johnston said he strongly supports moving the primary to the spring and reducing the number of delegates, but said he is ''agnostic" about the 15 percent rule. He said a spring primary would allow some time for the nominees to consolidate their positions, instead of having to rush into a general election race. He predicted the party would adopt the commission's recommendations, but said Democratic leaders were not lobbying heavily for them.

''Nobody is muscling anyone on these issues," Johnston said. ''Let the chips fall where they may."

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