Campaign Trail of Tears

Menino's challengers look to capitalize on tragedy. Plus, council candidates try to meet the tougher new ballot requirements — set by an incumbent.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 20, 2009


Mayoral candidates Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon have looked a little like ambulance chasers of late, seizing on two recent tragedies for political gain.

In the first instance, a woman was sexually assaulted in a downtown hotel garage — by the same attacker who raped another woman there 11 days earlier, according to police allegations. Flaherty sharply criticized Mayor Thomas M. Menino's administration for failing to alert the public of potential danger after the first rape.

Next, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed on Dudley Street in Roxbury. Yoon issued a press release later that day, criticizing the city's violence-prevention-and-response protocols.

Some will denounce it as tacky opportunism; others will praise it as speaking truth to power. Either way, you can expect much more of it during the next six months, as mayoral challengers try to draw attention to the city's problems, and their own campaigns, by politicizing tragedy.

In fact — at the risk of sounding ghoulish — the challengers almost have to be hoping for bad news. With Menino sitting on a massive lead in the polls and his opponents struggling to get any attention whatsoever, some political observers argue that, to make the incumbent vulnerable, Menino's challengers need Boston to suffer.

"You almost can't beat Menino if there is no crisis in the city," says Larry DiCara, former city councilor.

But seizing on misfortune hasn't usually played well in Boston politics, say several veterans. "I'm not sure there's a lot of votes in doing that," says DiCara.

"It almost never works," adds a local political consultant. "It looks like the kind of political game that people don't like. And when it works, mostly all it does is . . . [turn] people off."

They and others could think of few times when a Boston pol has been able to turn city adversity into electoral gain. In 2005, Maura Hennigan tried to highlight the growing gun-crime problem in her race against Menino, to no avail. That same year, Gibran Rivera lost his bid for the City Council, despite seizing on a teen murder in Jamaica Plain, which suggested that councilor John Tobin was not doing enough to stop violence in the district.

It doesn't seem to have helped so far in these two situations, either; neither Yoon nor Flaherty got much media attention for their responses to the shooting and the rape. The Boston Globe didn't mention Yoon's response to the gun violence, for instance, choosing instead to run an article about his out-of-state fundraising.

Jim Spencer, a strategist with the Yoon campaign, defends his candidate's quick response to the Roxbury shooting, pointing out that, as a councilor and a mayoral candidate, it is appropriate and even necessary to speak out. "As horrible as a tragedy like this is," says Spencer, "it's important to talk about what the city could be doing better."

Natasha Perez, spokesperson for Flaherty, says that, in the case of the sexual assaults, her candidate could legitimately point to a specific, relevant policy that he had been advocating. The campaign chose not to respond directly to the Dudley Street shooting, she notes, because, though Flaherty has much to say about city violence, he did not have a direct policy connection relevant to that specific incident.

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