The scene: Boston. A Chinatown restaurant just off Essex Street. Lavender walls and brushed ink paintings. A buffet spread complete with beef broccoli, fried rice and mu shu pork. And a big, green banner proclaiming “Steve Pagliuca For Senate.”
But where was Pagliuca? This was his campaign event. Supporters had come, so had people who were undecided, but interested. I was standing in the back of the room, watching people milling around when it became clear that everyone was wondering when the candidate would show.
In fact, he was there.
Just waiting in line. Looking kind of surprised and excited that he was going to be let in. To his own event.
That, to me, was the Steve Pagliuca that Massachusetts didn’t really get to know. That combination of earnestness and political naivete that made him perhaps not the most inspiring candidate to vote for, but a very interesting candidate to cover.
Pagliuca finally squeezed into the room and started making the rounds.
“Hi, I’m Steve Pagliuca… Hi, I’m Steve Pagliuca…” Shaking hands, politely listening to introductions. Trying to find a way to relate to people he met, sometimes with a politically savvy question (“You’re part of a young Asians leadership group? We need more people like you. What are your ideas for how we can improve the state?”), sometimes with good-natured but gauche stabs at cultural connection (“I did a lot of business in Asia. I love Chinese food.”).
Then, in front of that Celtic green campaign banner, Pagliuca stood up and gave his stump speech — jobs, health care — took some questions, and gamely answered the more probing ones with long answers that spoke to a level of policy and detail that impressed the interested and captive audience but made for poor television. The camera men there all took a break.
People filed out, murmuring positive things. But the undecideds still stubbornly clung to their undecided-ness.
The rest is now history. Pagliuca spent about $9 million of his own money on the campaign. He still lost. That is a very expensive fourth-place trophy.
As a reporter, my mind keeps turning back to that Chinatown event. It said a lot about Pagliuca and his problems as a candidate. He was too green, politically. He didn’t have the polish. He misread the mood of the Massachusetts voter. People liked him, but they weren’t wowed by him.
But the event also said much about Massachusetts voters. It raised more questions in my mind as a reporter than it answered. Those undecideds — why were they still so undecided, even unmotivated, to vote? We heard so often in the race that “no one can fill Ted Kennedy’s shoes.” We accepted that Kennedy’s example was the apotheosis of political service. It’s as if Massachusetts had been lulled into a half-century of voter inaction by its powerful, productive, legendary senator.
But Kennedy is now gone. Massachusetts, however, doesn’t want to wake up. Turnout in Tuesday’s primary was barely more than 20 percent. I heard one Waltham voter wonder if Kennedy would have disapproved. “I voted because Ted would want us to,” she told me.
The natural reporter’s follow-up question: Where was everybody else? In Pagliuca’s case, voters turned out for the mu shu pork. They didn’t turn out for the primary.