DON’T TAKE THIS THE WRONG WAY, BUT YOU HAVEN’T MENTIONED ONE SUBSTANTIVE ISSUE.
Whoops! Sorry about that. It’s just that, ever since the Irish started using the ballot box to wrest control of the city from the old Yankee aristocracy back in the late 19th century, Boston politics have been as much about gamesmanship and ethnic self-assertion as substantive policy.
Since you asked, though, here’s something you students might find interesting. One of the 2005 campaign’s big refrains is that too many Boston institutions — namely, colleges, universities, and hospitals — are giving too little to the city. Thanks to their nonprofit status, they aren’t taxed like normal businesses; instead, they make an array of voluntary and often piddling payments under the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) program.
Enough! shout several candidates, including at-large incumbent Steve Murphy and at-large challenger Matt O’Malley. These behemoths are parasites on the body politic! (I’m paraphrasing.) One solution, advocated by Murphy and O’Malley, is to charge colleges and universities a per-student fee of $100 each semester (Murphy) or $125 annually (O’Malley). If this idea gains currency, you might see your tuition jump in a year or two.
Any new parents in the house? If mayoral challenger Maura Hennigan has her way, the governance of the Boston Public Schools could be totally transformed by the time your tot heads off to kindergarten. When the Boston School Committee became an appointed body in 1992, supporters of the change, including Hennigan, said it would take politics out of the schools. Now, though, Hennigan accuses the appointed committee of acting as a rubber stamp for Menino and Superintendent Thomas Payzant — a reasonable charge, given the Politburo-like secrecy and lack of debate that mark the committee’s deliberations. And since the school committee controls virtually every aspect of educational policy in the city — including the oft-debated student-assignment plan that consigns some kids to two-hour roundtrips on the bus every school day — that’s not a good thing.
If elected, Hennigan promises she’ll put the composition of the school committee to a popular vote once more. If she is, and if she does, widespread parental frustration could lead to the appointed committee’s demise. Think more democracy is always a good thing? Vote for Hennigan. Prefer stability to accessibility and transparency? Vote for Menino.
And here’s one for all you gentrifiers out there! Let’s say you just bought a condo somewhere near the South End–Roxbury border, or as you call it, "SoWa." (Please stop that.) Menino backs the construction of a maximum-security federal laboratory dedicated to researching the deadliest pathogens known to man (anthrax, Ebola, that kind of thing) at Boston University Medical Center, which, in all likelihood, is just a stone’s throw from your cozy new brownstone. It’s important work, no question. But maybe you’d like it to happen — how to put this — much farther from your new home. Friend, you’d better hit the polls on November 8. Because Hennigan, who’s as opposed to the biolab as Menino is supportive, is probably your best hope for stopping the project.
One more thing worth noting: Boston elections are nonpartisan, which is why you don’t hear many candidates touting their party affiliation. But here’s a good rule of thumb: unless someone says otherwise, they’re a Democrat.
WHY AREN’T PEOPLE LINING UP TO TAKE ON THE MAYOR ?
Everyone who loves Boston politics wants to see Menino put through a tough race. But epic mayoral battles seem to be a thing of the past. In 1997, Menino didn’t even have an opponent. In 2001, he crushed challenger Peggy Davis-Mullen, 73 percent to 23 percent. And while Hennigan may shock the world next Tuesday, plenty of expert observers are predicting a lopsided defeat.
Blame structural problems, like the mass exodus of long-time Boston families during and after busing, or the increase in new immigrants and affluent transplants, two groups that tend (at least initially) to be politically disengaged. Blame Menino’s vast power, and quickness to anger with anyone who challenges him. Blame all the city councilors who want to be council president if and when Menino leaves mid-term. But give the mayor some credit, too. He may be a poster child for poor diction, but Menino has some valuable strengths.
For one, the mayor’s a great retail politician. Talk with him face-to-face for a few minutes, and you’ll probably come away charmed. Furthermore — whether motivated by deep conviction, political prescience, or some combination of the two — Menino established himself early on as a staunch ally of Boston’s gay and lesbian community, which has turned into one of the city’s most potent voting blocs. (One example: in 1995, as a legal battle raged over the right of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade to exclude groups of gays and lesbians, Menino refused to march in the event, which had long been a staple for pols looking to cultivate the conservative Irish-Catholic vote. It was a watershed moment.) Menino has also earned the deep respect of many African-American Bostonians, thanks largely to his work in formerly blighted areas like Dorchester’s Grove Hall and Mattapan’s Blue Hill Avenue — no mean feat, given the city’s turbulent racial history. Plus, the guy’s a fantastic dresser.
MY DORMANT CIVIC SPIRIT HAS AWAKENED. WELL DONE! HOW DO I VOTE?
First the bad news. Boston doesn’t have same-day voter registration, and this year’s cutoff was October 19. That said: I knew a guy, once, who wasn’t sure if he was registered or not. And like that guy, you may already be a registered voter. (For example, you might have signed up when you got a Massachusetts driver’s license, or on a street corner during last year’s presidential campaign.) It’s easy to check: just go the Voter Registration Search section of the City of Boston Web site (www.cityofboston.gov/elections/voter/) and enter the requisite information. And, to find your polling place, call the Boston Election Department at 617.635.4635. They’ll tell you where to go.
In closing, know this: your vote could have an outsize effect on November 8. For a few reasons just mentioned, and a bunch more that weren’t, turnout for Boston city elections has dropped sharply in recent years. In 1983, when the white Southie populist Ray Flynn beat the black South End populist Mel King in a riveting race, 70 percent of voters showed up. When Menino beat Peggy Davis-Mullen four years ago, 35 percent did. And in the preliminary city election this September, just 15 percent of registered voters dragged themselves to the polls. There’s a silver lining, however — namely, the fewer the voters, the more important each voter becomes. So get out there and do your civic duty, slugger!
Adam Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 2
Issue Date: November 4 - 10, 2005
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