Thursday, November 01, 2007

Abortion, Gay Marriage, Glennon, and the Ambassador

Mark Ciommo, candidate for the Allston-Brighton District 9 City Council seat, has been open on his positions on major social issues of the day. He is openly pro-choice and supports marriage equality, and wrote to me that he opposes the death penalty. Four of his opponents in the preliminary municipal election all openly answered questions on social issues, such as gay marriage, when asked.

Ciommo's opponent in the final municipal election, Greg Glennon, has, on the other hand, been remarkably quiet on these issues in this campaign. An audience question at the October 23rd debate asked him his personal position on abortion, and Glennon declined to answer the question. (Listen to the audio under "audience questions".) When given the same question, Ciommo instead chose to answer it (albeit in the fewest possible words)... and off we went to the next question.

Both Ciommo and Glennon expressed the opinion that these issues are not particularly relevant to the job of a City Councilor. But when asked if he thought these issues do matter to voters in the City Councilor election, Ciommo told me he thinks they might. "I think voters may consider these issues, however, I believe voters care most about having someone who has a record of service and experience and of proven results."

There is a clear disconnect between the two remaining candidates in their approach to addressing these major social issues of the day. It isn't really much about their particular stances on the issues -- although that does factor into the equation. Instead, their eagerness or unwillingness to address the issue with Allston-Brighton voters is the story.

Three particular points have been difficult for me to get my arms around in this election: (1) Where does Glennon stand on these social issues? (2) Does it matter to voters? and (3) Why won't he answer the same questions that other candidates will?

Where Does Glennon Stand on the Social Issues?

Where does Glennon actually stand on these social issues? Nearly everybody I have spoken to expresses certainty that Glennon opposes gay marriage and is pro-life. Is this accurate? I went to the public record to find out. (Glennon did not respond to the request to provide his positions on gay marriage and abortion for this article, or to describe how his position might have changed since 2005.)

Many stories in the last few years which have tried to categorize Glennon's political positions have called him "conservative." In general, however, the articles give no direct reference to a position paper or a quotation from Glennon himself. A simple example from the 2005 race for State Representative was in the Boston Globe's coverage (categorizing Glennon without quoting him):
Gregory Glennon... seems poised to make a play for more conservative voters who will respond to the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage views he shares with Golden.
As best as I can tell, the paper-less trail seems to go back to one event in Brookline in 2005. Adam Reilly of the Boston Phoenix reported:
Greg Glennon, a former legislative aide to Golden, represents the district’s conservative constituency (Brighton is also home to the Boston archdiocese’s headquarters) and wears his views proudly. During a recent candidates’ debate in Brookline, Glennon declared himself pro-life and, after acknowledging that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, plugged "reasonable restrictions" on abortion rights (e.g., "informed consent" and parental-notification rules). He also denounced the Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge decision, which legalized gay marriage, as bad jurisprudence, and suggested that freewheeling popular debate on the subject would be healthy for Massachusetts...
Another media report I have found about the event, but which is not available online, was a column by Mark Trachtenberg in the now-defunct Allston-Brighton Bulletin:
Glennon knew he was walking on eggshells on the issue [of gay marriage] and his comments reflected it. He was the only candidate in the [2005 state representative race] field who opposed the Supreme Judicial Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

[Glennon said:] "I believe the voters deserve the chance to voice their position on the issue by way of the [state constitutional] amendment. I believe the amendment is a fair, thoughtful amendment that respects the concerns off those who believe that consensual adult relationships deserve legal recognition."
Trachtenberg's column continues on with the issue of abortion:
As a devout Catholic, Glennon disapproves off abortion but regards a woman's access to most reproductive health services as a matter of "settled law."
The qualification "most reproductive health services" is a hole wide enough to drive a truck through, but the "settled law" statement is also a strong respect for legal precedent.

In the October 15, 2007 candidates debate, Ciommo asked Glennon about whether or not evolution should be taught in the schools. According to two people in attendance, Glennon initially seemed ready to respond -- like he did to the aborion issue in the October 23rd debate -- that the social issue was not within the purview of a City Councilor, and so that he wouldn't answer it. But the attendees said that he appeared to change his mind early in the answer; Glennon then said that it was OK to teach evolution in the public schools. (Ciommo might be cut out for the job of journalist should the election not go his way: that was a clever question he wrote, designed to pull a candidate out of his shell. It succeeded.)

There we seem to have it. Glennon is quoted as personally opposed to abortion, considering it to be a matter of "settled law," but supporting "reasonable restrictions" on it. He disagrees with the SJC's decision on gay marriage, possibly on legal grounds (he is a lawyer, after all), but has not spoken on whether or not he personally supports gay marriage; instead, he wanted a popular referendum on a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (a position also generally taken, it should be noted, by outspoken opponents of gay marriage).

Are These Major Social Issues Relevant to a City Councilor?

A Boston City Councilor has virtually no jurisdiction over any of these three issues -- abortion, gay marriage, or the death penalty -- so his position is unlikely to lead to changes in the law. There are three ways I can think of, however, in which the issues might impact voters.

First, the Boston Police Department has a significant influence over enforcement of laws related to abortion: anti-abortion protestors, such as those outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue just outside the District 9 borders, could be impacted by either aggressive or lax enforcement of the law. Changes in state law are currently making their way through the legislature, which would increase the buffer zone from six to 35 feet and re-define where the buffer zone originates, make enforcement an issue that is likely to crop up within the next year or two. City Councilors do have influence over police enforcement issues.

Second, getting elected City Councilor could provide an "entry point" or springboard for a politician who eventually may seek a higher office where his views could actually create an impact. Elect someone now with whom you disagree on fundamental issues, and that person could be the next Congressman.

Third, while the Legislature voted this past year not to send a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to the voters, they may vote yet again in the future to do so. If Governor Deval Patrick gets his casinos, then I would bet in one on such a referendum passing and reversing the SJC decision. The City could be in the position to re-consider providing domestic partner benefits to city employees, an issue on which a Councilor might vote.

Of these three arguments, the first one is current and relevant on Commonwealth Avenue -- just across the boundary of District 9. The second and third arguments are, admittedly, more and more of a stretch.

What do some voters think? One undecided voter recently told me that the "entry point" argument was relevant in choosing a candidate. Many other undecided voters -- supporters of Schofield, Selvig, and Hanlon -- have told me since the September 25th preliminary election that they are considering the candidates' positions on these social issues when deciding who to support for the November 6th municipal election, with abortion and gay marriage being the key two issues.

Should these social issues matter in a City Council election? Probably not. Are voters considering these issues in this election? It sure sounds like they are -- and Ciommo suspects as much. (Glennon did not respond to a request to comment on whether or not he thinks that voters are considering these issues in this election.)

Former Mayor Flynn Supports Glennon for City Council

Former Boston Mayor and former Ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn supported Glennon in the preliminary election with a $200 check; he was also seen on election day, September 25th, outside the Oak Square YMCA, a polling location, wearing a Glennon campaign button. Flynn is well-known for his strong advocacy of the pro-life position on abortion, particularly through the organizations Catholic Alliance, Your Catholic Voice, and Catholic Citizenship. Under a photo of Ambassador Flynn and Sean Cardinal O'Malley, Catholic Citizenship expresses its goal "to get to the point where all candidates are pro-life."

I asked Ambassador Flynn recently why he supported Glennon's candidacy for A-B District 9 City Councilor. The first reason, he said, was that former State Representative Brian Golden's office -- which included staffer Glennon -- was "one of the best state representatives for delivering constituent services," an important function which was "getting short-changed in an age of institutional expansion." The second reason was the friendship that Glennon had developed with the Ambassador's son, Ed Flynn, in recent years.

I asked Ambassador Flynn if Glennon's position on abortion factored in as a reason for his support based on the Ambassador's own well-known advocacy for right-to-life causes. He said that "there's not much a City Councilor can do on this issue." But then he added, "I admire [Glennon's] position on the respect for life."

While Ambassador Flynn's response indicates that the main reasons for his support of Glennon are a past record of delivery of constituent services and a personal relationship through his son, his answer nonetheless shows that he is aware of Glennon's stance on abortion and "admires" it.

Glennon may not have wanted to answer publicly the audience question on abortion during the October 23rd debate, but he appears to have answered the question privately with at least one of his prominent supporters.

Why Would Glennon Avoid These Social Issues?

The obvious question keeps coming back to me: Why is Glennon avoiding stating his position on these social issues while his opponent -- and all the other opponents in the preliminary election -- were perfectly happy providing their positions?

One conclusion: Glennon's perceives that his position on these issues is at odds with the bulk of the electorate in Allston-Brighton. The 2005 race was a very close three-way contest between Glennon, Michael Moran, and Tim Schofield; now-State Representative Moran eeked out the win. In an election where social issues did matter, less than 1/3 of the electorate voted for the conservative candidate on these issues.

An alternate conclusion: Glennon's actual position on abortion (and/or gay marriage) is not quite conservative enough that he might fear alienating his conservative supporters. Note his statement about abortion being "settled law": this is close to heresy to the religious right, since many conservatives would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned altogether.

One Brighton political insider told me that in 2005 Glennon confided to him that he was worried what his conservative supporters might do if they heard his comment about "settled law." If this one person's account of a conversation in 2005 is accurate, then this just might provide the key to understanding Glennon's 2007 campaign strategy not to answer questions on these social issues.

Glennon appears to be walking a tightrope when he declines to answer questions about abortion: not wanting to alienate his conservative supporters with a more measured view of abortion, while also not wanting to alienate the broader A-B community who rejected a social conservative candidate more than 2-1 in 2005.

Are Glennon supporters like Ambassador Flynn aware of Glennon's somewhat nuanced position on abortion that acknowledges it as "settled law"? I cannot tell. But it is also possible that some people who were considering voting for Ciommo based on Glennon's perceived stance on abortion may take a second look at Glennon.

Caption: One of two campaign signs for Greg Glennon recently mounted outside Brighton Center's Knights of Columbus Hall. The middle line on the sign on the brick wall reads, "PRAY FOR THE UNBORN." The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal benefit society that is active in pro-life causes.

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