Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ayanna Pressley: Watch This Space

Impressive and not ready for prime time are my first judgments on Boston At-Large Council candidate Ayanna Pressley. I'm betting that if she doesn't have a come-to-Jesus moment soon, it will be a more short-term useful come-to-James-Michael-Curley moment.

Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub fame and I sat with her and and her campaign staff at Doyle's round table today. Note that I speak for myself and not also for Adam here.

First, let's say clearly that she a a big bucket of virtues — smart, intense, politically connected, personable, well spoken, pretty, sincere. Yet, she sat with a backdrop of clips and pix of Mayors Ray Flynn, Kevin White and Tom Menino. Two of those had been Councilors who moved up. She could easily have touched their images, but not yet their political acumen.

I do have a tape of the session, albeit useful only for transcription or quote verification. The middle room at Doyle's is no sound studio, so it's not going directly onto Left Ahead! as a podcast. So, more of a real report may appear later, but likely after she begins debates and forums.

Right now, you'll find an almost empty website for her. The Agenda tab has only a promise of content. Therein lies her problem that speaks to her newness to Boston politics.

She's obviously plenty bright and I'm pretty sure she'll get it. It will be a systemic shock to her though. Today, she figures she can finesse voters with generalities and big-picture ideas.

There's a good argument that those got Gov. Deval Patrick elected at a state level and President Barack Obama elected nationally. However, she's going to have to mix it up and expose her specific plans and platforms to win at a city level. Her opponents certainly will and several are certain to expose her sponginess with questions and comments like, "Do you stand for anything!?"

In a less rarefied atmosphere

Like Patrick and Obama, she portrays herself as a change agent. She has worked for 11 years for U.S. Senator John Kerry, much of that running constituent services. Both Patrick and Obama said they were new and different in much the same way. They could get disparate parties to work together, to compromise, to collaborate. Pressley sounds much like that, but I hold it won't work in Beantown.

Adam and I each asked her about big issues we know voters in various neighborhoods as well as the other candidates will pound on. They'll want to know what she intends to do for this specific neighborhood or housing project. They'll say the local public schools suck and how will she fix them. They'll tell her their kid was shot, stabbed or killed and ask how she'll prevent that.

We also tried some wonky versions of issues, all of which she ducked in the nicest and most sincere way. Did she think Boston should be able to raise its revenues with meals taxes and such? Did she believe that busing should continue to charter and other non-proximate schools? Would she draw on her high-level political ties to get the T out of its absurd debt structure? Would she consider herself as a member of the Council's Team Unity?

Ever specific we offered received a similar response. She could gather the views of constituents. She should get the key parties together and facilitate the best solution. In other words, she showed her long experience with Sen. Kerry. That is the way most big legislation passes nationally. Unfortunately, it's not how Boston determines its local pols.

It's worth nothing that she is not the only politician who reaches into the old listen-to-the-voters bag. Consider Mayoral Would-Be Michael Flaherty. He has all the trappings of populism in soliciting input from his target constituents. He is the kitchen-table candidate.

However, his website also has a beefy list of issues with moderately detailed solutions. We like pols who pretend they hear us, but we also don't want the major responsibility. We want a leader who leads, someone who has positions prepared for us. Then, of course, we and opposing candidates nitpick and complain about this or that detail like we know better. We just don't want to blaze the trail.
Shameless plug: Over at Left Ahead!, we interview Flaherty this Tuesday, June 2nd. It streams live at 2:30 on our BlogTalkRadio channel.
Pressley has impressed quite a few among the politically savvy though. Her boss, Sen. Kerry, has given her his blessing she says. "He's been very supportive," she told us. "He says if I win, the city wins." Likewise, according to Politicker last December before Pressley announced, politician consultant Joyce Ferriabough (link opens video) gushed:
With her experience at the highest rungs of government and with the kinds of relationships that she has made throughout the city and state, she would not only be a formidable candidate in terms of the widespread support she would garner, but she would be the kind of candidate who would cut across racial and ethnic lines in bringing people together around her candidacy."

City politics demand specifics

Meanwhile, Pressley is not entirely a creature of connections to powerful national figures. In a future post, I'll hit on her compelling background and powerful drive for public service, as well as her list of personal virtues.

I can't wait for some substance on her website and from her mouth. If she's going to be competitive for the Sept. 22nd primary, she'll have to make the big leap to clarifying, stating and defending political positions. After spending a little more than hour with her, I firmly believe she has it in her to do so.

Amusingly enough though, in her generalized sort-of answers she repeated several times that the problems remained the same, but real solutions would require cultural change. She's going to have to start that closer to home. Her personal style is one of statesmanship and diplomacy. She has seen Sen. Kerry and others model those to great effect for years.

Now she's in a less rarefied atmosphere though. City politics around here demand specifics. You need to make yourself a target by putting up strong positions. That's bound to be a shock for someone so nice. Here's hoping she gets over it quickly.

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