Politics Is A Party When The President Visits

President Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry were in great spirits at the packed benefit concert for Kerry's campaign Saturday evening at Boston's Fleet Center. Kerry joked to the largely Boomer crowd that they would have been surprised if 30 years ago someone predicted they would all be at a "political rally and everybody kept their clothes on."

When Mr. Clinton spoke at the end of the concert, he mentioned that Kerry had told the joke. And then the President said: "We had all these people from the '60s play, and we kept our clothes on. Next thing John Kerry will be doing the Macarena with Al Gore."

The concert featured Carly Simon, Peter, Paul, and Mary and aging rockers Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and Crosby Stills & Nash. As a concert it wasn't all that great, except for Peter, Paul and Mary, who did a nice job with trademark '60s numbers "If I Had a Hammer" and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." And the trio played "Puff the Magic Dragon" as Mr. Clinton, the president who didn't inhale, was sitting in the first row, right next to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Carly Simon made the evening's biggest gaffe, referring to Mr. Clinton as "President Kennedy."

Crosby, Stills and Nash dedicated their song "Helplessly Hoping" to Bob Dole's campaign. That was the highlight of a mediocre set.

Besides Boomers, the crowd was well sprinkled with the Alanis Morissette generation. Hundreds of college students, among them 55 members of Brown University's College Democrats, were at the Fleet Center. After the concert, Sarah Havens, a Brown sophomore who is president of the College Democrats, was both tactful and incisive.

"The music was aimed at an older crowd, but that is natural because they are the ones who give the most money," said Havens.

Kerry supporters paid as much as $1,000 per ticket for the event.

During his Saturday swing through Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Mr. Clinton said little that was new or of substance, studiously avoided the press -- except for a limousine interview with a Boston Globe reporter -- and raised lots of campaign cash for Democrats.

At this point, Mr. Clinton's campaign seems mostly gloss and showy spectacle, resembling nothing so much as Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, which featured the famous "Morning in America" television ads.

In the Saturday events, there was nary a word from the President on what he plans to do in what is beginning to look like an inevitable second term.

Masterful public relations

Not for nothing did Laborers' Union president Arthur A. Coia put public relations high on the list of strengths that he trumpeted last week at his convention in Las Vegas.

The four-day show in the shadow of the famous neon Strip was a monument to campaigns pioneered by another great union man: Ronald Reagan, once the president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Like Reagan (and another successful imitator, Bill Clinton), Coia has entrusted his reelection message to skilled professionals. Coia's longtime Washington consultant Vic Kamber uses PR techniques like those of Reagan's backstage genius, Michael Deaver.

Behind the pyrotechnics -- glossy videos, a laser show, a rock music score -- the formula is basic: Keep the message simple and repeat, repeat, repeat.

The message from Vegas put Coia in the bosom of a united, God-fearing family whose cause is the American worker.

The cause links every Laborer -- from Coia to the rank-and-file worker at Providence City Hall. It also enfolds Democrats from President Clinton to the most obscure candidate for Republican-held seats in Congress.

The enemies -- Republicans, business leaders and some in the media -- traffic in what Coia called "vicious lies."

A sense of family tradition was part of the recurring theme first sounded when Coia rolled a scroll on the big screen behind him that memorialized the Laborers departed since the last convention, in 1991. His father, Arthur E. Coia, and his predecessor and sometime rival, Angelo Fosco, were at the top of the list.

Like Reagan's State of the Union addresses, Coia's State of the Union address included a cavalcade of ordinary heroes who stood for applause. Coia credited one Laborers organizer with the greatest labor victory in decades, the unionization of a 1,700-member bloc in New York. (The Teamsters and nurses who organized 1,800 workers at Rhode Island Hospital in 1993 were not on hand to dispute that.)

Giving the invocation one day was the Rt. Rev. Galliano Cavallaro, who in Coia's words, "buried my father" and presided at his daughter's wedding. The Federal Hill priest also vouched for the late New England boss of organized crime, Raymond L.S. Patriarca, at a parole hearing. Cavallaro also solicited contributions for the legal defense of the two Coias when they were indicted for racketeering in 1981, along with Fosco and Patriarca. Cavallaro denounced the case against the Coias, which was eventually thrown out, as part of a federal campaign "to repress individual rights."

Coia was nominated for reelection by his cousin, Ronald M. Coia, of Local 271 in Providence. Seconding was James Merloni Jr. of Framingham, Mass., who compared Coia's "dream" to that of Martin Luther King Jr. Merloni and Local 1033 president Joseph Virgilio of Providence were called on several times during the week to defend proposals by the Coia forces.

Another repeat performer was Armand E. Sabatoni, the son of a Rhode Island Laborers leader who is a rising star in the union and active in state politics. He was elected as a regional officer to the union's executive board.

During his speech accepting nomination to the fall ballot for general president, Coia was surrounded by family: his wife, Joanne; his son Arthur E. Coia II, a Georgetown Law School graduate who recently passed the bar; his daughter Chrissie and son-in-law Darren Corrente -- who is the son of longtime Coia business partner Frank Corrente. The elder Corrente is also administration director for Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. Corrente negotiates municipal workers' contracts across the table from Virgilio.

Rolling the boulder uphill

Republican Giovanni Cicione may not have much money or any chance of defeating Congressman Patrick Kennedy, but most voters would probably agree that Cicione deserves at least one televised debate on a major market Rhode Island station to make his case. Channel 10 has invited both Cicione and Kennedy to debate. Cicione quickly agreed, but there has been no word yet from Kennedy.

"We're going to do a TV debate, we just don't know which TV debate," said Larry Berman, Kennedy spokesman. Berman said the debate may not be on one of the area network stations that draw a large number of viewers. Kennedy may decide to accept only a local cable access debate or one on Channel 36, which would keep down the number of people watching.

By the way, Berman has no compunction answering campaign questions while remaining on Kennedy's taxpayer-financed congressional payroll.

When asked last week about the Channel 10 invitation, Berman said: "Why should we do it? We would just be giving him expousure. Nobody knows him."

This is in sharp contrast to Jack Reed, whose press secretary, Todd Andrews, moved off the public payroll and onto the campaign staff in August when the political season got rolling.

Berman says press spokesmen are given "wide latitude to discuss" a congressman's record during a campaign.

Cicione, who faces a Sisyphean challenge if there ever was one, says he sometimes feels as though "I'm running against Larry Berman, not Patrick Kennedy."

Kennedy has not bothered to hire a campaign press secretary this year, a role Berman filled in 1996.

Primary victim

Perhaps the biggest suprise in this month's General Assembly primaries was the upset of Sen. Helen Mathieu, one of the Senate's leading opponents of abortion. It was the Portsmouth Democrat who last year bucked Senate Majority Leader Paul Kelly to spring from committee a bill that would require a

24-hour wait for an abortion. The measure passed the Senate but died in the House.

The veteran lawmaker blames her defeat by a political novice on low voter turnout and efforts to unseat her by organized labor and advocates of abortion and gay rights.

"Primaries are dangerous to an incumbent," says Mathieu, who had not faced a primary contest since her first Senate race a decade ago. Mathieu held her own in her hometown, but lost to Karen Nygaard of Bristol in the parts of Bristol and Warren included in her district.

Mathieu says that unlike Pawtucket Sen. John McBurney, who mounted a successful drive to defeat an opponent backed by Kelly, she did not realize she was in trouble until too late.

But the lawmaker vows not to disappear once she leaves office in January. "I'm not going away," she says.

Meanwhile, back at the bar . . .

Clinton Kickin' Donkey Lager is running way ahead of Dole's Pachyderm Ale in the Trinity Brew House brewpub poll. Through yesterday, 952 pints of the President's lager have been sold. Only 568 pints of Dole's Ale has been downed by Trinity customers.

Political Scene can be contacted by e-mail at this address: rgarland@projo.com.

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