Thursday, December 02, 2010

Chuck Turner and Portents of Doom

Here a Louis. There a Louis.

Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner explicitly compares himself to Rosa Parks, James Michael Curley (and generations of repressed Boston Irish Americans) and numerous martyrs. He implicitly invokes French King Louis XV.

Attributed to Le Roi was "Après moi, le déluge" — imprecisely, after I go, all hell will break loose.

For Turner and his supporters, the updated version is that any Councilor who voted to expel him from the body will at the very least lose the position in the next election. Moreover, his chum and sole Councilor who voted not to oust him, Charles Yancey, repeatedly warned President Mike Ross and Boston Corporate Attorney William Sinnott that they were acting illegally and would surely lose a certain-to-follow lawsuit.

That is a fascinating phenomenon. The most self-important and emotionally involved believe themselves to be both always right and absolutely essential.

It brings to mind the first meeting I attended as a new board member of a major downtown church. It was in terrific financial, membership and other trouble, which I knew when I ran for the position. I was not aware of how angry the very controlling and self-righteous church administrator was.

Rather than give her report at the meeting, she resigned...with great drama. The same person who required the sexton to come to her to unlock a closet containing toilet-paper rolls, came like a Disney-movie witch with portents of doom. The church would not be able to function without her. She regretted she had to leave and that the church would fold without her guidance and constant oversight, but she was out of there.

Well, as these things tend to happen, a bunch of us turned around that church, which has thrived. The administrator's egocentric passion for the position was at once admirable and pathetic. In the end, she was not holding the church together, was not essential, and was not larger than the whole works.

Doom Drama

That was a heavy fingered lead-in to another light on the historic occurrence yesterday on the fifth floor of Boston's City Hall, in the Council chamber. That would be the first expulsion of a Council member since the body replaced the Board of Alderman as the city's regulatory body in 1909.

When Councilor Chuck Turner was severed from the body by a vote of 11 to 1, he tripped and fell into history.

...and for history, he loves to cite and manipulate the past for present polemics. Turner often mentions that he has a BA from Harvard and uses that to vet the strangest and often highly questionable assertions.

Yesterday, he spoke twice from the floor of chamber and managed simultaneously to challenge and insult the whole body of 12 peers as well as the five Irish-American members. He recently compared himself in courage and victim status to numerous famous folk, including Rosa Parks. Yesterday, it was Irish Bostonians and their most famous pol, Alderman, Mayor and Governor James Michael Curley.

While irony is a much overused term, on a par with tragedy, we don't need to know much 20th Century Boston history to appreciate the Curley connection. Immediately, at Turner's request during a recess for Ross to confer with Sinnott and other lawyers, supporters got to go into the Curley Room a few dozen feet from the chamber. It had a TV with a feed from the meeting. While Ross requested quiet and respect for the proceedings, noting that Turner had asked that what would normally occur in private to be open, his fans of over 100 acted more like they were at a hockey game or at the least a tent meeting with an evangelical preacher.

Repeatedly, roars, boos and slurs carried over from the Curley room. When Councilors Yancey or Turner spoke, every claim or conclusion brought forth loud reaction. When the two Councilors, Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley, haltingly delivered their emotional apologies for voting for his expulsion, a half dozen or more in the chamber itself interrupted them with calls of "shame" and worse, and cries of "2011!" implying they would surely lose their seats in the next election.

There was high contrast to the feral and emotional Turner, Yancey and fans with the civility, seriousness and calmness of the rest of Council. Only Sinnott, the city's main lawyer, stumbled a bit when Yancey doggedly reiterated his charges of illegal actions and refused to admit that the rule the Council adopted unanimously (including he and Turner) permitted expelling a convicted felon. Sinnott clearly is not used to such personal challenges. He could take a chill short course from Ross.

Back to Curley, how odd that Turner picked him. As a local folk hero, particularly among Irish-Bostonians, Curley carries the picaresque shield and sword of the rascal warrior. In the last throes of power by the old-line Yankee Bostonians, he showed them how to play and win at politics.

Along the way though, he got sloppy. He was indicted first for felony influence peddling and then separately for mail fraud. He spent five months in federal prison before the MA Congressional delegation successfully pressured President Harry Truman for a pardon. Meanwhile, under indictment, he won reelection as mayor, although Boston defeated him after prison when he ran again.

Another obvious comparison is that both were seen to have taken money illegally, but not necessarily to enrich themselves. I think running for reelection biennially means constantly fund raising and thus being at risk for inappropriate contributions in amount or source. Yet there is no evidence that Turner was personally greedy.

So, Turner would have us equate him with Curley? Well, yes, but not for the obvious reasons. Both were found guilty of fast and loose money raising, handling and not reporting.

What Turner had in mind yesterday though was a class, culture and race-based analogy. He resurrected the Yankee Boston pols and aristocrats of the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries as villains, sort of political zombies, in modern parlance (mine, not Turner's). He called upon the five Councilors of Irish heritage to compare his case with the history of repression in Boston...of their kind.

Feeble Ploy

That tack led nowhere. Keeping an eye on the attentive but inexpressive Councilors, I saw neither sympathy nor outrage. To me, and apparently from their vote to them, Turner was stretching way too far to portray himself as the natural extension of Curley and the Boston Irish.

Pix note: I insert a couple of images from the proceedings. I apologize that the camera and particularly its weak flash was not up to the room and distance.

The Herald has never liked Turner and loves to stir the pot whenever race and culture are in the soup. This morning, they ran a piece quoting state Rep. Marty Walsh and South Boston's favorite hater, Wacko Hurley, as discrediting Turner's linking himself with Irish Americans.

It seems likely that even Turner fans would wonder why he went off the long-time approach of being prosecuted and persecuted because he was black and because he described the oppression of his constituents, particularly the black, Latino and poor. Somehow, I don't see his voters as likening him to the Irish.

Yet after Turner's expulsion, his claque followed him down the hallways and stairs to the front of the building, chanting their support. They still want retribution.

No Hiding

The true oddment here is that courageous and necessary actions by Ross are the catalyst here.

He could easily have finished his two-year term as Council President without dealing with Turner, leaving it for the likely successor, Steve Murphy, or simply the lapping tide of events. Turner's federal sentencing on his four felony counts is 1/25/11. He almost certainly will receive some prison time. As such, state law would require his removal from office, leaving a timorous Council membership free from having to discipline one of their own.

Ross strikes me very much in the Boy Scout mold, or perhaps a lead in a John Wayne Western. He's a do-what's-right kind of guy. He did as he as been doing.

Yesterday's session tok an hour and a half, largely because of Yancey's maneuvering and Turner's lectures and portents of doom. Then too was another chance for Ross to chicken out. He could have cowed to Yancey's attempted trick and pushed off the hearing, pending death by committee.

Instead, he precisely, fully and carefully explained Council rule 40A, which the whole body had created and voted unanimously over two years ago. When Turner was indicted, they discovered they had no enabling mechanism to deal with a felony conviction by a member and passed 40A to be able to have just such a decision as they reached yesterday.

Rule 40A. Pursuant to the city charter and in accordance with the open meeting law, the council president may refer a matter to the council upon his/her determination that any member has engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the Boston City Council or may be unqualified to sit on the body. A member may be unqualified by violating federal or state law, or any conditions imposed by the city’s charter, which includes violating any provisions of the three oaths of office.
The council president shall automatically refer a matter to the council upon a felony conviction of any member by any state or federal court.
Any action by the council taken in response to any referral shall require a two-thirds (2/3) majority roll call vote and will be in accordance with local, state and federal law.

In addition to his painstaking refutation of Yancey's parliamentary gambit, Ross strove to give the voting public some fresh proof that the Council and city government at large had a respect for rule of law.

In 13-page preparatory packet to inform the Councilors of the issues and options on Turner, Ross concluded one section with "We are not above the law and none of us is above the rules we have established as a body. If we act as if we are, this body loses its credibility, its integrity and the trust of the people we serve. Many are cynical of government as it is, we cannot add to their mistrust."

It is a pity that Yancey gave Turner's supporters fodder for feeding a beast of conspiracy and victimhood. The idea that Ross in particular and the Council more widely acted illegally is absurd and Yancey surely knows that.

That's irrelevant though. Yancey's arrow long left his bow. The question now is how accurate are the curses of Turner's opponents and his own allusions that voters will as a body rise up and punish the 11 of 12 Councilors to a man and woman come the next two elections?

I say chicken lips!

Turner will be a jailed felon shortly, as will state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, caught in the same odious federal sting operation. Nearly everyone I know joins me is disrespecting the type of sting operation of manufactured temptation that netted Turner. Yet whether through disregard of known laws, sloppy inattention and accounting or simple arrogance, Turner was nabbed and convicted. As his protégé Felix Arroyo said in his emotional remarks at the hearing, "In the end, we cannot escape our mistakes. We cannot escape our deeds."

Even before yesterday's meeting, Turner had grandiose descriptions of how he'd organize prisoners if he ended up in jail. It is unlikely that a short-timer in a federal prison would have any meaningful impact, but it's a good pre-mythology. Turn is forever editing the book of his life.

Instead, it is likely that another strong advocate of the poor and middle-class people of color who comprise most of District 7 will take over Turner's seat in a special election. My bet is for the charismatic Tito Jackson. He lacks Turner's capacity for B.S. but not his clarity of purpose or worthy goals.

Given those developments, there is little immediacy or even need to consider replacing any of the 11. The greatest impetus would be in Turner's district, where the voters will already have made their choice. The chance of driving out anyone else is slim indeed.

Turner's other dire prophesy goes to his often repeated claim that 90% of politicians, including fellow Councilors, are dirty and take money. He also claims to be the most honest and moral of the lot.

Yet so far, our Speakers of the House (three of the last four) are driven out and/or convicted of corruption, but not so Boston Councilors. Turner's fantasy that they all will earn and fail scrutiny was very unlikely before and given the infamy of his slow, endless fall over the past three years, any Councilor would be a total ass to take any risks.

In fact, his disgrace may be the greatest insurance we have had of political integrity. Don't be that guy.

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Uncle said...

Following on from my last. When I was studying Curley, it was in a graduate Soc course on the Irish and Scots in America, taught against the background of the busing crisis of 70s. One of the observations we heard was that Boston's urban Irish were like a cut flower, retaining the colour but not the life. They knew it and resented it and that, in one view at least, lit the fire.

Their shrinking corpus is where you'll still find people who won't hear a word said against Curley, even in jest. What a pity it would be if Turner piped his following into a similar eddy, stuck indefinitely in mythology while the world moves on and away. That's not the way to build a thriving urban community.

massmarrier said...

Ah, head over to Chris Lovett's post on Turner and Curley for yet more history and analysis.