You can’t fault Patricia White for playing the gender card. But she needs to play it better than this.
Last week, White finished sixth in the Boston City Council’s preliminary at-large election. That’s good enough to advance to November’s final, where four at-large slots will be filled. But for White — who placed third in last year’s preliminary, and whose father, former Boston mayor Kevin White, is a local political legend — it represented a major disappointment.
The candidate was quick to respond. On Monday, October 3, White stood with some 20 female supporters outside Faneuil Hall and delivered the following message: Boston’s women need Patricia White in office, because Patricia White is a woman.
The point was not made lightly. Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, took a social-science tack ("What we know, what the research shows, is that people are represented best when there’s at least a critical mass — and at a minimum, a person — who has walked in the shoes of many of the constituents."). Jamaica Plain activist Arlene Fortunato was more dramatic ("If we don’t take back this seat now, we will suffer for a very long time."). Shirley Shillingford, vice-president of Boston’s Caribbean Political Action Committee, turned W-O-M-E-N into a poetic acronym ("W stands for wisdom, which we have. O stands for opportunity and organizational ability, that we have for a successful outcome...").
Then White, who failed to land the endorsement of Boston’s National Organization of Women chapter a few weeks back, took the microphone. And with City Hall looming behind her, she told the small audience — which looked to be a mixture of reporters and baffled tourists — that gender has direct policy implications. "Keeping a woman’s voice on the city council is important for one simple reason," White announced. "Women advocate for issues that affect women: education, childcare, elder care, women’s health, domestic violence, and equal treatment in the workplace. Let me be clear ... I am the only candidate that has experience working on these issues." Next came a brisk tour of White’s résumé, which features stints at the Heinz Foundation (where she worked on women’s health and environmental issues) and Work Family Directions (where she worked to expand childcare and elder-care services).
"My personal experience has informed me," White added. "As a new mother, as a young daughter caring for aging parents, I recognize and understand the concerns that women face all across Boston every single day, and I understand these challenges firsthand. I will bring this perspective to City Hall. I will be a voice for women all across the city of Boston."
Whoa there! Something’s not quite right with this argument. Let’s start with one line in particular: ...I recognize and understand the concerns that women face all across Boston every single day, and I understand these challenges firsthand.
Does White really believe this?
Granted, White knows more about being a new mother balancing work and family than, say, Jimmy Kelly, or Felix Arroyo, or any of the council’s nine other males. (Maureen Feeney, the district councilor from Dorchester, seems to have been largely forgotten by White and her supporters.) And with her formal experience working on at least some women’s issues, White might bring something valuable to the council if she’s elected. But let’s be honest: Patricia White is not an everywoman.
Think about it. Talking about class is always delicate, but the fact is that White grew up steeped in power and privilege. Her ancestors on both sides belonged to Boston’s political aristocracy. Her father ran this city for 16 years, and was nearly the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee in 1972. Before she moved to Roslindale, White lived in Beacon Hill, arguably Boston’s toniest neighborhood. Her husband, Isaac Fine, is a likeable guy who also happens to be an attorney at Palmer & Dodge, a prestigious Back Bay law firm.
Which means there are a few challenges White can’t understand firsthand. Like knowing, as low-income mothers throughout the city do, that your child may be forced to attend a troubled public school. (White recently told the Phoenix she’d send her son to a city elementary school, but wouldn’t commit to keeping him in the system through high school.) Or worrying that her child will grow up playing on unsafe streets, like mothers in too many neighborhoods. Or searching for a decent-paying job with limited English skills and no connections, like countless female immigrants. Or facing unpleasant financial choices, like which bills to pay late so your children can eat at the end of the month.
Another problem: given the novelty — and suddenness — of White’s determination to be the Women’s Candidate, her stance looks like sheer expediency. In 2003, White sold herself as a political moderate and Kevin White’s daughter (See "Running Start," News and Features, September 12, 2003). This year — until now, at least — her slogan has been "Building Bridges for a Better Boston," an alliterative but bland catchphrase that has nothing to do with gender. White’s Web site, www.votepatriciawhite.com, still hasn’t caught up with her message shift; there’s no discussion there of the need to keep an at-large female on the council. What’s more, the subject went unmentioned in the televised campaign commercial White unveiled just before the election. (In that spot — the one with the empty folding chair — White does say she’ll be a voice for women’s issues, as well as seniors, education, and economic opportunity.)
Finally, a parting question for White and her supporters: what are you doing to elect Maura Hennigan? During White’s press conference, it was repeatedly noted that Boston has had a female at-large city councilor since 1973. For the past few years, that honor has gone to Hennigan. Now, though, Hennigan is waging the political fight of her life, challenging incumbent Tom Menino for the right to be Boston’s mayor. The odds are long, but Hennigan has gained credibility in the past few weeks, first by freeing up nearly a million dollars in credit to self-fund her campaign and then by spanking Menino in WGBH’s recent mayoral forum.
If she wins, Hennigan would be Boston’s first female mayor. As such, she’d have an unprecedented chance to impart a woman’s perspective to city government. You might think that White and her supporters would be working on Hennigan’s behalf — but you would be wrong. According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, none of the women who publicly supported White this week (Budson, Fortunato, and Shillingford) has donated to Hennigan’s campaign. Neither has White.
The Phoenix tried contacting these women to ask if they’re backing Hennigan. These calls went unreturned, with the exception of Fortunato, who explained that she’s a long-time Menino supporter, in part because of the mayor’s outreach to the gay-and-lesbian community. (Fortunato also added some nuance that was missing at White’s press conference. "It is so beyond gender in many ways," she said. "Yes, it’s important to have a woman’s voice there, but it needs to be the right voice.")
Maybe the other women would love to be stumping for Hennigan, but think it’s too risky, especially given Menino’s notorious punitive streak. Shillingford, for example, works at the Boston Public Health Commission. And White can ill afford to alienate the mayor in a campaign year. That’s giving them the benefit of the doubt, however. Whatever the explanation, the apparent disinterest in what could be a landmark mayoral race is just one more reason that White’s call for sisterhood is hard to take seriously.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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