Running on Empty

You’re gonna get a real accurate sense of where you stand in the world when you stand out at a T stop for the morning,” says Boston mayoral candidate Peggy Davis-Mullen. And from her post inside the Forest Hills MBTA station, Davis-Mullen is, pathetically, proving her point.

A local TV news crew has been invited by her campaign to record the candidate’s efforts to unseat two-term incumbent Mayor Tom Menino, and Davis-Mullen has obligingly decked herself out in camera-friendly red-red jacket, red skirt, red open-toed shoes. Between all that red and a wireless microphone clipped to her skirt that creates a hunchback-like bulge in her jacket, Davis-Mullen is difficult to miss amid the drab surroundings of the concourse. But the voters are doing their best.

“Good morning. Good morning. Hi, folks. I’m Peggy Mullen, running for mayor. Please consider me,” she calls out as the commuters stream by, most of them giving her a wide berth.

“I need your vote,” Davis-Mullen calls out to a young black woman with a briefcase, who breaks into a brisk trot when she spots the candidate’s outstretched hand. Late for a train? No. Safely past Davis-Mullen, the woman stops and joins the line of people patiently waiting at the station’s doughnut stand.

A young Asian woman smiles politely, but hurries by, busy talking on her cell phone. A twenty-something white woman wearing stereo headphones slows to accept Davis-Mullen’s handout. “You a voter?” Peggy asks. She bobs her head, although it’s not clear if she’s hearing the candidate or nodding in time with Weezer. “Please make an informed choice,” Davis-Mullen pleads as the woman hustles away. Now a black couple approaches. “Good morning, folks, I’m running for mayor, hope you’ll consider supporting me. You have a choice,” says Davis-Mullen, flashing her widest smile. But the woman makes a face, and the man raises his palm to ward off a brochure.

As Davis-Mullen nervously shuffles and reshuffles her undiminished stack of fliers, a Hispanic man wearing a World Cup T-shirt approaches, shoots her a look of alarm and distaste when she calls out to him, and nearly elbows her out of his way. Maybe he didn’t understand what she was selling. Many in the commuting crowd this morning are Hispanic, and they seem to be responding better to Ninth Congressional District candidate John Taylor, leafletting a few yards away, who’s chatting them up in fluent Spanish.

Finally, Taylor takes pity on Davis-Mullen, and sidles over to her. “Peggy, I’m gonna give you four or five things in Spanish for you to say.”

“Hola?” she offers, shooting a nervous glance at the TV camera.

“Buenos días: Good morning,” suggests Taylor.

“Buenos días,” she repeats.

The tutorial is interrupted by a Hispanic woman and her daughter, who chat amiably with Taylor in Spanish as Davis-Mullen looks on helplessly.

“Adiós,” says Taylor, as they turn to leave.

“Good-bye,” says Davis-Mullen.

By rights, the Davis-Mullen campaign shouldn’t be looking quite this awful. After all, Davis-Mullen is a high-profile, four-term city councilor and former School Committee member who’s been the city’s most successful female politician since Louise Day Hicks. She’s regularly made headlines in recent years for her advocacy of school reforms such as expanded early childhood education, and for her vocal opposition to controversial Menino initiatives like the Fenway Park subsidy scheme and the requirement that city employees live in Boston. With South Boston roots, a West Roxbury home address, and a mix of conservative and liberal credentials to match, she seems well positioned to tap into the city’s politically active enclaves. In an arena dominated by dull white men in drab gray suits, she’s a colorful woman in a bright red dress. Add it all up, and Davis-Mullen ought to be a far more serious challenger than some of the chumps who have contributed to the city’s 52-year track record of undefeated mayoral incumbents.

Yet even allowing for the traditional don’t-bother-me attitude of the morning rush and the predictable political torpor of the electorate, those Forest Hills commuters — predominantly nonwhites in their twenties and thirties, a cross section of the city’s demographic future — demonstrated remarkably little interest in the “Peggy Davis-Mullen for Mayor” campaign. And that’s horrible news for a 42-year-old challenger who posits herself as a plausible alternative to an older, often vision-free, two-term incumbent who, she claims, isn’t addressing the hopes and needs of “the regular backbone people of the city.”

“There’s certainly apathy, but I do believe that people in the city at least want to have an opportunity to make an informed choice,” says Davis-Mullen, mopping her brow after her ordeal at the T station. “People will be able to look at my literature, look at my Web site, and say, ‘Gee, this is a woman who believes in things and stands for them, and doesn’t change with the times.'”

Actually, that last part may well wind up atop Davis-Mullen’s political obituary. From the beginning, her attempt to market herself as a candidate more in touch than Menino with the emerging new Boston has been crippled by its own readily apparent contradictions. This has been a retro candidacy, replete with images and strategies that hark back to a bygone era in city politics, following an insurgent’s game plan that hasn’t succeeded at the polls here in nearly 20 years. And while the moment of maximum public attention to the Boston mayoral race — and the potential for a Menino blunder or debate meltdown — still lies ahead, there’s no reason to think the ever-dwindling city electorate is motivated to see Davis-Mullen as an agent of change and raise the question she hopes they’ll ask: “Why not now?” Instead, the only question the Davis-Mullen campaign is prompting so far is the one Menino himself asked in an interview with Boston Magazine: “Why is she running?”

Davis-Mullen tried to answer that one at the announcement of her candidacy in Menino’s native Hyde Park. “During the past eight years, Boston and our nation have undergone unprecedented economic growth,” she said. “Yet we have failed to take this historic opportunity to address our most pressing needs: improving our children’s public education, providing affordable housing for working families, and ensuring the development benefits all of our neighborhoods.”

It’s a message that implicitly targets the younger, mostly nonwhite, working-class residents who don’t own homes, don’t have juice with City Hall, and can’t afford to send their kids to private or parochial schools. But while all the TV stations dutifully recorded Davis-Mullen’s speech, the faces on the dais behind her likely didn’t inspire much excitement within those targeted constituencies. Instead of the diverse array of supporters we’ve come to expect to be placed within camera range by a candidate, Davis-Mullen’s family was joined by several middle-aged white guys decked out in scally caps and those sports-league windbreakers with the jock’s name in script over the left breast that are ubiquitous on old Boston’s bar stools and ball fields.

Once upon a time, guys like those were the core of a successful political organization. They crowd the background of 1970s news footage of Louise Day Hicks rallies, for example. And as recently as the late ’70s, a challenger could count on support from a significant base of disgruntled townies and special-interest groups alienated from the incumbent. But times have changed. “The city is an extraordinarily different place than it was,” says former City Councilor Lawrence DiCara, a mayoral candidate himself back in 1983. “About a third of whites aren’t from Massachusetts originally. About a third of the people of color do not speak English. I’m not sure [Davis-Mullen] has positioned herself well.”

Counters Davis-Mullen: “I’m a progressive woman.” Her campaign touts her friendly ties with gay groups, her support for the arts, and her track record of drawing votes from liberal precincts in the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the Fenway. Ever since Ray Flynn won the 1983 mayoral race by combining white, middle-class votes with support from organized pockets of gays, blacks, and progressives, that’s been the blueprint for citywide electoral success. But Davis-Mullen’s hope of tapping into those networks ignores a daunting fact: Menino, with the full weight of the city treasury behind him, has been assiduously following that very same blueprint. Says John Taylor, himself a veteran progressive activist: “Perhaps no one better than Mayor Menino has learned how to work the groups.”

Still, Davis-Mullen sees opportunity in what she terms “a resurgence of community activism,” specifically citing the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), a regional coalition of religious and political groups lobbying for reform of housing and educational policies. “You’ve got activism around school issues. It’s a perfect time for me.” But while Lew Finfer, lead organizer for GBIO, credits Davis-Mullen with being “supportive,” he cites four other councilors who’ve been equally supportive.

Finfer recalls that when Flynn was on the council, he was “a real leader on housing issues. [Davis-Mullen] hasn’t been able to do that.” And while she has indeed carved out a profile as a critic of the public school status quo, Finfer estimates that registered voters with kids in the public school system account for as little as four or five percent of the total vote. As for the incumbent — the mayor Davis-Mullen believes the activist core is fed up with — Finfer has the opposite opinion. “He’s popular, accessible, and seen as trying” to address the affordable housing crunch, he says of Menino. “There’s some progress, and there’s goodwill because of it.”

Boxed out of the organized voter harvest, woefully underfunded, and not helped by news accounts of dubious tax returns and defaulted student loans, Peggy Davis-Mullen’s campaign is like the hapless Gloucester fishing boat in The Perfect Storm, floundering in a hostile sea and about to be demolished by a huge, merciless wave. At least that storm came as a surprise. This one was entirely predictable from the start. Which brings us back to the only enduring question Davis-Mullen’s campaign has managed to raise: Why is she bothering?

“This isn’t about beating Menino this time; it’s about being the most prominent candidate four years hence” if Menino should step down, suggests David Finnegan, another failed mayoral candidate who, like Larry DiCara, ran in that crowded 1983 race.

This may be the only analysis that doesn’t leave Davis-Mullen looking self-delusional. But she rejects it. “I’m not looking ahead and posturing, ‘Oh gee, this helps four years down the road,'” she says. “I’m running because I really feel that the time is now, the issues are right now. We’re on the cutting edge.”

But it’s an edge that can cut a number of ways. By jeopardizing her city council seat, for instance, Davis-Mullen risks being cut from the city payroll, her family’s major source of income. She says she’s not concerned. “I have a law degree, two master’s degrees, and I’m finishing up a master’s in public policy at the Kennedy School,” says Davis-Mullen. “I’m not worried about what’s going to happen to me after this. I haven’t even thought about it.”

Or has she? At the tail end of her daunting morning at Forest Hills, finally, there’s a hopeful encounter. A middle-aged white woman smiles at Davis-Mullen and stops to shake her hand. “I hope you win,” she says. And for a moment, Davis-Mullen strikes a plaintive tone.

“I hope I win too,” she says.