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Primary rival may distract Warren

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / May 27, 2012
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Massachusetts Democrats will head to a state convention next weekend amid increasing fears among party leaders that Elizabeth Warren will be bogged down in a primary fight that will block her from fully engaging US Senator Scott Brown.

Warren, whose campaign has ignited unprecedented enthu­siasm in her party in Massachusetts and has drawn strong support from national Democrats, is expected to easily win endorsement from the more than 3,000 delegates who will gather June 2 in Springfield.

But Warren’s advisers and some seasoned political hands say she will have a difficult time blocking Marisa DeFranco, a North Shore immigration lawyer, from getting the 15 percent of delegate votes she needs to qualify for the primary ballot. Since the 15-percent requirement was put in place in 1982, no leading Democratic candidate has eliminated an opponent by getting more than 85 percent of the delegate vote at a convention.

That has some state Democrats alarmed that Warren will be forced to divert her resources until after the Sept. 6 primary, instead of concentrating on Brown. Likewise, party leaders say the Democrats will no ­longer be able to use the convention to spotlight Warren’s candidacy.

The risk to the national party is extremely high, they say, given that the outcome of this race could help determine control of the Senate.

“It’s a suicidal exercise,’’ said former state party chairman Philip W. Johnston, a decades-long veteran of statewide races, who now raises funds for ­Warren. “We need to be ­focused on one person, Scott Brown. It’s ridiculous to force [Warren] to spend a couple of months being distracted, particularly when the control of the Senate could turn on this campaign.’’

But he and others say they also feel that any effort to strong-arm delegates could ­result in a backlash, particularly from the left wing of the party, which often bristles at heavy-handed direction from party leadership.

DeFranco, whose feisty style and left-leaning positions have appealed to some of the party’s factions, has already beaten expec­tations by gathering well more than the 10,000 certified voter signatures required to participate.

Her challenge, while limited in financial resources and visibility, has put the party in a difficult position. If DeFranco wins a spot on the ballot, her primary challenge has the ­potential to slow the unprecedented momentum Warren has built up since she entered the race last September.

But party leaders and the Warren campaign are aware that any perception that they are trying to crush DeFranco’s candidacy would alienate a small but significant faction within the party ranks.

“The convention is never controlled by the party leadership,’’ Johnston said. “Party leaders can make the case, but it wouldn’t be helpful at all for elected leaders to push the ­issue. It has to come from the rank and file.’’

State Democratic Party chairman John Walsh said he is adamant that the leadership cannot get involved in the delegate vote. Despite the national importance of this race for Democrats, he said, his duty is to make sure that DeFranco and her supporters do not feel they have been treated unfairly.

“We are a wide-open party, and when the process is fair, we will be so much stronger at the end of the day,’’ Walsh said.

But former governor ­Michael S. Dukakis, who rarely speaks out on internal political matters in the state party, said he is making the case to convention delegates that it is ­important to avoid a primary fight by giving Warren enough of a margin to end DeFranco’s challenge.

“Warren has to focus ­intensely and exclusively on November,’’ Dukakis said. A primary fight, he said, would create a costly distraction for ­Warren and allow Brown to slide through the summer months without engaging in ­serious debate.

Others, including some ­Warren supporters, said there could be some small benefit from a face off with DeFranco. The primary could serve as a good test run for the first-time candidate and her newly created political field organization. A resounding victory would ­also spark strong momentum for the fall election.

Warren’s campaign declined to respond to specific questions as to how her advisers and staff are dealing with the DeFranco’s push to get on the ballot. They also declined to comment on what they’re doing to avoid a primary and what the implications of a primary fight will be. They said they are merely trying to use the convention to tune up their political organization.

But what happens in Springfield is critical. Debra Kozikowski of Chicopee, state party vice chairwoman, said her sense is that DeFranco does not have the support to clear the 15-percent hurdle. She said that she and many in the party admire DeFranco, but feel that Warren, facing such high stakes, needs to be free of a primary fight.

“At this point of the game, it is an uphill fight for” DeFranco, she said. “If the delegates who committed to Warren hold for her, there is no way Marisa gets 15 percent.”

But with less than a week until the convention, DeFranco remains defiant, sharply rejecting the idea that her insistence on a primary battle will hurt Warren’s chances of beating Brown. DeFranco, who had ­only $8,000 in her campaign account on April 1, also brushes aside notions that she lacks the resources to mount a serious campaign against either Warren or Brown.

“It is totally unreasonable to say that,’’ DeFranco said of those who are urging her to drop her bid. Asked what she thought about Johnston’s comment that her presence in the primary is a “suicidal exercise for the party,” DeFranco was firm. “Shutting down democracy is suicidal,” she said.

She vowed her band of volunteers and her grass-roots support will rebuff attempts by what she called the party’s ­machine and its “immense war chest’’ to shut down her campaign at the convention.

Frank Phillips can be reached at

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