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Michael Jonas | The Political Trail

It's the principals, not the principles

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Jonas
May 18, 2008

What goes around comes around.

Thus comes the latest installment in the long-running battle that has kept Somerville a hotbed of political doings in a time when local politics in Boston has turned placid.

The Somerville plotline revolves around the two factions that have long vied for power in the densely packed city, where sharp elbows are more than occasionally thrown.

The groups are defined broadly as the "old guard," consisting mainly of lifelong residents, lunch-bucket Democrats of the stripe that Hillary Clinton has been shamelessly pandering to, and the "reformers," who draw heavily from the ranks of the wonkier, liberal-leaning activists who have been migrating to Somerville for decades and whose numbers there have swelled in recent years.

By any national standard, the two groups are liberal Democrats, with even the differences on social issues that can divide Democrats elsewhere often not at play. But none of that seems to stop the culture clash that has, for political junkies, been the gift that keeps on giving.

The coming attraction: the September Democratic primary showdown in which Bob Trane, a Somerville alderman, is challenging two-term state Representative Carl Sciortino.

The background: Sciortino, a darling of the Progressive Democrats of Somerville, the official vehicle of the reformers, crashed onto the scene four years ago by ousting a longtime incumbent state rep, Vinnie Ciampa. Already weakened by his reputation for a less-than-high-octane work ethic, Ciampa sealed his fate with a strong stand against gay marriage, a position at odds with the changing demographics of the district, which is split roughly evenly between Somerville and neighboring Medford.

Following his victory, Sciortino, who is openly gay, moved from Somerville into the Medford section of the district. But he keeps close tabs on the Somerville half of his district - too close, as far as Trane is concerned.

Last fall, flexing a bit of the Progressive Democrats' muscle, Sciortino crashed into the ward alderman contest in West Somerville, endorsing a challenger to Trane. "I was a little shocked, but that's politics," says Trane.

So, it seems, is his sudden itch for the state rep seat that happens to be held by Sciortino.

Trane launched his candidacy last month by telling The Somerville News that Sciortino is "an elitist" who is "out of touch with the district."

Trane has a hard time pinpointing what is so elitist about Sciortino's focus on local aid, school issues, and the regular office hours he holds to hear constituent concerns. Instead, he says Sciortino's fealty to the House leadership and acceptance of campaign donations from PACs show that he's no reformer. "He promised change," Trane says in an interview, "but we got the same old Beacon Hill blues."

For his part, Sciortino says it's all looking like a movie he's seen before. "I was very disappointed he would launch his campaign by going into attack mode and name-calling," says Sciortino "It's the kind of tactic I experienced four years ago, and I've overcome before. I'm happy to go door-to-door and talk about the real issues in our community."

Trane concedes that he and Sciortino don't differ on most big issues. "The basic issues, I think we're right there together," says Trane, who supports gay marriage and opposes the death penalty.

Although Trane can't identify big differences in their views, Sciortino won't say exactly what compelled him to endorse Trane's challenger last fall. "It's not something I'm looking to focus on now," he says of his backing for Trane's opponent, who had the endorsement of the Progressive Democrats organization.

All of which leads back to the conclusion that in both races, as in lots of Somerville elections, it's often less about principles and policies than the principals and their political allies.

Michael Jonas can be reached at jonas@globe.com.

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