Monday, July 20, 2009

Content-Free Campaigning

A couple of months into the at-large city council campaign, the stampede of candidates is showing little revealing or exciting. Considering that the bland and LITE platforms are earning some endorsements, that may be the workable strategy for the primary.

Who can say how accurate the adage was that in New York it's what you own, in Philadelphia it's who you know, but in Boston it's what you know that determines your success and status. We seem to have become Philly North.

When Deval Patrick ran for governor, he clearly distinguished himself from announced and potential contenders early. His platform was wide and astoundingly specific. He put it up there for others to pick and niggle and refute and ridicule. That confidence, courage and preparation got my attention and respect.

In contrast, most candidates for most offices wait to see and wait to say. They often take the most cowardly path of saying they'll ask the voters what they want them to do, think and say. That is the antithesis of leadership. The idea seems to be a feel-good ploy to pretend that innovation and leadership will arise from status-quo loving.

Yet, in this at-large race another cliché doesn't seem to hold. Rather than nothing ventured, nothing gained, the motto for the council primary is more like the turtle who sticks his neck out gets his head cut off.

Listening to the candidates' stump speeches or their forum comments does not send a voter away with a platform and proposals list. Even their websites generally provide, well, generalities. For the latter, I may still analyze the sites in detail, but only the two incumbents' ones are very beefy.

I'll deal a bit with the sites of the two candidates who sought me out and chatted with me, Ayanna Pressley and Andrew Kenneally. For the others, check for yourself, but we aware that they range from the next to nothing (Robert Fortes), to the carnival poster of populism (Bill Trabucco), to a little bit for everyone (Doug Bennett), and to non-specific platitudes like the youth are our future, housing should be affordable and people should feel safe (Felix Arroyo, Tito Jackson and several others).

This timid and vague strategy might even be the right one, at least for the primary. Not everyone is or can be innovative and brilliant. For the September 22nd primary, the eight of fifteen who go on to the November 3rd general do not need to sweep the field.

Musical Chairs

Come November, it will likely be six candidates playing political chairs for two seats. Incumbents John Connolly and Stephen Murphy have considerable recognition and advantage for two of the four at-large spots. Smiles and platitudes won't be as powerful to most voters as that pair of candidates can simply repeat that they do the job now and have a record of constituent services already.

Whether it's detergents or politicians, our choices are too often among me-too ones. As much as we'd like clear distinctions to help us, too often we are left to figure out how one is at all dissimilar from the others. In the case of pols, that tends to leave us with their looks and associations in the early stages.

We like to pretend we are above such petty concerns as appearance. However, if everything else seems nearly identical, we would rather look at the handsome man or pretty woman. On the other hand, hard-to-look-at folk from Richard Nixon to our own Councilor Chuck Turner won their offices in plebiscites.

It's the who-you-know factor that is in play for the at-large race. We saw that last month in the special election for the 3rd Suffolk seat. Aaron Michlewitz successfully parlayed his Sal DiMasi connections into that office. On the face of it, he could say that as the ex-speaker's constituent-services director he did the job in all but title. In reality though, he clearly benefited from whom he knew — all in Sal's former orbit. That was savvy and successful.

Likewise, the two candidates I have sat with, Kenneally and Pressley, would each like to do a Michlewitz. Each has associations with successful and well known pols. Both want voters to figure 1) they have contacts that will help them as councilor, 2) they learned how to get things done at the feet of the pros, and 3) the accomplishments of their bosses were in smaller or larger parts their doing.

That kind of extrapolation can be a bit tricky. It would help considerably if their former bosses would do the near impossible for a politician — say their their proteges and not themselves did the work and are due the credit. At the least, the old bosses would help mightily with ringing, unequivocal endorsements.

In Pressley's case, that would be our U.S. Sen. John Kerry and for Kenneally, past Councilor Maura Hennigan and current Councilor Michael Flaherty. So far, their former mentors wish them well and even occasionally speak kindly of their farther...yet.

Part 2 of this post hits a bit on candidate websites and the possible final campaign push.

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