Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Boston Beat: He that Would Be Mayor (Again)...

So why would a Springfield, MA area oriented blog focus so much attention on the mayor of Boston? Well, first of all, Boston as the largest city in New England is a center of internal migration for the region. More than a few Western Mass individuals find themselves in Boston at some time in their lives either for school, work, or something else. Therefore, the decisions made by those in power are somewhat relevant, especially when one factors in the transplanted folks who remain registered to vote back where they came from. Second, as Boston is the capital of the state, it in many, though certainly not all way belongs to the entire state. The city and its makeup are inextricably linked to the health, well being, and history of the state as a whole. Just as important it is inexorably linked to the state's overall political infrastructure and for that reason alone it politics are of interest if not of paramount concern to Western Bay Staters. After all, it was Cambridge Democrat and US Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill that said "All Politics is Local."

Third, and perhaps more importantly, this is a commonwealth. Note this fact, as it will come up again in future posts. Although the term is legally synonymous with state as far as the Feds are concerned and functionally the same where Massachusetts itself is concerned, there is a deeper meaning. Although this fact is true of the 46 states that name themselves as such, Massachusetts, along with Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky all call themselves commonwealth because, to put it bluntly, we are all in this together. What happens in a our neighboring towns is just as important to us as that which happens in ours. This need not to escalate into nosing into others' business, but it can take on balanced dimensions. If East Longmeadow is set to be the site of a Lowes that will attract choking traffic and massive trailers through Springfield's neighborhoods, it is not just an East Longmeadow issue. If Springfield is seeking assistance from the state, it helps when all 351 communities, especially the city's suburbs recognize and push for state help. And when our state capital expects us to pony up money to help its mass transit system or funnel more money into this project or that, we have a right to know, understand, and ask questions of those who run said city.

The man at the helm in Boston is Thomas M. Menino. Menino never won a mayoral election without some
of the benefit of incumbency. When predecessor Ray Flynn was appointed to be Ambassador to the Vatican by President Clinton, Boston City Council President Menino ascended to Boston's throne. There he has remained.

Now, we will not tear Mumbles Menino down without an at-least somewhat balanced assessment. A comment on our previous Boston Beat article seemed irked that we did not give Menino the same fair treatment that the Globe tepidly offers. However, in that case, WMassP&I decried specific development projects and the intentions of the mayor in approving them.

Tom Menino has, despite some recent claims to the contrary by some residents, whipped city services into shape. Constituent services, such as trash removal, code enforcement, etc, go through a well-oiled machine that give neighborhoods their own mayoral liaisons. Residents can contact this person (how directly, admittedly WMassP&I does not know) and relay their concerns and/or request for help acquiring city services. Moreover, Menino has poured millions into neighborhood improvements from parks to beautification projects. He is present in all neighborhoods from East Boston to Brighton to Roslindale. It has earned him the title of "urban mechanic." Moreover, billions of dollars of private investments has been steered into Boston since his tenure began. That added tax revenue, needed in light of simultaneous untaxed non-profit expansions, has allowed Menino to maintain a respectable modicum of city services and fund improvements.

However, it has not all been rosy. As pointed out by the Globe both in its editorials and its articles, a number of issues remain. We will largely forgive Menino of public safety. Although important, Boston's homicide rate remains far away from its all time high, if often double its most recent all time low. To do otherwise, would smack of hypocrisy when WMassP&I decries--justifiably--how statistics seem to continually violate Springfield while belying the actual, often safe situation. However, Boston's schools have not shown the kind of improvement they need in light of the better access to local funds and less reliance on state aid than Springfield has. Menino's "better" services has not done much to lift the poverty rate in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods except by the mighty hand of gentrification. Any improvements might be better attributed to the late 1990's boom in tech that burned quite powerfully in Metro Boston.

Indeed outside of residential and high end service development, commerical real estate projects in Boston have been somewhat muted this decade. During the late 90's, new office towers rose throughout the city. By the 2000's very few reached skyward unless already funded and underway before the Tech Bubble in 2000-01 (pictured 111 Huntington, completed 2002). Those that have like the 1,000 foot skyscraper and the Columbus center have faltered or relied heavily on the high-end residences that compromised part of a mixed-use development. Indeed, many statistics about the mayor's accomplishments will measure dollars spent since he ascended to office. Very few articles note how much came when the city was flush during the Clinton years before state budget cuts and foreclosures took a meat axe to Boston's revenue.

Also of note, it was only the recent economic downturn that more or less silenced the mayor's ostentatious and inconvenient plan to relocate City Hall to South Boston.

Menino has also been criticized for failing to bring the Boston Fire Department to heel. Despite report after report, calls to action, promises from Menino himself, pension and disability scandals, and 3 dead firefighters in the past two and a half years alone, little has been done to enact far-reaching change. The average firefighter is caught between a union whose leaders seem more interested in their own power than anybody else, and a mayor more than willing to compromise good decisions for political expediency.

All of this aside, Menino has not been a bad mayor by most measures. Without casting aspersions on the city's two other living former mayors (only three men have held the position since 1968) Menino may be the most honest man running the city in century's time.

However, Menino has started to believe his own press. Although this blog does not favor term limits, it does not support career politicians in general especially when the same seat is occupied for eternity. Menino should have planned to exit this December on a relatively high note, proud of his accomplishments, mindful and humble about his failures, and thanking the city's residents for giving him the opportunity to serve them.

That did not happen.

Despite his run for another term, Boston is engaged in quite possibly the most energetic campaign since Ray Flynn and Mel King engaged in a civil, healing contest following Boston's racial strife of the 1970's. Menino's last-standing challenger City Councilor Michael Flaherty (whom both Flynn and King have endorsed) is giving the mayor a run for his money. Even so, Menino has significantly more money and remains the favorite to win. However, Flaherty's charge and a concern that voters might have Mumbles fatigue has rattled the longest-serving mayor in Boston's history.

Putting on a brave face and promising to lead Boston "forward" opposite Flaherty's call for passing the torch, Menino and/or his campaign have not run the most respectable campaign.
Reports flood the Beantown media about implicit threats made to minority police supervisors not in league with the mayor. Internal campaign memos suggest knowledge of a small business owner that backs Flaherty and targets city workers who would do likewise. City workers blur the line between public servant and political activist, reminding us why the Hatch Act prohibits Uncle Sam's non-political employees from engaging in partisan activity.

If the most unscrupulous activity is true, Menino may find himself sitting in a position all too familiar to those who know what CREEP stands for. The risk only grows if the
email controversy at City Hall, wherein a political advisor deleted thousands of emails in violation of state law, exposes more unethical or illegal activity.

Richard Nixon probably did not order the
Watergate break-in. Had he thought things through, Tricky Dick would have realized the absurdity of spying on a party that was ready to nominate a man for Vice-President who had electro-shock treatments. Paranoia and a tragic self-destructive nature made him make a ridiculous, if criminal situation worse. If nothing else, however, it can be argued that Nixon had encouraged an environment, both at the White House and in CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President) that dirty tricks and outright criminality were okay in order to win. To Nixon, it was to fight off the same tricks and vendettas his opponents had against him. His subordinates only saw that they had to do whatever was necessary to win period. Never mind what the other guy thought, planned, or had (or did not have) up his sleeve.

Menino could find himself in a similar situation. Menino is not psychologically troubled, but he mind find that his drive, his seemingly altruistic insistence on another term could put him in Nixon's shoes. His subordinates, as committed as Menino is to winning, may not find the law terribly conducive to their plans. If they push the boundary a little further, and a little further until suddenly something statutory happens, Menino may be facing his own Watergate.

For the most part, Menino's demeanor has not suggested that of a Nixonian egomaniac. The mayor is painfully aware of his own
verbal trainwrecks and usually takes it in stride. Unrelenting media observations of his temper sufficiently lowered debate expectations such that as long as the mayor's volume remained civil and he never told his opponents to fornicate with themselves he would come off as downright congenial. However, the debates did show cracks in that humble exterior that lets Bostonians overlook his failures and disquieting personal comfort with extending his tenure even further.

When asked to note what his biggest failure was, Menino's answer was downright pandering. Not as bad as former President George Bush's inability to think of a mistake, but just as self-absorbed, Menino lamented not getting Beacon Hill leaders to give Boston more money. What? True, dollar to dollar per capita, Boston receives less than Springfield under legal funding formulas. However, Boston receives plenty under "additional aid" compared to Springfield's perennially paltry amounts. Let's not forget the Big Dig, an army of State employees that fuel the city's economy, 1% on the dollar of all items subject to the sales tax that goes to fund his city's mass transit system and much, much more. Plus the recent meals tax option allows for more money to go directly into the mayor's budgets, including money spent by Bay Staters who come to their state capital for official business. The answer should have made the blood boil of anybody who does not live in Boston, but the average Boston voter, lost in the moment might raise a fist and cheer the mayor, unaware how they were just made Menino's pawn.

Menino's biggest albatross remains the one for which he has been
perhaps most criticized: development. Most detractors will often point to the boys club nature of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, controlled by Menino. In other words, you need to be connected to really have a chance, although Dianne Wilkerson also taught us that a bra full of cash will do the trick (although interviewed by federal investigators, Menino is not suspected of any wrong-doing in Wilkerson's influence peddling, liquor license-flinging behavior). However, the quality, efficacy, and longtime economic contribution of the development is what WMassP&I pointed to in our last post.

Note Menino's push for the Fenway area redevelopment. As previously posted, the Fenway neighborhood is hardly a gem, but it is a neighborhood of people, professionals, and students. It works. Making it upscale is no better than the devastation of the West End half a century ago that razed countless working class homes and accelerated White Flight out of the city (*pictured modern, high-end West End tower). Today the flight is not nearly as race oriented as class oriented and many of these redevelopments may aggravate that further.

Certainly a lot could happen in this last week, but other than Attorney General Martha Coakley's
investigation of the case of the mysterious disappearing emails, there have not been any October surprises. That investigation will not be completed until after the election and its ramifications may outlive Coakley's own tenure in the AG's office if she is elected to the United States Senate. If wrongdoing is found, Menino may feel a lot like Tricky Dick except, perhaps to his benefit, he cannot fire the Attorney General. It would be unfortunate for a career as generally successful as Menino's to crater out because ambition and a hunger for power won out over reason and the acceptance that eventually everyone's fifteen minutes will come to pass.

*Menino photo from mayor's Facebook page, 111 Huntinton and Nixon photo from Wikipedia.

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