Tuesday May 29, 2012

The New York Times

MIDDLETON -- As the lone Democrat seeking to challenge Elizabeth Warren in the Senate primary in Massach usetts, Marisa De Franco has been ridiculed, admonished and, worst of all, ignored.

But for the moment, De Franco, an imm igration lawyer with high energy and a scrappy band of volunteers, is enjoying a burst of momentum. She surprised party insiders by collecting enough valid signatures by the May 1 deadline -- more than 10,000, gathered ev ery where from town meetings to town dumps -- to qualify for the Dem ocratic primary on Sept. 6.

If DeFranco clears one more hurdle -- winning 15 percent of the delegate vote at the state Democratic convention in Springfield next Saturday -- she will secure a spot on the primary ballot, giving Warren, a nationally known consumer advocate, an unwanted distraction from her anticipated showdown with Sen. Scott P. Brown, the Republican incumbent.

"I’m sick and tired of party bosses or machines telling us who’s going to be the candidate," said DeFranco, who is 41. "The democratic process should be messy; it’s a test, it’s a gauntlet."

DeFranco’s only other experience as a candidate was a run for the City Council in Peabody in 2001.


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She lost, but ended up making headlines for another reason: filing a complaint with the state after she got barred from a dinner at a veterans’ post, which some of her male opponents were attending, because she was a woman.

She decided to run for the Senate after the state attorney general, Martha Coakley, lost to Brown in the 2010 special election following Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death. DeFranco had volunteered for the Coakley campaign and watched, stricken, as the Democratic candidate conceded on election night.

"I was devastated, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m running for this seat,"’ she said during a recent interview at her bare-bones campaign office in this town north of Boston, where she also lives. "No one believed me. They laughed."

DeFranco, who grew up in Erie, Pa., and moved to Boston in 1993 to attend law school, declared her candidacy in March last year, months before Warren did. Six other Democrats, all men, also entered the race but have since dropped out.

DeFranco has made it this far with about $40,000 in donations, according to the most recent campaign filings, and some 40 volunteers, including her husband and mother but also a number of people who met her over the last year. DeFranco’s campaign also hired a handful of professional signature gatherers to help reach the 10,000 required under state law, she said. Warren has raised more than $15 million.

John Walsh, the chairman of the Massachusetts Dem ocratic Party, said DeFranco would almost certainly get enough delegate votes at the convention to make the ballot. The front-runner would have to get more than 85 percent of the delegate vote to knock primary challengers out of the race, something that has not happened since 1982, he said.

"My own belief is that competition is good and healthy and makes us stronger," Walsh said. "I hear there are a lot of people who have a different opinion, and what’s going to happen on the floor of the convention hall is you will have 4,000, 5,000 delegates weighing that question."

DeFranco is to the left of Warren on a number of issues, including health care (she supports a single-payer system) and national security (Warren is more hawkish). She thinks Warren is too focused on the need for financial regulation -- a "one-trick pony," as Nancy Weinberg, a DeFranco supporter from Newbury, put it during a conversation here.

DeFranco tartly dismissed Warren’s recent call for Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, to resign from the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York after his company revealed that it had lost at least $2 billion in bad trades.

"Who’s not going to be for firing Jamie Dimon?" she said. "It’s kind of like a throwaway. Tell me what you’re going to do that’s going to change the average person’s life in Massachusetts."

Nor has DeFranco refrained from criticizing Warren’s handling of a controversy over whether she had misrepresented herself as a member of an ethnic minority, which stemmed from a Boston Herald article last month. The Herald reported that Harvard Law School, where Warren teaches, had once described her as American Indian when it was under criticism for hiring too many white men.

Warren has claimed she is descended from two tribes, saying she was told so by her family, but has offered no documentation. She has also not explained why a Harvard official described her to The Harvard Crimson as a Native American in 1996.

"It says to me that they’re not good on defense, they’re not good in panic mode and they lack a clear, consistent message," DeFranco said of Warren’s campaign.

Warren has barely acknowledged her so far, although DeFranco, with evident pride, noted that aides to both Warren and Brown had started following her on Twitter.

Given the tremendous odds against her, DeFranco is almost flattered when she hears from Democrats pressuring her to abandon the race. One such critic, who sent her a "nasty" email that she answered with a phone call, was typical, she said.

"They said, ‘You’re running for control of the United States Senate,’ and they just hung up on me," she said. "The way I see it, you’re really running for what you can do for the people in the state you live in."

No one close to DeFranco has urged her to drop out, she said, at least not yet. Her father, a retired doctor who "thinks I’m too smart to be in the United States Senate," only wishes for her to get more attention.

"He gets very frustrated," she said. "He’s calling me on the phone, and he’s like, ‘Why isn’t Rachel Maddow having you on?"’