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From Left To Right, Inequality At Center Of Governor’s Race

Democrat Martha Coakley criticized Republican Charlie Baker for his qualified support of an increase in the minimum wage. Baker says he supports a raise combined with other reforms. (Steven Senne/AP)

Democrat Martha Coakley criticized Republican Charlie Baker for his qualified support of an increase in the minimum wage. Baker says he supports a raise combined with other reforms. (Steven Senne/AP)

BOSTON — Campaigning is picking up in the Massachusetts governor’s race. Ten candidates are now courting party activists and voters across the state.

And on the campaign trail, many of the candidates are latching onto what’s become a major theme in national politics: economic inequality.

Democrats Seek Distinction

If you’ve been listening to the rhetoric coming out of Washington these past few months, you’ve probably noticed a trend. Democrats and Republicans alike are addressing inequality.

Fifty years after President Johnson declared a War on Poverty, inequality is once again at the center of American politics. And it appears the candidates for governor here have taken note.

“I think he cares very deeply about income inequality,” Howard Dean said of Democrat Steve Grossman, above. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

“I think he cares very deeply about income inequality,” Howard Dean said of Democrat Steve Grossman, above. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Five Democrats, two Republicans and three independents want the job. And all the leading candidates are talking about this issue.

In a recent speech at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, one of those candidates, Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley, called income inequality the “next great challenge.”

“The difference between the haves and the have-nots in this country is stark,” she said. “But it’s among the sharpest right here in Massachusetts. We’re No. 4 in the U.S. when it comes to income inequality.”

State Treasurer Steve Grossman, another Democrat, brought in a big-name progressive to vouch for him: former presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

“He cares very deeply about income inequality,” Dean said.

At the moment, the Democratic candidates are focused on a pretty small subset of voters: party activists, who are gathering at hundreds of caucuses around the state to elect delegates to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention in June. Candidates will need at least 15 percent of those delegates to qualify for the party’s primary ballot in September.

Political strategist Doug Rubin, who is advising Coakley, says the focus on income inequality resonates with the Democratic base.

“I think it plays well with a broad audience all across Massachusetts,” he said. “But it is an issue that you do hear, and that Martha hears, as she travels around the state and goes to caucus meetings or goes to grassroots meetings in diners and in living rooms.”

On a recent night, the Bellingham Democratic Committee gathered for its monthly meeting not far from the Rhode Island border. They talked about their upcoming caucus, where local Democrats will pick eight delegates to the convention. And they touched on the issue du jour.

Dr. Donald Berwick is pitching himself as the true liberal in the gubernatorial race. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Donald Berwick is pitching himself as the true liberal in the governor’s race. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“Why is it that there was a time when even one person in the family could work and it was enough?” committee Chairman Kevin Tagliaferri asked. “Now two people have to work from every family and some of them have to work more than one job just to keep their head above water. The multi-billionaires, their situation does not seem to have changed.”

These Bellingham Democrats didn’t appear committed to any particular candidate.

And with many candidates talking about poverty and inequality, it’s possible that none of them will reap any particular advantage.

But Democratic strategist Scott Ferson, who is not aligned with any of the campaigns, says a candidate who can speak about this issue with passion has a real chance to break out.

“Democrats are sentimental for the fights of the past, you know, Robert Kennedy or the Great Society or the New Deal,” Ferson said. “And so we’re always looking for somebody who’s going to make that historical connection in a forward-looking way.”

Ferson says neither of the best-known candidates on the Democratic side, Coakley and Grossman, are emerging as populist firebrands.

So this progressive moment may offer the most upside to lesser-known Democrats, like homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem or former Obama administration health care official Donald Berwick.

At a recent gathering of municipal officials, Berwick pitched himself as the race’s true liberal.

“Let’s set a vision,” he said. “Let’s decide together what hills we want to take. For me, it’s the end of poverty, the end of hunger, the restoration of social justice and the vocabulary of compassion and equality in our commonwealth.”

Baker Seeks Complementary Measures

If the equality talk is playing an outsize role in the Democratic primary, it seems destined to shape the general election, too.

A coalition of labor, religious and progressive groups called Raise Up Massachusetts is pushing a pair of ballot measures that are sure to keep the issue front-and-center. One would make paid sick leave the law of the land. Another would hike the minimum wage.

That issue, boosting the minimum wage, is a big one all over the country. Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Maine and Pennsylvania are using it as a bludgeon against their GOP opponents.

Here in Massachusetts, the Democrat Coakley has already taken a shot at Republican Charlie Baker for his qualified support.

And it’s not just Baker’s opponents raising the issue. At a recent appearance at Dover-Sherborn High School, a student asked Baker if he’d support an increase in the minimum wage.

“Yeah, I would support raising it in Massachusetts, but I’d want to combine it with three other things,” Baker said.

Those three other things: small business tax credits, unemployment insurance reform and the creation of a new, state-level earned income tax credit — a direct payout to working families with small incomes.

National Republicans, like Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio, have also been emphasizing the earned income tax credit.

Baker says it promotes important values.

“Sure, I think making work pay is not only a worthy goal, it’s one we should pursue,” he said. “And this is one way to continue to pursue that.”

The Baker campaign believes his support for a package of reforms — one linked to the other — demonstrates a nuanced understanding of public policy.

Backing a minimum wage hike and an earned income tax credit also positions Baker as a moderate — vital for any Republican running in deep-blue Massachusetts.

It seems the emergence of income inequality as a political issue presents opportunities for every candidate.

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