Friday, January 21, 2011

District 7 Forum 1 of 2

Rejoice, Boston politics lovers! We are due a couple of months of civic theater. The District 7 City Council race will be a good one.

Last night, six of seven candidates for what was Chuck Turner's slot (inlucing a write-in) postulated and postured for the public at the Roxbury Y. They come at big issues — think street violence and no jobs — differently enough to make for real voter choices. Each has at least one major distinguishing position.

Posting note: Our ISP was sick until a few minutes ago — no net or phone all day. Now I see on Universal Hub that there are a couple of reports on the forum already. This one is an overview and part two will have some quotes and observations.

No Country for Stopwatches

Disgruntled questions from voters with long-standing grudges show some the need to address underlying grievances. Moderator Keith Chaney was naively focused throughout in his expectations of the candidates and audience. Neither set showed any intention to keeping to the idealized time restrictions.

Variously, candidates had like two minutes each to introduce themselves, up to two and one-half to answer the first question and down to one and one-half than one as it was clear the model didn't work. The intent of the organizers was as admirable as it turned out to be unworkable. With no insult to anyone involved, this evening ended up with the feeling of an overly ambitious parent trying to keep a highly structured kids' party flowing from one fun activity to another.

Chaney took it all in good spirits though. One would-be Councilor after the previous would look at the garish black on yellow laminated cards a woman in the front middle of the audience held up. The time keeper had cards reading 30 SECONDS, 15 SECONDS, and TIME. If the candidates even looked, they seemed to take these with the authority a local driver ascribes to a YIELD sign.

Likewise, the moderator admonished each audience member with a question to phrase it in 30 seconds or less. Ha! Virtually no one did. They had points to make first, followed generally with rambling lectures on the failures of Boston pols and politics. At several points, candidates or Chaney admitted they had gotten lost in the verbiage — what is your question?

Hints of what was to come in the audience portion were in the prepared questions introduction. The agenda was a masterwork of theoretical project management and scheduling. It might well have worked if the candidates were a group of engineers who accepted the limits and dutifully worked toward the mandated deadlines.

The sponsors prepared six questions. Two candidates were to address a question, each limited to two and one-half minute answers. Thus, from 7:10 to 7:40 PM, six questions at five minutes each would be perfectly timed.

Back on Planet Forum, they barely managed to struggle through two questions. In fairness, the first one really deserved (and sort of got) a response from each — what are your top three priorities and how would you realize them as Council. Candidates got the six prepared questions in advance and could have come in with carefully crafted, terse responses. They did not. Some really didn't even address the question and most only got through one or two before they got the hook after a generous overage allowance.

Missing Pols

Specters of two local politicians were part of the forum, even as the corporal versions were not. Both Chuck Turner and Dianne Wilkerson were and were not there.

Most obviously, the District 7 Council spot is still "Chuck Turner's seat" in many minds and from many mouths. He held it for 11 years, made himself omnipresent and made it plain he was the man to turn to in times of trouble. A minister might ease your soul, but Turner intended to right wrongs and fix problems.

Absent in all tangible ways was Wilkerson. Cornell Mills is her son, but he avoided all mention of her in is speaking and the campaign literature. As close as he got was in a single-spaced letter-sized flier that reads in part, "My brother and I grew up in a household where public and community service was an expectation."

Many candidates make much of their parental or sibling relationships. Of course, with a convicted and newly sentenced to prison mother, even her career as a MA Senator is not the association he wants.

Even so, women in the audience were loudly saying, "He looks just like her."

I disagree. He is tall, handsome, muscular and well dressed. There's not a tremendous family resemblance in the face and he actually looks quite a bit more attractive and composed than his mom.

As for Turner, none of the candidates on their own either distanced themselves or promised to emulate him. They simply didn't mention him in their opening statements or answers to the prepared questions. The closest any got was Danielle Williams, who repeatedly returned to the efficacy of the District office that Turner maintained on his own dime and time. She said it was the right way to provide a place with the resources for the community.

However, during audience questions, several started with statements about how useful and kind Turner had been. They said he was always there, that he found jobs for young men coming out of incarceration, and tried to help residents navigate housing crises. Of course, those are the constituent services that any decent Councilor would provide and how they get reelected so consistently. Turners combination of pointing what he did repeatedly and having that local office for residents seem to have gone a long way in plumping his image as unusual.

When asked specifically about things related to Turner, the candidates were savvy enough to say they would do the same, that such services where key to the job. Likewise, they were quick to riff on each other's assertions that they would powerfully and eagerly stand up to Menino. None picked up those weapons on their own, but they certainly did when prompted.


In the Boston District most burdened with unemployment, foreclosures, street violence, and school closings, no one should be surprised at the distrust of and hostility toward government and pols. Last night, one questioner after another let it rip.

One coincidental target turned out to be U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano. That gritty, solidly progressive, do-right-by-all Capuano is seen by some as an interloper, even a thief. One candidate and an audience member has not forgiven him for sitting in what should be a black seat (sometimes called the minority-majority Congress post). His 8th Congressional District spot, as far as this community was concerned, needed to go to an African American.

Williams said that the District did not have its act together at election time and did not put up any solid candidates to make that happen. Last night, in the discussion of the pending redistricting that will accompany MA losing a U.S. House seat after the recent U.S. Census, the honest lament all around was that having someone of color in the delegation was the best shot at making sure money and relevant legislation helped the District and its residents. By extension, Capuano is not the best Rep.

We saw a similar phenomenon with MA State Senator Sonya Chang-Diaz a couple of years ago. When she ran a second time, this one successfully, to replace Dianne Wilkerson, audience questions at fora and debates were sometimes harsh. As mixed Latina/Asian/white, she wasn't dark enough for some. She didn't belong specifically to this or that black civic organization. She was the darling to the yuppie and Latino-heavy Jamaica Plain.

A funny thing happened on the way to Senate or really in the Senate. She has done the good, necessary and right work. She picked up the long foundering CORI reform and pushed it over the reality goal line. She has led on one Roxbury need after another.

Far harsher criticism than Capuano got emerged for two vilified demons — Mayor Tom Menino and labor unions. Question after question asked how will you fix these evisl.

Unions often have systemic problems that will require overhauls to fix. They would have to stop excluding black and other minority laborers and managers. They would have to adhere to government mandates for local residents, minorities and women on jobs. Those are long-standing, very real issues and neighborhood resentment is quite understandable.

For Menino though, the strong statements of criticism were a bit of a surprise to some and might be to him as well. The very popular, longest-serving mayor certainly says he represents all Bostonians. That perception may alter dramatically as you get farther away from City Hall.

Numerous questions had the introduction in powerful terms that the mayor runs the city absolutely. The Council has no power. Assuming those, the audience asked the candidates:
  • Will you stand up, publicly, to Menino and call him when we aren't getting fair consideration and treatment?
  • What would you do when the proposed budget shortchanges Roxbury and Dorchester?
In aggregate, Menino owns the residents of Boston. He may not own the hearts of all those in District 7. He and his campaign crew can decide whether he'll work on that perception. In a very real sense, he doesn't have to, even if he thinks about re-election. Yet, he does pride himself in being a people's mayor, of all our people. I'd bet he'd want to do what's right and necessary here.

Part two is quotes and claims and drama from the forum.
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