Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Guest Column: The Finalists -- And Those Who Didn’t Quite Make It

Today we have another guest column by Mark Trachtenberg, who took time off from writing for the Allston-Brighton TAB to offer us his perspective on the September 25th preliminary municipal election for the Allston-Brighton District 9 seat on the City Council.  I would like to thank him for writing another interesting contribution.


The Finalists -- And Those Who Didn’t Quite Make It

By Mark D. Trachtenberg

In any political campaign, organization is the single most important factor in who wins or loses, and no campaign I’ve ever been involved in as either a candidate, a campaign volunteer, an election official, or as a journalist has shown this more than the recent preliminary election for the Allston-Brighton District 9 seat on the Boston City Council. At the beginning of the campaign it appeared that the anger and fear surrounding the institutional expansion issue might be strong enough to pull Alex Selvig, the crusading businessman from Lake Street with no previous experience in organizing a political campaign, into the final election. But in the end, Selvig didn’t come close to getting enough votes, and two far more experienced candidates – Mark Ciommo and Greg Glennon – made it to the final election.

Alex Selvig’s “rookie mistake” was that in the end, he failed to put together an effective field organization for the day of the election, as he himself admitted afterwards. Selvig had plenty of lawn signs, but as U.Mass.-Boston political science professor Gary Dotterman, a former city council candidate himself notes, “Lawn signs are easy.” But like Eugene McCarthy with the Vietnam War, Howard Dean with Iraq, and William Jennings Bryan with the free coinage of silver, Alex Selvig had a profound influence on the campaign without winning it himself. He pushed the other candidates to be tougher on the colleges and universities and more independent of Mayor Menino than they would have been otherwise, and Allston-Brighton may benefit as a result. “The whole point of the campaign was to put the institutional expansion issue front and center,” Selvig said after the preliminary election.

So what can we expect as Mark Ciommo and Greg Glennon go at it in the final election? The three-percent difference between the vote totals of Ciommo and Glennon in the preliminary election may seem quite close, but a look behind the numbers tells a far different story. The quick decision of third-place finisher Tim Schofield to endorse Ciommo was fairly predictable. What Schofield might have meant when he called Ciommo “the candidate who can unify the neighborhood” is that Schofield and many of his supporters still consider Greg Glennon to be the bogeyman on sexual politics issues such as gay rights and abortion, and they view Mark Ciommo as the safe alternative: a nice guy who helps the elderly and won’t do anything that will make them lose any sleep.

Tim Schofield finished third, and not a very close third, either – he had 22 percent of the vote, compared to Mark Ciommo’s 31 percent and Greg Glennon’s 28 percent. Schofield’s unexpectedly weak showing wasn’t caused by any particular failure of his campaign organization, because he had as polished and professional an election-day effort as I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t caused by any particular failure of the candidate himself – Schofield certainly presented himself to the voters as a well-informed advocate on many neighborhood issues. But the sexual politics issues such as gay marriage and abortion have always been something of a double-edged sword for the openly gay lawyer Tim Schofield, and in this year’s district city council election, many voters who had chosen him on the strength of those issues in the 2005 Democratic primary for state representative simply didn’t show up at the polls. The numbers from three precincts near Commonwealth Avenue which Tim Schofield carried in both 2005 and 2007 tell a troubling story for Schofield, and for anybody who truly values public participation in local elections: there was more than a 50 percent decline in voter turnout between Schofield’s 2005 and 2007 races.

The sexual politics issues were almost off the table this year, and many voters who supported Schofield in 2005 apparently weren’t motivated to cast a ballot this year when more local and neighborhood-based concerns dominated the campaign. It’s a shame, really, but as the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Perhaps Tim Schofield might have been helped if the Boston Globe had acted less snooty and actually covered the preliminary election campaign in its news columns rather than just throwing him a conspicuously ineffective endorsement, but we’ll never know for sure. Many candidates in Boston don’t succeed in getting elected until at least their third attempt – for example, State Representative Michael Moran and departing City Councilor Jerry McDermott – and at 38 Tim Schofield is young enough to take advantage of any number of future opportunities to run for office again.

So what can we expect from a final election contest between Mark Ciommo and Greg Glennon? The no-show-prone Glennon got his place in the final election largely on the strength of a traditional neighborhood organization led by Patrick Galvin, brother to Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.  But now Glennon finds himself in a very tough spot, tougher than the raw numbers from the preliminary election might suggest. Sure, Mark Ciommo emerged with a margin of only three percent, or about 150 votes, in the preliminary election, but there’s virtually no place for Greg Glennon to go among the people who voted in the preliminary election to make up the difference. Schofield’s 965 votes are almost all going to go straight to Mark Ciommo, with Ciommo barely having to lift a finger to get them. Much of Alex Selvig’s support around Lake Street can be described as “upscale leftist” – one Selvig neighbor whom I spoke with early in the campaign had several anti-war stickers on her car – so Greg Glennon will have little appeal to the bulk of Alex Selvig’s supporters, and Selvig himself is already reported to be supporting Ciommo. The best Glennon can hope for with 526 people (or 13 percent) who voted for Rosie Hanlon is to split them evenly with Ciommo, and even that may be a stretch.

To win in the final election, Greg Glennon will have to find a way to “expand the pie” – bring new voters into the process. Glennon has the knowledge and experience to be credible presenting himself a strong advocate on poor people’s issues from his time working on former state representative Brian Golden’s staff, but will he choose to campaign that way? Perhaps he can also point out to the voters in North Allston that he opposed the BRA's quick approval of Harvard’s proposed science complex while Ciommo spoke in favor of it, but will that particular project really matter to anybody around Oak Square in Brighton? Will Glennon even remember to show up for everything he’s supposed to show up for?

In Mark Ciommo, Greg Glennon has an opponent who’s a considerably better candidate than he was when he first ran for the District 9 city council seat in 2002 – a more polished and articulate speaker, better prepared, and getting better advice. Ciommo has a genuinely strong human service background, and the deeper roots in the neighborhood than Glennon has. In my non-betting, just-for-fun political mock casino, I’m making Mark Ciommo a 2-1 favorite to be Allston-Brighton’s next district city councilor.

But please, don’t leave the decision to a mere pundit like me. Go to the debates, read the local newspapers which do cover the campaign, talk to your neighbors, make a well-informed decision, and vote.  It really is important.

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