Running for governor of Massachusetts as a Democrat is a competition in five parts, testing different skills; sort of like the pentathlon, without the rifles.
First, candidates must introduce themselves to campaign donors. This started more than a year before November's election, so candidates can hit up big donors for the maximum contribution in 2013, then try to get them to max out again in 2014. This tests each candidate's Rolodex, elevator speech and willingness to beg for money.
Then they introduce themselves to party activists. We're now in the midst of the caucus season, when the party faithful gather in cities and towns across Massachusetts to choose convention delegates. This tests the candidate's stamina and organization. There's a high degree of difficulty in this event, especially for a candidate who hasn't run statewide before.
Then comes the delegate roundup: months of one-on-one chats in which party activists perform litmus tests on the candidate's policy positions. Only candidates who score at least 15 percent of the delegates at the party convention in June get to continue in the competition.
In the fourth event, the candidates introduce themselves to Democrats who might vote in the September primary. The winner there will go into the medal round – facing Republican Charlie Baker, who lost to Deval Patrick in 2010 and is unopposed for his party's nomination this time, and two little-known independents, Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick.
Unlike Olympic events, the contestants for governor don't all begin at the same starting line. This year's crop of Democrats includes Martha Coakley, who has been around the track before, both as attorney general and in her hard-luck loss to Scott Brown for a U.S. Senate seat, and state Treasurer Steve Grossman, who has run statewide and served as chairman of the state Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee.
The newcomers start at a disadvantage, especially in the fund-raising and activist-courting events. They are Don Berwick, a health care official in the Obama administration, Joe Avellone, a physician, business owner and former Wellesley selectman, and Juliette Kayyem, who came by this week to introduce herself to the editors of the Daily News.
Kayyem took an unusual route to the campaign for governor. A Los Angeles native, she went from Harvard Law to the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, then run by Deval Patrick. She later joined Patrick on Beacon Hill as Undersecretary for Homeland Security, supervising, among other things, the Mass. National Guard. She then took a homeland security job in the Obama administration, which included several months dealing with state and local officials affected by the BP Gulf oil spill. Then came a stint as an oped columnist for the Boston Globe and a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Kayyem agrees that's not the typical resume of someone working up the ladder to statewide office, concedes name recognition is a serious hurdle and that, given her opinion writing, "I'm an opposition researcher's dream."
But her elevator speech is sound: She's got executive branch experience at the state and federal level; she has dealt with elected leaders of both parties; she is a passionate, principled progressive who wants to make her campaign about issues, not resumes.
That last isn't easy, especially through the first four events in the competition, in which all the Democrats play to the liberal party base. Kayyem hopes to distinguish herself by focusing on issues other candidates will consider secondary to the staples of jobs, education and infrastructure: climate change (including adaptation), the needs of veterans (including the importance of defense spending to the economy), and criminal justice reform.
On this last item, she won my encouragement. Patrick and Coakley, among others, have long said the right things about the need to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences, improve post-release supervision, reduce the prison population and move drug policy toward treatment instead of incarceration. They just haven't made it a priority. Other states, mostly conservative ones like Texas and Georgia, are well ahead of Massachusetts on these issues.
Kayyem also brings emergency management experience to the campaign, and she's one of the few political leaders in the state calling for an independent, public review of the handling of last year's Marathon bombing response. It's a matter of learning lessons, she says, not fixing blame.
Kayyem's opponents and skeptical voters will likely notice the holes in her resume: She's never run a business and never run for office. How can she understand how the economy works? Does she have what it takes to be a good retail politician? Can she shake hands for hours at a stretch and still keep her smile genuine?
We'll see. Deval Patrick hadn't run a business or run for office when he hit the campaign trail in 2006, and he's turned out to be a master politician. Elizabeth Warren had never been on a ballot before she took on Scott Brown two years ago, and she won over the voters face-to-face, in living rooms and coffee shops from Pittsfield to Provincetown.
Massachusetts voters tend to be cynical about pols who've spent too much time on Beacon Hill. They don't fall for every fresh face that hits the airwaves - remember Gabriel Gomez? – but they will listen to the elevator speech. That's why it's best not to write off Juliette Kayyem, or any of the other candidates with their sights set on the corner office.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at