For Massachusetts’ Democratic primary voters, the 2022 election cycle can be tough to parse. The candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general and auditor aren’t the same, exactly — they have different biographies and plans for their would-be jobs — but when it comes to political identity, each one checks a bevy of boxes that point toward progressivism. The challenge, it seems, is figuring out which iteration of progressivism one prefers.
The race for secretary of state is different. It’s not just that the incumbent, Bill Galvin, has served seven terms, while challenger Tanisha Sullivan is meeting the general public as a first-time candidate. The two differ in pretty much every way imaginable — ideologically, stylistically, and demographically, and on the question of how democracy in Massachusetts stacks up to the rest of the country at a fraught moment in history. Sullivan has some enviable political strengths Galvin lacks, and she’s shown a knack for wooing the Democratic base. Still, with the primary a week and a half away, it’s Galvin who appears to have the lead.
On the road with a seven-term incumbent
Galvin’s unusual M.O. was on display last week at the Brockton senior picnic, an annual affair that went on hiatus during the pandemic. For a vote-hungry politician, the event oozed potential: a couple hundred civically minded old folks, their moods buoyed by free Italian food and tunes from Billy Couto and the After Hours, packed into the Brockton High School cafeteria and waiting to be pitched.
But Galvin hung back. As Plymouth County district attorney candidate Rahsaan Hall walked from table to table, Galvin stayed at the room’s edge, engaging when approached but otherwise watching quietly.
In the end, he didn’t have to work the room — because when Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan greeted the crowd, he turned Galvin into the guest of honor. When he became mayor in 2020, Sullivan said, his top priority was obtaining a U.S. Census count that would reflect the fact that Brockton has more than 100,000 residents; otherwise, valuable federal funding would be lost.
“I spoke to Mr. Galvin, and he said, ‘Hey, would $50,000 help you to ramp up the marketing of the census?’” Sullivan recalled. “And I said, ‘You’re damn right it will!’” Fast forward to today: Brockton now has an official population of around 106,000, Sullivan said — and millions of dollars in extra money to spend on its residents. “So, secretary, I want to thank you,” he said. “I want to thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Sullivan then yielded to Galvin — who cast himself, in subdued tones, as a peer of the picnic-goers. “I’ve been in politics a long time, as I think all of you know,” he said. “And many of you have told me you’ve voted for me for many years. I’m grateful for that. I need you to do it one more time.”
Under his watch, Galvin added, Massachusetts elections remain “free, fair and open.”
“We see what’s happening in the rest of the country, where they’re making it more difficult for people voting. They’re making it harder. That’s not the American way,” he said. After a quick story about getting pension payments for a Brockton man whose former employer thought he was deceased — “He wasn’t dead, we found him in about half an hour” — Galvin wrapped up.
“I’m out of the way of lunch,” he said. The crowd applauded. The whole speech took less than two minutes.
Who has the upper hand?
Temperamentally speaking, Galvin is an outlier. Unlike most other politicians, he isn’t visibly energized by interactions with constituents, and he’s an understated orator. But as the Brockton appearance suggests, there's a big advantage working in Galvin’s favor: by doing a job with sweeping responsibilities since the middle of the first Bush presidency, he’s built an accretion of relationships — with leaders and ordinary residents — that become assets every time a new election rolls around. (The official description of the secretary of state’s responsibilities conveys a sense of just how broad the role is: “Our office,” it states, “is responsible for the maintenance of public records, administration of elections, storage of historical data, preservation of historical sites, registration of corporations, and the filing and distribution of regulations and public documents.”)
Tanisha Sullivan, Galvin’s primary opponent, doesn’t have that luxury. Sullivan, a corporate lawyer who heads the NAACP’s Boston branch, has crafted a sharp anti-Galvin narrative, and she boasts some enviable political strengths Galvin lacks. But she’s also a first-time candidate who’s trying to introduce herself to the state’s 4.8 million registered voters — while simultaneously convincing them that a man they’ve elected seven times before is the wrong choice.
Sullivan has already beaten Galvin once. At the Mass. Democratic Party’s nominating convention in Worcester back in June, she argued in her allotted time that — with American democracy teetering on the brink — Massachusetts should be serving as a beacon for the rest of the country. Instead, Sullivan said, the state’s civic fabric is far less robust than ought to be after two-plus decades of Galvin running elections.
Same-day voter registration, which became a reality in Maine 50 years ago, still isn’t in place here, Sullivan noted. And far too many members of marginalized groups — including Black, Latino and lower-income residents — stay home on Election Day instead of participating. Instead of actively working to change these and other shortcomings, she said, Galvin basically accepts the status quo.
“Massachusetts needs a secretary of state who fights on the ground,” Sullivan said, her volume rising as her speech neared its close. “Because who casts a ballot determines who we elect. And who we elect ... will determine whether we see racial, economic, social or environmental justice in our lifetime.”
It was the standout speech of the convention. Soon after, Sullivan won the party’s official endorsement with support from 62% of the delegates.
As impressive as that outcome was, though, recent history suggested it might not be predictive. Galvin lost the 2018 convention, too, to then-Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim — but then coasted to victory on primary day, beating Zakim by 35 points. Zakim, too, had hit Galvin for his longstanding coolness to electoral reforms — but during and after the pandemic, Galvin became an enthusiastic proponent of early voting, mail-in voting and same-day voter registration. (The Legislature omitted the latter reform from a voting bill passed this year; Sullivan contends Galvin didn’t do enough to push the issue on Beacon Hill.)
What’s more, since the convention, Sullivan’s odds seem to be moving in the wrong direction. In June, after she won the Democratic endorsement, a UMass Amherst poll showed Galvin with a significant but not insurmountable lead, 35% to 21%. But a MassINC Polling Group survey conducted in August found Galvin pulling away among likely Democratic primary voters, 43% to 15%. Recent campaign-finance findings suggest he’s feeling confident: Galvin spent less than $11,000 total in June and July combined, despite having more than $2 million in the bank. Sullivan spent more than $86,000 in that same period, closing out the month with just over $160,000 on hand.
Incumbency’s blessing, and curse
The networking possibilities offered by the secretary’s job are unusually rich. David D’Arcangelo, a Republican who ran against in Galvin in 2014 and now heads the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, points out that the secretary’s portfolio also includes monitoring securities offerings and protecting investors, tracking the activity of political lobbyists, and running the state's Citizen Information Service, which is essentially tasked with explaining how all levels of government work.
“He gets to see a lot of the machinations that government makes on a day-to-day basis,” D'Arcangelo said. “And he’s been paying attention for the past two decades.”
Being connected and being liked are two different things, however, and Galvin has always had plenty of detractors. His brooding public persona is one reason (“I can’t think, in my entire career, of anyone who has the same affect he has,” said one political consultant). His previous opposition to abortion, and historic coolness to voting reforms, likely contribute as well. Over the decades, Galvin’s penchant for behind-the-scenes machinations and sharp political infighting have become legendary and even earned him a nickname: the “Prince of Darkness.”
On Aug. 11, Sullivan stood in front of the Massachusetts State House to push a new line of attack centered on one of those vulnerabilities. After greeting supporters with the easy bonhomie of a born campaigner, Sullivan took the mic and hammered Galvin on abortion, casting him as an untrustworthy ally in a nation without Roe v. Wade.
“Today, across the country, we know that Republicans are passing strict abortion bans. More and more states are punishing people who assist those seeking abortions,” Sullivan said. “And while it is true that our governor ... and our Legislature have taken important steps, it is also clear that all of our constitutional officers must step up.”
If she becomes secretary of state, Sullivan promised, she’ll do everything possible to push back against anti-abortion forces operating in Massachusetts. For example, she said, she’d compile a reproductive-rights grade for corporations operating in Massachusetts, based on factors like whether their employee healthcare covers abortions and whether they’ve assisted the prosecution of abortion recipients or providers elsewhere.
Sullivan’s entire campaign is based on the idea that Galvin doesn’t do his job with energy or imagination. But here, she added a twist — saying that, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion in June, Galvin’s previously stated opposition to abortion should be disqualifying. “He has supported a constitutional ban on abortion with no exception whatsoever, including rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake,” Sullivan said. “He has also been quoted as saying, ‘I oppose abortion.’”
Her attack drew sharp pushback from Galvin, who told GBH News that Sullivan was trafficking in ancient history by invoking positions he took dating back to the 1980s, when he was a state representative. Galvin said Sullivan is misrepresenting his current stance, too. ”I support, fully, the right of women to make decisions for themselves," he said.
He also cast Sullivan’s reproductive-rights grades as a bad idea, legally and politically. “You would run up against the Commerce Clause of the federal constitution if they were an out-of-state company,” he said. “You would run up against the First Amendment.
“If you want to do the same thing as [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis is attempting to do with Disney World, then what you’re basically saying is, ‘It’s OK to take advantage of corporate laws to try to advance some social policy, whatever that policy is,’” Galvin added. “I don’t think that’s the right way to persuade people.”
Sullivan’s abortion presser captured the extent to which her activist vision for the secretary’s job contrasts with Galvin’s more administrative one. But it also highlighted a harsh reality facing her campaign: when you’re a neophyte taking on an institution, even your natural allies may not back you publicly. Back in May, elected officials and advocates had gathered at the same spot in front of the State House to decry the impending reversal of Roe. But the big names from that event were absent as Sullivan called out Galvin — even though some of them may agree with her. Whatever the reasons for each absence, there was a good strategic argument to be made for keeping away. A new state law tasks the secretary with protecting the identities of Massachusetts abortion providers, and Galvin’s knack for winning reelection is well known — which makes antagonizing him, on this issue and in this race, a risky move.
“Most candidates, when they run for the first time, they lose,” said Erin O’Brien, a UMass Boston political scientist and co-editor of “The Politics of Massachusetts Exceptionalism: Reputation Meets Reality.” “Because you learn by running the first time; you see your mistakes. [And] she’s running against someone who’s been in office for a very long time. When you’re in office for 25 years, people know you, and you’ve built up favors and professional relationships.”
The right candidate for 2022
Between some distrust of Galvin and her own campaign’s strengths, Sullivan has been able to garner some significant endorsements. Some are from entities whose progressivism naturally squares with her own, like Our Revolution Massachusetts and Progressive Massachusetts. But she’s also been backed by IBEW Local 103, a union shop that has thrown its weight behind centrists like former Boston mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George — but also helped then-Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley oust then-Congressman Mike Capuano in 2018. (Galvin’s endorsers include the Mass. Teachers Association and Mass. Nurses Association.)
There are some striking parallels between that race and this one. Like Sullivan, Pressley was running from the left against one of the state’s biggest Democratic names. And like Sullivan, she was running to make history, as the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. Sullivan would be the first Black woman elected statewide if she wins, a distinction also being sought by AG hopeful Andrea Campbell.
Pressley endorsed Sullivan in June — and recently, the two women stumped together in Boston, Pressley suggested another point of comparison. In her race against Capuano, Pressley recalled, she trailed just before the primary — but then she won in a landslide. “Don’t ride the roller coaster,” Pressley urged, according to the Bay State Banner. “You cannot poll transformation.”
Yet there are also clear differences between the two contests. Pressley already had an impressive record of electoral success: she’d gone out to garner votes across all of Boston five times as an at-large city council candidate, winning election in all but one and topping the ticket on three occasions. Sullivan is an established political player and has been a prominent voice on issues like police reform and educational equity, but she’s never held elected government office.
"She's saying, 'Hey, Massachusetts needs to do better! We should be leaders!' It's a cajoling way of using Massachusetts exceptionalism."Erin O’Brien, UMass Boston political scientist
There’s also a unique emotional wrinkle to the secretary of state’s race. In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the reversal of Roe, with restrictive voting laws proliferating across the country and a possible Trump 2024 presidential bid looming, Massachusetts residents who dislike the country’s direction may prefer to see their state as a redoubt for politics as it should be. (The winner of the primary will face Republican Rayla Campbell, a far-right conservative, in November’s general election.)
“She’s saying, ‘Hey, Massachusetts needs to do better! We should be leaders!’ It’s a cajoling way of using Massachusetts exceptionalism,” said O’Brien, the UMass Boston political scientist. “[Galvin] is saying, ‘We’re already exceptional.’ Then it’s up to the voters to choose which version they want.”
Sullivan insists that Galvin has teed her up to make her case. The August MassINC poll that showed her trailing, she notes, also found that 33% of Massachusetts residents hadn’t heard of Galvin at all, despite his penchant for putting his name and face on voter guides and PSAs.
“One would expect that after 27 years of being in office — 27 years of being in a statewide constitutional office responsible for the advancement of voting rights — that more people would be familiar with Bill Galvin,” Sullivan said. When she talks with voters, Sullivan added, “They are enthusiastic. They are full of hope. And they are becoming supporters of our campaign.”
The catch is, that same poll showed that 71% of likely primary voters hadn’t heard of Sullivan. And even if they do, some of them may be unpersuadable — like Gerry Osborne, who said at the Brockton senior picnic that supporting Galvin is a matter of principle. “I know that that is the way that people are approaching us now,” Osborne said. “‘We need a woman in there because,’ ‘We need a minority person in there because.’ And I agree, in many aspects. But when a person has consistently been doing the job that you want them to do, then you do not not support them.”
But another picnic-goer was more open to change. Claire Braye said that for her, abortion rights are top of mind — and that she’d approached Galvin specifically to discuss the topic. “I watched his debate with — I don’t know her name, but she sounded like she was more pro-choice than him,” Braye said. “And he’s older, you know, so I’m debating.
“He said that he thinks it's a choice of a woman,” Braye added. “I think it's got to go further, because look what's happening in the world.”
She could be a Sullivan voter — especially if she learns Sullivan’s name before Sept. 6.
Editor’s note: Tanisha Sullivan is on GBH’s board of advisors.