Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Unencumbered and Incumbent...

The Boston Globe reported today--to nobody's surprise--that Boston Mayor Tom Menino will be seeking an unprecedented fifth term to head New England's largest city. His plans for reelection have been rather overt, despite constant refusals to declare his candidacy or not. In the meantime, the 2009 mayoral race has already attracted three opponents, City Councilors Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon and Boston Businessman Kevin McCrea.

Massachusetts law requires a non-partisan primary for any local office which has more than three candidates so as to narrow the general election to two candidates on the ballot. This is why we had no more than 18 names on the November ballot for Springfield City Council Elections until this year. With Menino's impending announcement and near-certain success in the primary, the focus now will turn to which of the three challengers shall survive to challenge Menino in the general election.

At the moment, given their existing political success and renown, Flaherty and Yoon are the most likely front-runners to challenge Menino. The Summer Primary Campaign will no doubt focus on Flaherty, Yoon, and McCrea hitting each other while attacking Menino. Whichever one suffers to the least damage to themselves while engaging in attacks on Menino that resonate best will be the challenger in November.

Why, you may ask, is this issue being taken up as a general heading for WMassP&I and not as a Boston Beat issue? Well, the issue of incumbency is an important one in Massachusetts in general. WMassP&I discussed the effects of incumbency and the minimal number of contested races in the legislature for 2008 and finds this race to plug into a wider discussion.

The problem with the legislature was that so few of the races were contested which presents a more serious problem with democracy. If the races are contested, but the incumbents are guaranteed to win, there are implications for democracy, but the real problem comes down to the efficacy of government and the decisions of voters.

Take for example, Congressman Richard Neal. His continued electoral success over 20 years of service, has no doubt been connected to his status as the "successor" of the late Edward Boland. Add onto that his popularity as Mayor of Springfield and his election in 1988 and since has been almost a sure thing. Although largely uncontested this century, Neal did face some stiff competition from both the right and the left in primaries and in generals throughout the 1990s.

In any event, Neal has delivered much needed federal dollars to Springfield and the 2nd Massachusetts consistently (Let's leave a discussion of what constitutes pork for another time). He has been an advocate for reform of the Alternative Minimum Tax and Tax Dodgers that reincorporated themselves offshore after 9/11. Additionally, his support for peace in Ireland is very important to many in his district. There are a number of people who would disagree with this assessment, many of them in the Valley Blogosphere, but WMassP&I feels Neal has served his district and the US House well. That he is able to do because of the Springfield political machine and the natural entrenchment of incumbency presents only a philosophical problem, not necessarily a tangible one.

Unfortunately, many are able to remain in office because of machines and successful glad-handing, schmoozing, grin-and-greeting sans the good service. That does not make them bad, evil, unethical, or felonious people. It just makes them ineffective. Although Springfield has had challenges in its City Council races over the years, the incumbents often remained with little or no effort even as they drove the city over the edge of financial security.

Not everybody gets a free ride with incumbency. Just look ask Charles Ryan. Domenic Sarno, whom some say hoodwinked residents into voting for him, may be singing a similar tune a year from now. History has yet to write the book on Ryan and certainly Sarno, but many would say that at least the former did what had to be done to break the deadlock and bring true reform to 36 Court. Still, it did not guarantee him reelection.

Menino has not been a corrupt mayor at least as far as we know. In a city that has grappled with legendary corruption, this is a relief. His electoral success is based on those same "grin and greet" tactics and the mayor's campaign website claims over 50% of Bostonians have actually met him. As a result Menino has been called a neighborhood or urban "mechanic" and has sought to resolve problems within neighborhoods and not just treat the city as one massive entity. Over the years, he has also successfully engaged in numerous economic development projects that have benefited the city as a whole.

That notwithstanding, as some editorials in the Boston Globe and elsewhere have suggested, Menino is also showing signs of another problem with incumbency: ossification. What is that? Well he's settled in. One cannot go as far as to suggest power corrupts and all that. However his grandiose plans for a new city hall, dropped amidst the economic turmoil, or the ostentatious 1000 foot skyscraper may suggest a man who is reaching to the point that legacy is trumping service to his constituents. Additionally as he has basically gained control over all board and commissions as terms expire, he has forced his own agenda through with little debate or explanation. Personal slights by developers or plans that contradict his own vision have been known to be dead on arrival before the Boston Redevelopment Authority for example.

Menino has pursued a post-industrial economy a little bit too vehemently as well. While nobody is asking him to reinvigorate the factories long a thing of Boston's past, he has endorsed excessive luxury housing construction and retail expansion beyond what Boston can support and often beyond the means of the average Bostonian. This tactic is similar to the one taken by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York who defends these tax-revenue rich projects as a means to pay for social services for the poor. A not entirely un-admirable prospect except it squeezes out the middle class, essential for any community to thrive.

Taken with his administration overall, this does not lead to any cause for removal. However, in a democracy politicians should need a reason to be reelected just as much if not more than a reason to be kicked out of office. I realize, however, that is seldom works that way. Looking back at 2005, Menino dodged debates with his opponent former City Councilor Maura Hennigan and tells he stands on his record. Well, what is that record and how do we challenge it? It is incredibly arrogant to simply say that and then offer little more than vague examples.

There is also a whiff of potentially foul play. Yoon's campaign headquarters was warned in what the City's Inspectional Services indicated was a sweep of the area that is needed several permits and had to remove signs from the windows.

I think it would be hard to argue that Tom Menino has not been good for Boston, but the question is can he continue to be good for Boston? Has he been good more recently? Is there some hypocrisy or arrogance in claiming to know what is best for everyone? Is there something disingenuous about relocating City Hall to a seaside setting, significantly less accessible to the public while asking for more taxes on meals produced in the city and often eaten by residents? These are questions that need to be asked both by the press and by his opponents in a true debate. If Menino refuses to do this then that alone should disqualify him for reelection.

If he goes through the whole process again and doesn't rely on his incumbency, then he like Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994 can emerge reinvigorated and better able to serve his constituents.

These are lessons that Massachusetts from Boston to Lowell to Springfield to Fall River need to learn and practice. Contesting elections is just the beginning of improving the process and enfranchising more people. The 2009 mayor's race in Boston will be a major battle ground as the commonwealth attempts to work through the corruption, malfeasance, misfeasance, and incompetence that has hampered us for so long
*Menino Photo from wikipedia, Michael Flaherty & Sam Yoon photos from respective campaign websites

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