This weekend, Democrats around the state begin caucusing in town halls, libraries and private homes to select their nominees for the U.S. Senate. The candidates must get at least 15 percent of the caucus votes, as well as 10,000 voter signatures, to be eligible for the primary ballot.
There are two candidates who have their eyes set on the Democratic primary — Marisa DeFranco and Jim King. And then there’s Elizabeth Warren. She appears to be focused on the general election to unseat Republican Sen. Scott Brown.
At a recent phone bank at Warren's headquarters in Somerville, more than a dozen volunteers worked the phones. They were not mentioning the September primary; they were talking about Brown and November.
Since Warren's entry into the race, five Democratic candidates have given up their campaigns in apparent recognition that they didn’t have a chance against her. But King and DeFranco are not deterred, though they say they're frustrated that Warren rarely engages with them in primary events, such as this one at Boston Latin School*.
"We’d love to have Elizabeth Warren here and in other forums in the future," King said. That way, "we can articulate our individual positions on the issues that are important in this campaign. And I think hopefully you and I can be successful in getting that done."
DeFranco chimed in: "But if not we’re a pretty good show on our own. Right, Jim?"
"That’s right, that’s right," King nodded.
And that’s what they’ve become — a show on their own. Warren has been a no-show at five candidate forums held by Democratic town committees since she declared in mid-September. Two towns canceled their events after Warren declined to take part. There’s one Thursday night in Maynard that Warren’s campaign says she can’t attend because of scheduling.
Maura Flynn, Maynard’s chair of the town committee, says Warren is sending the message that "she’s too good for everybody. This is the feeling that I get. This is very elitist to me to when I hear that she’s too busy."
Warren was not available to comment for this story. However her campaign noted that Warren did attend a union-organized forum last weekend. And her staff has held 95 meetings throughout the state and says more than 3,000 people have participated. Warren’s campaign says she is working across Massachusetts to earn the Democratic nomination with the message that she’ll fight for the middle class and take on big banks.
John Walsh, chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, wouldn't criticize Warren for not attending some forums because he says each candidate has a different strategy for winning.
"I’m certain that all of these candidates are aggressively pursuing that grassroots strategy," Walsh said, "whether one has 'ABC' and 'DEF' -- that’s up to them.
"But there is no question each of these candidates is aggressively engaging the grassroots and I think that’s smart, and if I felt they weren’t, I’d be calling any of them and saying, 'Hey, what the heck are you doing?' "
Despite her absence from most primary forums, Warren is leading the Democratic field. She’s raised $6 million and a December poll showed she would beat Brown in a general election.
Meanwhile, DeFranco and King are running shoestring campaigns. DeFranco says she’s raised $50,000; King's raised $100,000. They both hold campaign events around the state and make sure they spend time talking with people, as they did at the Boston Latin forum.
DeFranco often references her solo immigration law practice in Middleton, saying it gives her real world experience as a small business owner. DeFranco says her priority is to create more jobs and she notes one way to do that involves switching to a single-payer health care system.
DeFranco also says she wants to loosen immigration rules, because, she said, "there’s no avenue for anything else besides high-skilled workers." She added, "people need to come to the reality that we need to have an avenue for skilled workers, highly skilled workers and everything else in between."
Like DeFranco, King is an attorney. He once worked in the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice and now runs his own law firm, with offices in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.
King highlights jobs, too, calling for a massive public works program to create openings. And he says he would defend the Health Care Reform Act. On foreign policy, King says it’s time for the U.S. to scale back its international intervention.
"I’d get out of Afghanistan now," he said. "I think the way we conduct ourselves effectively in foreign policy is by our actions, by example."
These are the kinds of issues that King and DeFranco both say they'll continue to address at community forums. But they also say they want to debate Warren in a higher-profile format. At this stage, there are no scheduled debates before the primary vote.
As for the caucuses starting this weekend, Warren’s campaign says she’s been building a grassroots army of caucusgoers and is confident she’ll have a strong turnout in the coming weeks. All the candidates face a May 8 deadline — each has to collect 10,000 voter signatures by then — to secure their names on the primary ballot.
Correction: An earlier version of this post mixed up Boston Latin Academy and Boston Latin School. The forum was held at Boston Latin School.
This program aired on February 9, 2012.