ON PAPER, Michael Murphy's challenge to US Rep. J. Joseph Moakley has all the ingredients of a riveting political drama.
The incumbent is the dean of the delegation and chairman of a key committee. He rose to power in the old style -- cutting deals, rewarding friends, going along to get along. He was first elected to office in his 20s; now his 70s loom and his health is poor. Reelection has never been a problem -- his political machine flies on autopilot, and he has channeled enough pork to his district to overload a stockyard. Besides, his home base is South Boston -- an enclave where tribal loyalties run deep, and deepest of all for white Irish Democrats.
In the past Moakley has faced only nominal opposition. But this year the Republicans nominated a distinguished challenger with a high-octane resume. A handsome family man with a successful business career, Murphy has experience in judicial and municipal affairs plus a superb record of civic involvement. He has successfully run for office before, at both the local and state levels. He chairs the board of trustees of Roxbury Community College and is a director of Freedom House, the renowned social service center in Boston.
And one thing more: The challenger is African-American.
Talk about a contest that has it all! Age vs. youth. Beltway Democrat vs. "Contract With America" Republican. Career pol vs. man of many parts. Liberal vs. conservative. White vs. black. What a magnet for media coverage. What a backdrop for a surge of racial pride. What a scenario for fascinating debates.
Elsewhere, perhaps. This race is playing out in Massachusetts' 9th Congressional District, and though it ought to be of absorbing and historic interest, it has been swallowed up in a fog of indifference.
Why? After all, it isn't as though Murphy is one of those quacks whose appeal is all delusion. Quite the contrary.
As a top official at Dunkin' Donuts Inc., he so dazzled Ebony magazine that it named him one of the "rising African-American corporate leaders" of his generation. In 1990 he became the first Republican in decades to win a seat on the Governor's Council. His primary victory this September made Murphy the first serious black nominee for the US House of Representatives from any Massachusetts district, ever.
Republicans should be pouring everything they've got into this campaign. The black community should be abuzz with excitement at the candidacy of so accomplished an African- American. My media brethren should be all over this race. Where is everybody?
Murphy, running moderate-to-conservative, supports a balanced-budget amendment, term limits, a congressional pay cut and relief from unfunded federal mandates. There is the familiar toughness on crime -- though not capital punishment, which he's against. He criticizes Moakley's involvement in a sweetheart deal to build a new federal courthouse on Fan Pier, which is owned by the restaurateur Anthony Athanas, a Moakley pal.
But his overriding issue is the incumbent's lack of interest in the district.
"The police chief in Canton told me he has not talked to Joe Moakley since 1979," Murphy relates as he campaigns in Brockton. "Same thing in Taunton. Same thing right here.
"My theme has been 'Where's Joe?' Over and over, I keep hearing the same thing: People never see him, never hear from him. If I get to Washington, I'll take off the 'Do Not Disturb' sign."
But Murphy isn't going to Washington. This fine candidate is going to waste.
Former Cabinet Secretary Jack Kemp, a GOP hero and presidential possibility, flew in last week to campaign for Murphy. He delivered a characteristically moving and embracing speech -- "It is a stain on our country, a stain on the Constitution, a stain on the Declaration of Independence, a stain on the American Dream, when we leave any of our people behind" -- but few were on hand to hear it.
Moakley, meanwhile, refuses to debate. His excuse -- that Murphy won't sign a Moakley-drafted pledge to refrain from criticism -- is manifestly phony. Perhaps Moakley fears he would be outpointed. Perhaps he considers a debate beneath him. Perhaps he feels that, as chairman of the Rules Committee, he can do as he pleases.
Apparently he can. Pundits who would rush to defend the likes of Louis Farrakhan say nothing as Murphy, a far better man, is snubbed by a condescending Southie pol. State Republicans from Gov. Weld on down, more concerned about their relationship with Moakley than with building up their party, have abandoned the most impressive black candidate on the ballot.
More black Republicans are contesting House races in 1994 than in any year since Reconstruction, and some of them are going to win. But Murphy -- ignored by a GOP too stupid to see the value of tilting hard at a dinosaur like Moakley, ignored by black organizers too rigid to sense the appeal of a moderate African-American conservative -- won't be one of them. Pity.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)