HAVE IDEALISTS SLIPPED from the endangered species list to extinct status in Massachusetts politics? If you've thought so, consider John Bonifaz, the 35-year-old dynamo who is the founder and driving force behind the National Voting Rights Institute, a Boston-based but nationally important public interest law firm that focuses on campaign finance reform.
Now Bonifaz, a 1987 graduate of Brown University, a 1992 graduate of Harvard Law School, and a 1999 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ''genius'' grant, is eyeing an even bigger challenge. He's testing the waters for an independent candidacy against US Senator John F. Kerry.
''We ought not to have uncontested elections,'' Bonifaz declares. ''Democracy requires debate. No one is entitled to their seat.''
And so, while Kerry glances cautiously over his right shoulder, hoping to avoid a Republican opponent as he readies a reelection effort designed to boost him toward a presidential campaign, Bonifaz is plotting to come at him from the left. Across the progressive agenda, Bonifaz, who is politically unenrolled, has a long list where he feels the state's junior senator simply comes up short.
Certainly his own platform would offer succor for progressives hungry for a true believer amid the New Democrats and neoliberals. For example, there's his call for a minimum (living) wage of at least $10.70 an hour. His rejection of a war on drugs that lands thousands in prison rather than in treatment. His desire for fair trade treaties that protect human rights and the environment. His advocacy of publicly financed campaigns. And his support for a single-payer universal-health care system.
Kerry has been tepid or unenergetic on most of those issues, contends his might-be challenger, who uses the state's Clean Elections law to illustrate his point. Although Kerry is cosponsor of legislation for publicly financed federal campaigns, he has sat on the sidelines while the House has undermined the law to bring about publicly financed state elections, Bonifaz says.
''He has put no pressure on Speaker Finneran,'' says Bonifaz. ''I would expect him to speak out on the actions of his own party leadership in gutting the law.... It raises questions about how vigorously he is pulling for an overhaul of our campaign finance system.''
An equally illustrative issue, he says, is Kerry's response to the Bush tax cut. While Kerry voted for the Democrats' $900 billion alternative, Bonifaz would have opposed any tax cut because he sees too many unmet needs elsewhere.
Bonifaz, a resident of Jamaica Plain, also looks askance at Kerry's strategy of raising millions under the guise of a reelection campaign, funds he suspects will then be channeled into a national campaign. Kerry needs to come clean now about his presidential plans, he says. ''Voters are entitled to know whether he's running or not,'' he declares.
Now, Bonifaz isn't Don Quixote - not quite - and this campaign is not yet a foregone conclusion. To test his viability, an informal 11-person steering committee has quietly fanned out via e-mail seeking pledges of support. If he has $100,000 promised by Oct. 1, he will set up a campaign committee, putting him on the likely road to a run. (Making the ballot would require collecting the signatures of 10,000 registered voters.) So far he has received $33,000 in commitments, Bonifaz says.
Gut-check time. In 1996, Kerry turned back a challenge from then Governor William Weld, a formidable, well-financed foe. Does Bonifaz know how difficult it would be for a political unknown to unseat an incumbent sitting on a $2.3 million war chest?
Yes, he does, replies the might-be candidate. But he also insists that the citizens campaign he contemplates matches the temper of a time when many voters feel alienated by the last presidential election and disenfranchised by the influence of big money in politics. That's why Kerry's advantages don't faze him. ''I am not really scared off by John Kerry's power or war chest,'' Bonifaz says. ''It is precisely the fact that he would like to scare off any challengers that would make the campaign worthwhile if I chose to do it.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company