Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mighty Morphing Boston Council

The favorite idle chatter among Boston's City Councilors is not weather or the Sox, but the big honking head on the fifth floor. We think of:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
—Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act I Scene II

Councilors are wont to decry the strong-mayor form of government here, particularly under longest-ever serving Mayor Thomas Menino. They invariably break out the corollary that their only real power is to pass judgment on the annual budget.

Chicken lips, I say!

The same Councilors speak just as easily and with great pride of their personal and group accomplishments. They refer to all of their enactments of regulations, projects, agreements and more as legislation. Loosely construed, that's fair enough. Taken as a whole, they do one devil of a lot, even with the big guy two floors up.

Individually, they are impressive at what most of us know our district or at-large Councilors for, constituent services. I have had my own such engagements, including the fairly typical one, District 6 Councilor John Tobin getting a stop sign replaced in a single day. Those quality-of-life things are what people ask for, get and stay politically loyal after receiving.

Not all Councilors are equally as handy with recognizing, framing, and driving policies to substance. The recently resigned Tobin certainly was, as is John Connolly. My new district guy, Rob Consalvo is coming on strong here, particularly stepping up with foreclosure issues. They have been the core of the young-Turks contingent, 30-something Councilors with vitality and ideas.

Likewise, Council President (and District 8 guy) Michael Ross and a relative newbie, at-large Councilor Ayanna Pressley have been pretty active as well. I was wrong before the election to question whether she could make the transition from Sen. John Kerry's staff; she has. For Ross, he has corralled the Council with far greater diplomacy than I have seen in my three decades here.

That does not include a lot of mayors (Kevin White, 1968-84, Ray Flynn, to mid-1993, and Menio since). The Councils of those eras were to my memory stodgy, older Irish and Italian guys, who talked a lot and did little (except for constituent services and funerals).

So with Tobin moved to Northeastern as VP of city and community affairs, what of the young Turks, the activists, the frenzied legislators on the plaza?

Well, for one, the plug-in replacement for Tobin won the special elections yesterday. Matt O'Malley will likely be in office in time for the Wednesday, December 1, Council meeting.

Right after he announced for the election, O'Malley got Tobin's endorsement, along with Connolly's and a jolly gang of pols from Boston and beyond, including Lt. Gov. Tim Murray. Perhaps most important, he is decidedly in the Tobin mold — high-energy, dogged determination, relentless optimism, personal magnetism, and ceaseless innovation.

The additional wrinkle here is what happens after the 12/1 meeting finishes regular Council business. It is supposed to turn to Turner, that is, decide what to do about fellow Councilor Chuck Turner (District 7). A federal court recently convicted him of taking a $1,000 bribe and lying repeatedly to the FBI about that. Council rules agreed to unanimously require such a hearing when one of their own is convicted of a felony.

Turner has not made it easy; he refuses to step down. Moreover, he has asked the Council to hold off any action (including the scheduled hearing) until his 1/25 sentencing by a federal judge. The pretense is that if he received probation instead of prison time, he might continue into 2012, having recently won re-election by an overwhelming majority.

Turner is renown since joining the Council in 1999 and before that as an activist for his populism and polemics. His constituents can't speak highly enough of his devotion to their needs. He seems middling as a legislator. However, several Councilors have spoken highly of him to me, such as John Connolly who heads the Education Committee on Turner's devotion to schools, students and teachers.

Turner seems certain to be turned out, either quickly in December or automatically under MA law after getting at least some cell time the next month. However, that might have a positive for the city.

Turner's choice to replace him is the smart, delightful (and huge) Tito Jackson. He had run almost successfully for an at-large Council spot before. He has served in several positions in Gov. Deval Patrick's administration and re-election campaign.

He is a pleasure to be around, a true progressive, and a captivating orator. He could very well offer Turner's devotion to the District 7 residents and the legislative drive of the young Turks.

For a Tobin replacement, O'Malley is a splendid clone. For Turner's, Jackson holds the promise of populism without polemics. Turner is well known to rouse voters with conspiracy theories, spraying charges of racism with the slightest provocation, and presenting his own fractured versions of history and economics as it suited him.

From the times I have heard and seen Jackson, he would be no less entertaining, just without confrontation and accusation. I suspect Roxbury and Dorchester constituents would adapt quickly.

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