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Boston Globe

Clock ticking for O'Brien 
By Eileen McNamara
October 27, 2002

The kooks should be excluded from the final Massachusetts gubernatorial debate on Tuesday night. That way, Jill Stein will have the stage all to herself. Barbara Johnson, the independent running for governor, noted at the debate the other night that there are ''kooks everywhere.'' It was hard not to notice how many were in the studio, posing as serious candidates to lead the Commonwealth.

It is easy to be dismissive of the rambling, incoherent Johnson or the gun-toting, robotic Libertarian, Carla Howell. But it is a commentary on the state of political discourse in Massachusetts that the Republican and Democratic candidates register no higher on the credibility meter little more than a week before Election Day.

If the inclusive debate format has demonstrated nothing else, it has established that Green is synonymous with Grownup in Massachusetts this election cycle. The two major-party candidates for governor have proven themselves no better than schoolyard scrappers.

Did Shannon O'Brien think voters would not notice that she launched a fresh attack ad against Mitt Romney only hours after bemoaning the negativity of the campaign? If, as she contends, ''the campaign has taken a tone that has gotten in the way of the important messages that people want to hear,'' why didn't she unilaterally raise the level of debate?

Did Romney think voters would accept uncritically his self-appraisal as a star in ''the investor Hall of Fame,'' when his success came at the cost of jobs and pensions for so many working men and women? If his plans for job creation amount to no more than lunching with fellow millionaire CEOs in an effort to lure them to the Commonwealth, how many taxpayers would just as soon save the cost of the lunch?

That is the fundamental flaw with both campaigns. O'Brien and Romney are talking to each other and about themselves, not to or about the people they propose to lead. Neither evinces even the slightest clue about the realities of an economy dominated by low-wage service jobs, a health care system hobbled by insurance restrictions and prohibitively expensive drugs, a housing market constricted by high rents and low vacancy rates.

Nowhere is the evidence of O'Brien's failure to articulate a vision progressives could embrace clearer than in the desperation tactics adopted by her supporters, fearful of losing votes to Stein. An Arlington School Committee member, for instance, has bought the rights to, the disorganized Greens having neglected to pay the $19 fee to register the Web site. Voters who log on to are diverted to, where they are warned not to ''throw away'' their votes on a ''fringe'' candidate.

''A vote for Jill Stein just brings you four more years of Weld-Cellucci-Swift-Romney-Healey business as usual,'' the Arlington Democrat, Paul Schlichtman, intones in bold letters. ''Don't let Mitt happen. Omit Mitt in 2002.''

If Massachusetts voters elect Romney, O'Brien will be more responsible than Stein, a physician and Harvard Medical School professor from Lexington who entered this race to raise the issues, not to play the spoiler, the name applied to any third party candidate who challenges the status quo.

There is a simple solution to the ''spoiler'' issue that neither of the major parties is willing to embrace: instant runoff voting that requires a candidate to win a majority of votes, not just a plurality. Instead of voting for a single candidate in a multi-candidate election, voters would rank them by preference. A Stein voter worried that his ballot might help Romney could rank O'Brien as his second choice. If Stein failed to win a majority of votes, his vote would go then to O'Brien.

Too bad we don't have instant runoff voting in Massachusetts. But elections are about values. Telling progressive Democrats that they are throwing away their vote to support the only apparent adult in the governor's race is a losing strategy. O'Brien has nine days to grow up and start winning those votes instead.

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