Friday, January 06, 2012

Dorcena Answers Why Him

Will Dorcena will have to sustain his energy, commitment, focus and voice for nearly two years non-stop. He must perfect a quick, powerful, memorable, convincing front-stoop speech to let him get 20 or more households a day to 1) listen to him, 2) believe his platform is better, and 3) think he has a shot at winning. In addition to running his business while supporting wife and two kids, he'll have to find the time to woo donors who are not afraid to be associated with a would-be usurper.

Dorcena does not attack Menino or the administration by claiming sins and crimes. He makes a much harder pitch of missed opportunities, lazy management, lack of vision, and misplaced priorities. The immediately compelling drama of accusations of graft, nepotism and such are much easier sells than appeals to honest accounting. Moreover, he counts on voters to want to understand were the city's money comes from and where it goes. He also expects them to vote.

He does have a worthy personal tale — Haitian American from a rough part of Boston, who stayed away from street trouble, got a bachelors from BC and masters from Babson, started his successful business, and had loads of volunteer work and civic involvement. He's believable when he says, "We know what the problems are," and "When I was 9, I knew who the bad guys were."

In systemic terms, he says the city administration is not "doing the work."

Direct Challenges

While Dorcena is personally positive, he has an edge that may cut Menino. Foremost is a reflection of another side of Dorcena's personality — from his own experience and observations, he's very much an up-by-the-bootstraps guy. He expects the youth and others he's mentored to follow his hard work and firm morals example. Thus, one of his campaign refrains is "They haven't done the work!"

Short of accusing him of a felony, few statements should rile Menino as much. He knows he is hard working, but of course, Dorcena's point is that the important work is not political per se but that which produces those results of better schools, lower unemployment and less crime.

I've never seen a politician, even Bill Clinton, who enjoys politics as much as Tom Menino. For a couple of small examples outside City Hall. At his annual street parties on July 12th, the anniversary of his taking office when Ray Flynn left, he stands for hours in the middle of Chesterfield Street greeting all comers. There are thousands who come to praise him, as well as get free hot dogs and ice cream cones. He knows and chats up nearly everyone. He answers any questions, political or personal. He is indefatigable. Likewise, at the sub-neighborhood citizens' meetings around May, he grips and quips with all. Typically, he personally hands out pots of marigolds and other window box flowers. In one I attended in Readville, I think he knew every single person in his large neighborhood. He greeted all by name and asked about other family members by name. He clearly loved every second of it. That's a lot of work.

Yet, Dorcena started contrasting himself with City Hall when he ran for Councilor. He made it plain then as now that he thinks he:
  1. Works harder than anyone else
  2. Works on the right goals
  3. Will doggedly do whatever it takes to get it done
He also is huge on open government, particular fiscal transparency. Perhaps befitting his MBA, he stresses money and how it relates to priorities and accomplishments. For example, when asked at his announcement whether the city money was going to the right places, he said, "Before I can even answer the question of whether money is short (in a given area), we need an accounting of where it goes, who's getting it. You can live and die by that and you can make better decisions."

He pledges smarter use of resources, but always starting with measurements, how the money is spent compared with previous years. Then he seemed to channel MA Treasurer Steve Grossman, promising the city's checkbook online, and not just salaries. He acknowledged, "It's going to make a lot of people uncomfortable when you get to see where every penny is going, but be uncomfortable. I'm OK with that."

That may be a good sell, if presented right. Honestly, politicians like the concept of transparency as a campaign issue better than the public. It's well enough to say everything will be open to view. Getting residents to do that viewing and analysis is harder than getting them to the polls. You could hand a voter a printout of say, 300 pages of the Boston schools budget, including the hidden 30%, and a few in 100 might even open the report.

"Only real transparency will wake up the electorate," said Dorcena. "So they can know exactly what your elected officials and what your government is doing with your money." Of course, it may well be enough if more data are available, more public discussion takes place, and an involved subset of residents participates.

Hands-On Pledge

His accounting/management nerdiness aside, he has good stories and clear problem definitions. He puts his messages in understandable terms as well.

He has a plan for dealing with the perennial problem of locals not getting the many construction jobs here, for example. "We have a Boston jobs policy but it's not really followed to the tee," he said. He would work with unions to help them recruit directly from the neighborhoods, as well as with the unemployed to get them to apply for union membership and be ready for the openings.

For education, as many pols, he decries that Boston has so many important universities, schools local high-school grads are not equipped to enter or succeed in. As he put it, "A kid who lives in Mission Hill can walk to Northeastern, but he can't get in and his brother can't get in and his sister can't get in. It's not right and it has to change and if I'm the mayor of Boston, it will."

As far as fixing that, some of the solutions will be seeing where the money comes from, where it goes, and how it can be spent to maximum efficiency. The other part is a veiled slam at the current and past City Hall administrations. Back to his central theme, he said on education, "The reason we're not seeing the results is that the work isn't being done."

His pledge here is similar to what it is in policing and other city functions. While he's a union supporter who in turn had the Boston Teachers Union endorsement in his last race, he believes the Mayor needs to be hands on in key areas.

As he put it for schools, "These are some important fights that need to be had with the Boston Teachers Union on behalf of the kids." He said mayors and councilors typically get in office only to step back to avoid fighting with the unions. He claimed that in contrast, "If the decision is being made on behalf of the kids, I'll fight all day. That will piss a lot of people off, but that' s OK, because it's a fight worth fighting for."

Likewise, at his announcement, he waxed philosophic about the ephemeral nature of life. "While I'm here I've got to do everything I can to make make sure that the right decisions are being made on behalf, for the future of the city. And that if that means leaving the fifth floor to go and meet directly with the president of the Boston Teachers Union, the president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, meeting directly with a City Council member in the district of Jamaica Plain, I will do that."

He contrasted himself with typical pols in his belief that it would be his duty to manifest his vision. More rhetorically, he said, "Enough words. Enough gamesmanship...Speeches are great. Words are nice, but at the end of the day, it's the work."

He also has terrific faith in the public to be interested in both the concepts and details, interested enough to participate. He key idea here is that if people have an understanding of and say in big things, that comes with buy-in.

He used expanded gambling as an example. That was also as close as he has gotten in directly attacking Menino. He said, "I know the Mayor is whole hog, 100MPH pushing for the casino to go into East Boston. That's something I intend to fight every day in this campaign."

His posture returns to the theme of involving the public, revealing the particulars of an issue, and going to widespread discussion and buy-in. While seeming to be the essence of democracy, that is also tricky. It relies on residents being willing to learn about an issue and discuss it. All too often here as elsewhere, the same few whiners, nitpickers, loudmouths and the occasional visionary attend public meetings to listen and speak.

He firmly believes that a casino or slot parlor in any Boston neighborhood would deeply affect the whole city. Thus, all the citizens need to know the particulars of any proposal. Yet, he also admitted that even after a discussion, that the decision might be the same as the Suffolk Downs options favored by the Mayor. That would be OK with Dorcena, who said that if that was supported by the majority after a full discussion, "Then its chances of success will be that much greater."

Another area where he faults the administration is not doing enough to get poor kids off the streets and into colleges or careers. Among his plans were he elected would be to replicate the Summer of Opportunity program he worked with at John Hancock. It would pick 40 to 50 at-risk kids identified from the gang unit, train and mentor them, get them jobs in fields they want and have abilities in, and as he put it, "help them see that the world is bigger than their immediate block."

Here he notes that we have many strong companies in Boston that receive tax breaks and other city benefits. He said that the right leader in the Mayor's office could expand that type of program.

Spending Smart

His key example set for money not spent smartly has been the troubled trio of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. These neighborhoods always seem to have lowest-achieving schools, the most dangerous streets, and the highest unemployment levels.

Yet as he started his campaign announcement with, "There's a serious push to close community centers, close libraries and close schools. Crime and violence are prominent in our neighborhoods to the point where it's the norm. And many decision continue to be made without public scrutiny or participation. We need a strong leader in Boston who will fight for the people of this city and fight for these decisions that are in the best interest of us as a collective and not just a few."

He cited the" musical-chairs" efforts to shuffle school around. In fact, he said in general the School Committee decisions can harm more than help children and parents.

He would eliminate the appointed School Committee, replacing it with an elected one, or perhaps a hybrid with a few appointed slots to ensure that a few educational experts were on the board.

He would further limit the office of mayor with term limits. From Mayor through Congress he believes, "We'd get better government, we'd get more honest elected officials if we had term limits," he said, adding that if you are in office 15 or 20 years, "you become the seat."

He said, "Two terms is plenty for the office of mayor. Two terms and I'm walking out of there. I don't even need you to swing the foot for the boot."

Series Note: This ended up taking on its own life. I attended Dorcena's announcement. There is this post on his platform and there will be another on how he sees his campaign. I am intrigued about whether this early candidacy raises interest and money, and whether it colors the entire election.

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