The Hill and the Hall Week in Review

1219415931Each 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: All the behind-the-scenes back and forth that led to Mike Ross’ ascendancy. Could it be that city council is growing up?

Mike Ross beat out Steve Murphy to win the Boston City Council presidency this week. The position comes with a nice big office, the chance to play mayor when the actual mayor blows town, and the honor of presiding over the city’s legislative body during both an economic meltdown and a contentious mayoral race. Congrats, friend.

But it’s only October. And the dreamboat Mission Hill pol already has this thing sewn up. These things usually don’t heat up until November, and don’t get settled until after a series of frantic, eggnog-fueled phone calls. It was a done deal before Hizzoner had a chance to have his say, even. What gives? How’d he pull it off?

Here’s how.

The two-year term limit that Council President Maureen Feeney put on the presidency had a major impact on councilors’ politicking calendars. Last year, Feeney was unopposed when she was reelected president—there was no sense in fighting her because she was doing her job well and would be out of the way in 2009. Everybody wrote off 2008 and focused on 2009, and when they did, the maneuvering to succeed her began exceedingly early.

“Term limits changed the dynamic,” says one City Hall insider. “These things usually go down to the wire.” Instead, everything went down in August and September. “There was no incumbent, and that opened up the gates early,” a second City Hall insider says. At least five councilors could have, conceivably, made a run at the position. Murphy and Ross emerged because they were most successful in cementing their votes early. ( Ed. note: Everyone in city hall fancies themselves an “insider,” in case you couldn’t tell.)

Ross might’ve been elected president two years ago, had things broken his way. Six councilors offered to throw their support behind Feeney in 2006. Her own vote would’ve made seven, and won her the office.

Instead, she went to Michael Flaherty, who’d been president since 2002, and asked him to stand down the year after. He reportedly agreed. But the next year, he again tried to cobble together the votes to hang on to the presidency. That bid failed, and Feeney won.

To the end, Ross stood by Flaherty’s side. In the days before the vote, Flaherty’s remaining supporters began discussing a plan to put Ross forward, in place of the Southie councilor. But it was too late. Feeney already had her votes in place. “Flaherty was doing everything to hold it,” the first insider says, “and it cost Ross the chance to step in as an alternative.”

This time, Flaherty was with Ross. The two are good friends, and Flaherty was Ross’s first backer. Ross also picked up the council’s other prospective mayoral candidate, Sam Yoon, early on. Both would-be candidates worried how Murphy’s ties to the administration might affect their lives on the council, and ambitions.

“Yoon’s looking to not get screwed, and Flaherty’s looking for revenge,” the first insider explains. “Flaherty blames Murphy for taking presidency from him.”

In early August, a core of older councilors—Feeney, Bill Linehan, and Sal LaMattina—began coalescing around Murphy. He’s the longest-serving councilor not to have headed the body, and he ran a smooth budget process this year.

A Hyde Park resident, he’s generally seen as a Menino loyalist, though he has also bucked the administration (notably, this year, he got the BRA to submit to a Council budget hearing.) His detractors seldom mention it, but Murphy is so close to Menino that he can match the mayor, decibel for decibel, and live to talk about it. Let alone remain in Hizzoner’s good graces.

Even so, it was the perception that, “Murphy will just take care of the administration,” that he “would be cutting deals to protect himself and hammering Yoon and Flaherty,” that helped drive support to Ross.

The Council went on extended vacation for nearly the entire month of August. So when they returned to work in September, things had changed significantly. John Tobin, once thought to be a candidate for presidency himself, lined up behind Ross. As did John Connolly, who’s close to Tobin, and, uh, not that close to Murphy.

Rob Consalvo, another viable candidate, sided with his Hyde Park neighbor. So in early September, the two factions were deadlocked, with five votes apiece. The thing was over two weeks later, and it was Chuck Turner who broke the deadlock.

Ross went to him two days before Murphy did, and he committed. “Nobody else had approached me,” Turner says, adding that he’s been impressed by Ross’s work on the councils Ways and Means and Government Operations committees. “He’s been able to work with every councilor, and he’s been helpful to me. What you need is somebody who’s going to be even-handed. And he has operated in that fashion.”

“That leaves [Mark] Ciommo and [Charles] Yancey,” says a third City Hall insider. “And Yancey’s going to ask for the moon.”

“There was the feeling that you can’t trust Yancey,” the first insider adds. “A fear he could dance around,” i.e. go fishing for a better deal. Ross’s supporters were well aware that Yancey once profited by lining up votes for himself for president, so his colleagues couldn’t break Jim Kelly’s coalition.

Still, Ciommo looked like an unlikely person to give Ross his majority. He won election with the support of Menino, Murphy, and Murphy’s former staffer, State Rep. Mike Moran. Murphy’s camp certainly didn’t anticipate Ciommo siding with Ross. “He’s a mayor’s guy, and there’s the generational thing,” the first insider says. But, again, Ross got to him before Murphy did.

When the Hill and the Hall spoke to Ciommo, he talked about the two coming together around common neighborhood issues, like institutional expansion. He also said he was “proud” to support the council’s first Jewish president.

David Bernstein reported Thursday that Ciommo and Ross came together “with help from leaders of Brighton’s Russian Jewish population,” and several people inside City Hall echoed that position. One says that Serge Bologov, who controls the community’s 300-vote bloc, “Helped broker the deal.”

“We’re facing the same issues in our neighborhoods,” Ross says. “We have common friends. Our business is very relationship-based. Common friends go a long way. They were helpful. But he made a difficult decision.”

It was only after Ross had his majority that the real vote-wrangling began. “We had seven, and to me, we could do better as a body,” he says. He wanted eight to ten. He wound up getting thirteen.

Ciommo committed to Ross last Friday. Word leaked over to the administration and they felt blindsided. “They were bullshit that this happened without them knowing,” the first insider says.

Ross’s backers thought it critical that they put together a coalition without the administration’s help, that they walk into a contentious election year and a budget in shambles without owing anybody anything. Otherwise, one said, “The body, and each one of us, would be caught in the crossfire.” “

“(The administrations) likes to be in the mix, and they were clearly taken out of that mix.” a fourth City Hall insider adds.” That person adds that the mayor “would’ve gotten involved whether Murphy asked him to or not.” Rumors began circulating that the mayor was ratcheting up pressure on Ciommo, viewed as the weakest Ross vote. And for them, it was personal. “The administration thought that, since Yoon and Flaherty were on his team, it was being driven by them,” a Ross supporter says. “It’s not. Look at Flaherty – he’s lobbing bombs with Maureen Feeney as president.”

Then, suddenly, the two sides came together. Nobody felt like getting bloody. Ross approached Murphy about merging their campaigns. They spoke Tuesday night, and came to an agreement during Wednesday’s Council meeting, on the Council floor. Their desks are next to each other, anyway.

They brought Feeney in on the discussions, and a deal was finalized 10 minutes before Wednesday’s surprise press release went out. Some councilors actually learned about the deal from reading the release.

Murphy’s camp believes they might’ve been able to win a protracted fight. They thought their five votes were solid, while a couple of Ross’s backers could be pushed. Ciommo, for one, could’ve been in for a long autumn of vague threats and late-night phone calls. By settling things now, the first insider says, “There’s no civil war.”

It’s that concern that ultimately trumped any one councilor’s ambition. “It’s going to be a challenging year anyway,” the second insider says. “To start it off recovering from bitter politicking…”

“I’ve been through this so many times,” Murphy tells us. “It’s so acrimonious, so divisive, so personally troublesome. Everybody would’ve been under pressure. For what? Who needs that? There are things more important than dragging people over a cliff.”

“A battle would look bad for us,” says another insider. “It becomes perverse theater, people getting calls on Christmas Eve.”

“It was important not get caught in the politics of work, but in substance,” Turner adds. “As a council, we’re showing that we’re not here to play personal politics. People can’t afford politicians to behave the way they have behaved.”

“For the sake of the body, it was important that we all get together,” Ross says. “I like Steve’s people a lot. I like Steve. Three months to go is a long period of time. Why not work with everyone, and pull everyone together?”

The future president, for one, lauds his predecessor for fostering the atmosphere where such a deal could take place. It’s a stark departure from the bitter atmosphere that once shrouded the council.

“We’ve had two years where divisiveness wasn’t present, and everyone worked well together,” he says. “She raised the bar for cooperation, for non-acrimony. It’s difficult to keep the workflow going with all the background noise going on. I reached out, I made my case, and he listened and came back and did what’s best for the body. It was harder for him than it was for me. We’ve had a good two years, and we should keep that going.” Feeney spoke Thursday of being “proud” of the détente.

There’s one intriguing theory that surfaced while piecing together this timeline. It went like this: Murphy wasn’t really the administration’s favorite. “Maybe he thought he was legitimate, but they knew that he’d hit the ceiling,” says the theorist. The plan was to peel off a vote from Ross, have Yancey tie up the vote, and send it to a second ballot.

Then, another candidate – LaMattina or Consalvo, maybe – would suddenly emerge as a compromise candidate, with the administration’s blessing. It would have been 2002, all over again. It’s fascinating. And we’ll likely never know whether or not it’s true.