BOSTON — On a recent Saturday morning, about 35 Democratic activists gathered at the Lexington Historical Society, a one-story white building festooned with red, white and blue bunting.
They were there to hear state Treasurer Steve Grossman, one of five Democrats running for Massachusetts governor.
Several of the activists Grossman had known for years. Others he’d met more recently.
“I remember being with many of you on a snowy afternoon at the Panera,” Grossman said. “We spent an hour, an hour and 15 minutes together. I learned a lot, because I took my father’s advice. He said, ‘Steve, you were born with one mouth and two ears, use them in that proportion.’ ”
It was classic Grossman. Not exactly rousing, but polite, upbeat and building on a history with party regulars.
Grossman served as chairman of the state Democratic Party in the early 1990s and chaired the Democratic National Committee at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
He’s counting on his long ties to local party activists and elected officials to carry him to victory at next month’s Democratic state convention in Worcester.
It’s a victory that, he hopes, will kickstart a campaign that’s lagged behind that of Attorney General Martha Coakley, who leads the Democratic field by large margins in the early polls.
“We’ve got to come out of this convention with a lot of momentum,” Grossman said, “and use those next two weeks to travel around the state and to expand that sense of energy and excitement and momentum. I think the convention will be … a catalytic moment.”
Analysts say it’s unclear if a convention victory would resonate much outside the political class; those events do not generally draw a lot of public interest. But there is a broad consensus that Grossman is the favorite to win the convention.
‘A Genetic Democrat’
The treasurer’s ties to the Democratic Party run deep. His grandfather Max, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, sold envelopes to politicians as part of the family business. He also worked on the mayoral campaign of John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, known as “Honey Fitz.”
“Somebody once asked me, ‘What kind of a Democrat are you?’,” Grossman said in a recent interview, trotting out a favorite campaign line. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Are you a Yellow Dog, liberal, what are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a genetic Democrat.’ ”
As a teenager, Grossman hung a JFK poster out his window at Phillips Exeter Academy. Later, he raised money for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign.
In 1990, he became chairman of a state Democratic Party reeling from Republican Bill Weld’s victory in the governor’s race. His rebuilding strategy began with grassroots meetings in all 40 state Senate districts.
Bob Peters, a member of the state Democratic committee who attended the recent gathering at the Lexington Historical Society, remembers those early-’90s meetings well.
“He took a party that really had taken a beating in the election and turned it around by doing the hard work of motivating the volunteers, taking back seat-by-seat … the state Senate,” Peters said.
Peters decided a few weeks back to support Grossman at the party convention in June. The treasurer will also have the support of dozens of elected officials.
One of them, state Rep. Jay Kaufman, introduced Grossman at the Lexington event. He called the treasurer a mensch, remembering how Grossman called his wife when her mother died.
“He called her up and was engaged with her for quite some time,” Kaufman said. “He had, presumably, a few other things to do. But he actually talked to her, he listened to her, asked to hear something about her mother. And that’s who he is.”
‘The Insider, In An Age Of Outsiders’
Democratic strategist Scott Ferson, who is not aligned with any of the gubernatorial campaigns, says Grossman’s approach is old-school.
“You or a relative or somebody you know dies or gets married, Steve Grossman will come and bring a gift,” he said. “You know, that stuff means something to people who play this game, and he’s a master at it.”
Grossman was elected state treasurer in 2010. And like all elected officials, he’s reaped political advantage from his official duties.
One of Grossman’s jobs is to chair the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Since he took office, the authority has approved $1.8 billion in school construction and renovation projects — about half of it paid out to date.
Among those projects: a new Elias Brookings Museum Magnet School in the city of Springfield. The original was destroyed by a tornado three years ago.
“You were in a classroom and you could see where things had come off the wall and computers had been thrown,” said Springfield City Councilor Kateri Walsh, standing on the windy construction site on a recent weekday afternoon. “If there ever had been any children in the building, the impact and the damage would have been terrible.”
Walsh, a longtime Grossman supporter, said the treasurer arrived within 48 hours with a bus full of state officials, pledging to rebuild.
She said she reminds locals of Grossman’s work on the Brookings and other Springfield schools as she collects signatures to get him on the ballot.
But this strategy — banking on support from hundreds of party insiders — is a bit out of date, according to longtime Democratic operative Lou DiNatale.
“He’s the quintessential insider, in an age of outsiders,” DiNatale said.
DiNatale said the big story of Massachusetts politics in recent years is the triumph of outsiders like Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
They rode grassroots enthusiasm to victory. “He’s been doing it the old way,” DiNatale said of Grossman. “He’s been doing it from the inside out. And the new way is outside in.”
But Grossman is trying to balance his image as party insider with stories of his lengthy business career atop the family’s marketing firm.
And at the moment, his biggest competition for the Democratic nomination is not a charismatic outsider; outsider candidates Donald Berwick, Juliette Kayyem and Joe Avellone have not yet caught fire. It’s another elected official — Coakley, the attorney general — who poses the biggest challenge.
But Ferson, the Democratic strategist, said it’s not clear that beating Coakley at the convention will yield big dividends.
Analysts expect a Grossman win and a solid showing by Coakley. If the result matches expectations, Ferson says, it’s possible that no candidate gets a significant post-convention bump.