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Boston politics: a beginnerís guide
Or, how to stop worrying and love Election Day

If youíre new to Boston ó that is, if youíve lived here less than 20 or 30 years ó making sense of the cityís political landscape can be a frustrating task. The names are unfamiliar. The rules of the game are mysterious. And in classic Boston fashion, the people who could offer an explanation insist on making outsiders figure things out on their own.

Fret not. With this yearís city election just a few days away (November 8 ó mark your calendars!), the Phoenix offers this primer on the weirdly fascinating world of Boston politics. Read on, and in just a few minutes, youíll attain a level of knowledge and mastery that usually requires a lifetime of study.

Actually, that may be overstating it. But count on this: if you make it to the end of this story, youíll know more about Boston politics than 90 percent of your fellow first-years/Midwestern transplants/co-workers/roommates, as well as all those people who seem too busy to vote.


Hereís the dry, hand-me-the-remote answer: the Boston mayorís job through 2009, plus four at-large Boston City Council seats (through 2007) and a parcel of neighborhood-based council seats (also through 2007). And here, as a reward for soldiering through that last sentence, is a more complete and far more interesting answer: Next Tuesday, near-total control of the Boston city government is up for grabs. So is the cityís fundamental understanding of itself. And so, for that matter, is Bostonís political future.

Letís start with the mayorís job, which pays $150,000 and comes with an office that boasts a killer view of Faneuil Hall. Compared with the jefes of other big American cities, Bostonís mayor is something of an absolute monarch. Tom Menino, who took office in 1993 and is seeking a fourth term, picks every city-department head. He also appoints the members of Bostonís school committee, which ceased being an elected body the year before Menino took office. (This was a stroke of good luck for His Honor: the old appointed committee helped whip up the anti-busing furor that gave Boston a racist reputation in the 1970s, and controlling the schools made the job way easier for Menino than it was for his predecessors.) The mayor also controls the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a/k/a the BRA ó which, in a highly dubious arrangement, manages both development and planning inside Bostonís borders.

Theoretically, the Boston City Council acts as a check on the mayorís power. But if municipal politics were a beach ó work with me here ó the council would play the 98-pound weakling to the mayorís muscle-bound bully. Under Bostonís strong-mayor city charter, the councilís big power is financial: it can reject the budget that the mayor submits each year, and does so on a regular basis. This is something of a token ritual, however, since the council is hamstrung by its inability to increase individual line items and mayoral priorities tend to prevail. The council can also hold hearings on big issues facing the city, and has some legislative capability. But its members seem to spend as much of their time campaigning for re-election and issuing resolutions in honor of everyone imaginable (recent college graduates, obscure civic groups, successful small businesses, celebrities passing through town, really old people) as they do anything else.


First off, the 13-member body is a proven incubator for political talent. Take Robert Travaglini, who started as a district councilor representing East Boston before moving to the Massachusetts Senate. Today, Travaglini is the president of that body, and perhaps the most powerful person on Beacon Hill. Or take Tom Menino himself. His Honor entered public life inauspiciously, as a flunky for former state legislator and failed mayoral candidate Joe Timilty. But after winning election to represent Hyde Park on the City Council, Menino managed to become council president in 1993, in a seven-six squeaker of a vote. (His opponent: none other than Maura Hennigan, the at-large councilor whoís hoping to unseat Menino next week.) When Mayor Ray Flynn left to become Bill Clintonís ambassador to the Vatican a few months later, Menino took over as acting mayor, then used the powers of incumbency to win outright election. In short, when the newly configured Boston City Council convenes next year, the odds are good that a future mayor ó plus a future state legislator or two, and maybe even a future state treasurer or attorney general or governor ó will be among the bunch.

Another reason the councilís important: it serves as Bostonís political Rorschach test. When Felix Arroyo finished second in the at-large voting two years ago, it was a sign of both the growing political clout of Bostonís voters of color and the increasing power of the cityís progressive voters. (Arroyo, a native of Puerto Rico, is treated as an honorary African-American by many black voters; heís also an unabashed lefty who appeared with grieving mother/overexposed anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan on Boston Common last weekend.) If Arroyo edges past council president Michael Flaherty and tops the ticket this year, itíll indicate that Arroyoís constituency is gaining at the expense of the moderate-to-conservative white Irish voters who make up Flahertyís base.

Other outcomes ó like at-large challenger Sam Yoon becoming Bostonís first Asian-American councilor, or Latino challenger Gibran Rivera besting neighborhood-schools advocate and Mayor Quimby sound-alike John Tobin in the District Six race, or South End financial-analyst-turned-politician Susan Passoni ending the career of South Boston throwback Jimmy Kelly in District Six ó will hint that similar changes are afoot. On the other hand, if at-large candidates Patricia White (whose father, Kevin White, was mayor from 1969 to 1983) or John Connolly (whose father, Michael, was secretary of state from 1979 to 1995) finish well, itíll suggest that the demise of Bostonís entrenched Irish-American political elite may have been greatly exaggerated. And these post-election lessons, whatever they turn out to be, will set the tone for candidates and voters alike in upcoming years.


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Issue Date: November 4 - 10, 2005
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