The Hill and the Hall Week in Review
Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This Week: You thought Dianne Wilkerson would go away? Holy Sam Yoon! How the city councilor might shake things up if he gets in the race for the Mayor’s office; Speaking of the mayor’s office, you guys sure you want the job?
This city is dying for a great political race. What we’re getting instead is a race about race, and it’s going to be filthy.
Dianne Wilkerson is scrambling to retain her Senate seat. She lost last week’s Democratic primary to Sonia Chang-Diaz, and responded in familiar fashion: Surrounded by adoring supporters, she spoke defiantly, blamed her misfortunes on outside forces, and vowed to fight on.
Three years ago, the AG was suing her for campaign finance violations; she countered with a farcically exploitative rally in a Mattapan church. The setting was different this time around—a Grove Hall lodge – but the message no less subtle. When Wilkerson is in a corner, her troubles cease being her own. They’re shared by anybody whose skin looks like hers.
If Tuesday’s rally was any indication, here’s Wilkerson’s strategy for November: Divide an already divided district, cast Chang-Diaz as a white (white enough) interloper, and hope that Barack Obama pulls more votes in Roxbury than he does in JP.
Tuesday’s rhetoric had aggressive racial overtones. Wilkerson’s staff cried fraud and disenfranchisement and Florida. Bob Marshall put Chang-Diaz among “the wine-and-brie crowd.” Chuck Turner said Wilkerson’s seat was “rooted in the politics of the black community.”
Asked to clarify her contention that, “This is the first time in a long time we will not have a senator who is a person of color,” METCO executive director Jean McGuire told the Dorchester Reporter, “There are white Hispanics and black Hispanics,” adding, “She is not a person of color.”
The politics of hope it ain’t. Small wonder the mayor wants nothing to do with this thing.
Mayor Menino, of course, has troubles of his own to worry about. Michael Flaherty, he can handle on his own. But next year’s mayoral race might’ve just gotten a lot messier.
On Thursday, the Globe reported that invitations to a California fundraiser cast at-large city councilor Sam Yoon as being on a “quest to become the first Asian-American mayor of Boston.” The Hill and the Hall got on the phone and practically begged Yoon spokesman Curtis Ellis to rule his guy out of the mayor’s race. What we got was firm noncommittal.
While forcefully emphasizing that, “Absolutely, in no way were these invitations approved or designed by Sam,” Ellis went on to say, “He has not made a decision about running. He’s thinking about it. What councilor hasn’t thought about it? He has not made a decision, and he’s not going to make a decision.”
That’s a lot of words right there, and “No” wasn’t one of them.
The news caught many people inside City Hall off guard, but not all of them. To these people, they can see it in the way Yoon has been walking around City Hall lately. He thinks he can pull this thing off. Deval Patrick did it. Obama’s doing it. Why not him, too?
“It’s on,” says one person inside the Hall. “There’s no sense announcing now. You have to wait until you can get some exposure in the papers. But the cat’s out of the bag. I think he’s in.”
Asked if Yoon might be flirting with the mayor’s office one term too soon, another City Hall insider replied, “He views these things differently than conventional political wisdom. That’s appealing to some people. It definitely makes things a lot more interesting than they were the day before yesterday.”
Interesting, because three candidates means a preliminary election in September. It means a much longer campaign calendar. It means a splintered base, and more bruising exposure for the mayor. And, with two challengers presumably in the race, it’s exponentially more likely that we’ll see other people jump into the race, too.
“The floodgates are gonna open,” City Hall Insider One predicts. “It’s going to be a nightmare” for the mayor’s people. Bruce Wall could jump in and start banging heads. Or somebody from the private sector. Or somebody from inside the State House. As the political sage Kevin Garnett says, now, anything’s possible.
The undercard to this battle might actually be worth watching, too. The council race has been sleepy thus far, but two potential at-large openings on the City Council “creates a highly competitive race, and draws in a ton of candidates,” City Hall Insider Two says. The smart money has both of those spots going to candidates of color. “I suspect there’ll be some candidates who might not have been considering themselves candidates until yesterday.”
All of which should make for an intrigue-filled year on the fifth floor of City Hall, as the administration squeezes its enemies from the inside. Flaherty’s already “toxic in the building,” City Hall One says. “Everybody’s afraid to talk to him.” And forget about getting anything done. Right now, if the Southie councilor called in a pothole, DPW would go out and dig a bigger one right next to it.
There’s another question that needs to be asked: Who wants to be mayor right now, anyways?
New York magazine recently speculated that Wall Street’s implosion, and the government budget crises it will unleash, could resurrect “the bad old days of the seventies” and break Michael Bloomberg. Things in Boston will be even bloodier.
New York can at least fall back on meals and rooms taxes. Boston is handcuffed by home rule. It can’t raise money on its own. So it’s dependent on a shrinking, over-stressed property tax base and local aid from the state. And you can kiss the latter goodbye. Growth in the state budget has been driven by capital gains—surges on Wall Street—not by any meaningful economic growth.
As the stock market goes, so goes the budget. The legislature has been skating by for years, preferring to fund politically popular programs and earmarks and borrow against higher tax collections, rather than close the state’s structural budget deficit. That tactic won’t work this year. And it’s Boston—the largest recipient of state aid—that will pay.
And while revenue is dwindling, costs (driven by health care and labor contracts) continue to swell. Menino has thus far managed to plug holes with one-time cash infusions and creative borrowing. But whoever is mayor for the next four years will, in all likelihood, have the honor of slashing the city’s budget, and presiding over school closings, and labor unrest. If basic city services like trash pickup, pothole-filling and parks maintenance don’t crumble altogether, it’ll be a victory.
At least one political observer believes that these concerns will shape Menino’s thinking next year. “The economy weighs heavily on whether he runs again,” this person says. “He gives every appearance of running. But he’s had, for the most part, a good ride on the economy. With this downturn, and shitty contracts he’s given out – is it time to say, Hey, I’ve had enough of this?”
There’s a flip-side to that thinking. A race dominated by the economy would force challengers to tilt at the mayor’s strengths. Yes, several people inside City Hall believe his political operation is weak and exhausted and, frankly, sick of jumping for Hizzoner whenever he comes calling.
But anyone challenging Menino next year will be fighting him on his own ground: Few pols in the country, let alone in this town, have been as aggressive as Menino has in defending homeowners from the current market’s ills. That’ll be a high hurdle for anybody to clear.