Sunday, September 15, 2013

Confusion in Boston Campaign 2013

Come election day, Sept. 24, I may not talk politics from 6 AM until 8 PM. As a warden at a Boston poll, I know the rules, including no political talk in the building from setup time.

Meanwhile though, I am just one of many, many that voters try to squeeze mind-settling sureness from. Last night, for example, as many adults as there are mayoral candidates were at a church dinner. Sure, Syria was a topic, but the mayor's race was always in the air. Because of my political blog and podcast, people asked. As well they should have.

I wish I had an easy, confident answer. Pericles knows, I'm as big a believer in democracy as I am in public education. I have researched the devil out of this, as in reading all the news, attending stump speeches and kickoffs, going to or watching fora, interviewing numerous candidates at Left Ahead, analyzing the candidates' campaign sights, grilling those who show up on the stoop, and reading all the lit in the mail or attached to the banister by rubber band.

I am a high-information voter, for mayoral, at-large Council, and district Council races. I still feel like the old man in Moonstruck — I'm confused.

12 for Mayor, 19 for At-Large, 8 for D5

We have lived in Boston for 34 years, yet only had three mayors. The last serious election, and the last one with this kind of scrum, was 30 years ago. Larry DiCara, who ran in that race, just talked about it with Left Ahead this week.

The clear consensus of people I have spoken with who do not live in Boston is how wonderful it is to have 1) such a wide choice and 2) so many strong candidates. Also certainly in view of the impotent GOP here in MA, where their real base of fiscally and socially conservative pols are hidden in the Democratic party where they can get elected and reelected, having a choice of people you could live with in this or that office is a little d democratic boon.

Yet again, like many voters, even we high-information ones, I am confused. It reminds me of the elders who sometimes hail me in a Stop & Shop or Roche Bros. store. It's usually in the cereal aisle, 100 or more feet of boxed choices from ankle height to above our heads. Typically, the submissive plaint is, "Can you help me find the Kellogg's Corn Flakes? All I want is corn flakes." Choice can overwhelm.

Hard to Pare

Strangely enough, only three mayoral candidates are easy to dismiss out of hand.

  • David Wyatt is a bumbling failed school teacher (unsuccessfully sought reinstatement). He really isn't campaigning, rarely show to events, and when pressed at the only televised forum, was forced to speak only to say he was a Republican and pro-life, and that people like him needed representation.
  • "Brother" Charles Clemons is known in the African-American communities for his TOUCH radio. He has been running a vanity campaign, apparently for the publicity and maybe to say later that he tried, he ran. 
  • Charles Yancey is by some measures the dean of the City Council, at least he has been there for 30 years as a district Councilor. You'd hardly know he was in the hunt for Mayor, his district seat is secure. He'll be skunked in the prelim for Mayor and sail to reelection in D4 over three relatively unknown and unproven opponents.

That still leaves nine players. In the few polls, no one has a runaway lead and most are within the margin of poll error.

My Groupings

Among the remaining high-competence/strong-résumé candidates, they break into several, sometimes overlapping groupings.

  • Existing, respected CouncilorsRob Consalvo, Michael Ross, John Connolly, and Felix Arroyo. None of these is running also for his Council seat reelection. On one hand, that's a shame; they're all very good at the job, and their replacements will take time to get with the program, if they are ever as good. On the other hand, having two new district and two new at-large Councilors out of 13 could be a great infusion of enthusiasm and ideas.
  • Really smart visionaries. Ross and Bill Walczak are unquestionably the brightest in the race. Each promises a dramatically different Boston. Ross aims for a much more responsive and open, and technologically based government. Walczak claims to be the magician, a CEO who sees the big problems and fixes them. They have the huge, maybe insurmountable problem of articulating a broad vision instead of staying at plain-folk level.
  • Nominal outsiders. Charlotte Golar Richie, Walczak, and John Barros can lay claim to being non-pols. That's misleading though. She has been a long-time mid-level functionary in both Mayor Menino and Gov. Patrick's administrations. Walczak, as head of a huge health center and then a hospital, and Barros, as long-time school-board member, are politicians in reality.
  • Focused candidates. Connolly and Dan Conley have specialties. While both have platform planks beyond their big issue, Connolly is identified with education and Conley with public safety. They risk being marginalized as not being generalists as the current beloved Mayor is.
  • Minority candidates. There could be many variations on first here. Yancey, Golar Richie, Barros, and Clemons (and Wyatt) could be the first black Mayor. Golar Richie could be the first woman, Arroyo could be the first Latino. You might also consider that Ross could be the first Jewish Mayor here.
  • Union guys. Marty Walsh hit several sweet spots. He's strongly identified as a union official, he's Irish-American, and he's a Dotrat (native of the Dorchester neighborhood). Arroyo was a long-time organizer for the service workers, but unions have almost entirely rallied to Walsh (the powerful teachers' union has not endorsed). 

Other than many unions backing Walsh, the "natural" constituencies have not done the birds-of-a-feather thing. Black Bostonians have not flocked to a single African-American candidate. While various Councilors have pretty good support on their home turf, other than Consalvo owning Hyde Park, neighborhoods are muddled. Walczak, Barros, Walsh, Golar Richie, Clemons and Yancey, for example are Dorchester residents and each known for active work there. Dot is huge in population and geography. A more pitched and perhaps more decisive split is among Connolly and Conley from West Roxbury. That heavy-voting neighborhood has to choose between two accomplished white, Irish lawyer guys.

For the wild card, Arroyo is a recent Jamaica Plain resident but spent almost all his life in Hyde Park after early years in the South End. He is also remarkable for a few reasons beyond being the Latino in the race. He is very personable and has high favorables. He's good looking, as is his wife; that never hurts. The thousands of blue-collar service workers adore him as well. Yet, he hasn't pulled in the money and endorsements many of us figured would come easily to him.


In a campaign as complex as this preliminary, voters don't know where the corn flakes are, that is, how to find the candidate and even what basis to perform triage.

Disclaimers: Consalvo has been my Councilor for nearly five years, has performed constituent services for me, and I know him pretty well. In fact, I know many of the candidates, via this blog, as well as guests on Left Ahead (look down the archives to hear them in their own words). Connolly and I have talked education on and off for years. Ross has likewise discussed various aspects of government, and of our shared interest in cycling. Likewise, Arroyo and I overlap in JP and are very comfortable chatting face to face. Perhaps this choice is so difficult for me because I know, respect and like so many of the candidates.

Many voters have told me they are wondering who has the greatest chance of winning the preliminary and consider that a major criterion. Others go civically abstract, as in imaging each as Mayor; who'd be the best long-term?

At the voting stand, those criteria may be no more solid than picking Ross or Arroyo because they are pretty or any of the existing Councilors because they performed good constituent services or anyone who remembered your name after meeting you once.

Numerous of the candidates have told me directly that shoe leather wins this preliminary. That is, as Tom Menino did 20 years ago, meeting and greeting the most voters, and being on the porch as well as in the moment with each, will make the difference. Both local major dailies have run articles suggesting as much this time. Maybe or that would be media laziness for hedging bets.

If you use the national-election standards, it would be fund raising and the resulting ability to buy staff and pay for ads. Endorsements don't seem to do it at any political level. Nationwide though, money talks, and loudly, in campaigns. Yet, nearly everyone here seems to have enough (again, except for Wyatt who may have under $100 and no drive to get a single vote). I know I have gotten visits and calls from the candidates, as well as mailers and literature left while we're away.

The advertising in this campaign doesn't seem all that pervasive or impressive. I look at and listen to all I can find. Ross' are OK and fun, but only Consalvo has simultaneously sincere and fun ones. Plus, of the 12 only Consalvo has a memorable slogan (All in for Boston); you'd think they would have spent two hours each coming up with a killer catchphrase.

Regardless, I'll endorse Monday or Tuesday for the preliminary. I totally understand why a third of the voters polled say they can't make up their minds.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

My issue with Connolly is his support of charter schools, since pushing for them is his biggest plank on the school debate and the reason he's so widely seen as the 'education guy.'

Only when discounting the fact that far fewer kids graduate from charters than enter into them, as the charters slop off anyone who under-performs back into the general publics, do charters even measure up to publics -- and even then, they do no better in aggregate.

It makes no sense to expand charters, at least until their funding mechanism is changed -- so they don't rob from public schools to pay to educate kids they'll send right back to the publics at the first hiccup.

I like Connolly on a personal level and think he's a bright guy, but this is his biggest issue and he couldn't be anymore wrong on it. That speaks volumes.