Sunday, November 04, 2007

New vs. Old Boston in the Councilor-At-Large Race

Some pundits are predicting a low turnout in Tuesday's municipal election, which would favor "old Boston over the new, white over minority, and seniors over younger voters."

People generally put Councilors Felix Arroyo and Sam Yoon in the "new Boston" typecast, and there is little question that they are also minorities. Councilor Stephen Murphy, on the other hand, is clearly white and most would associate him with old Boston (cf. David Bernstein's case made in the Boston Phoenix). Councilor Michael Flaherty makes a more difficult case: many perceive him as blocking Team Unity's proposals in his former role as Council President, while the Phoenix claims that, since losing the Council President post, he has "become a more vigorous, daring, and thoughtful Councilor."

Putting aside the incumbents, let's ask the questions: Where lies challenger John Connolly? He is clearly white and young, but does he represent old Boston or new?

The mainstream media thinks Connolly represents new Boston. The Boston Herald thinks he would bring a "fresh approach," the Boston Globe quotes Connolly as promising to be "a voice for people who want to build a life in this city," and the Boston Phoenix says Connolly pitched himself as a progressive in 2005 -- he may be trying to be even more progressive this time around -- and has "thought deeply about a host of urban issues."

Is their combined assessment on target?

In what has probably been the most clever part of the 2007 municipal election campaign, Connolly has convinced the powers-that-be that he represents new Boston, when in reality he doesn't.

Old Boston Political Lineage. The obvious argument for Connolly as old Boston insider focuses on lineage: his father was the Secretary of the Commwealth, his mother is currently a Superior Court judge, and his uncle used to be Boston City Councilor. The Irishman doesn't seem to have the background of an urban progressive.

His connection to the Boston politics of old became all too clear in the last week as his campaign sent out two anonymous mailings attacking Councilor Stephen Murphy, and may have sent out another two "anonymous" mailings (supposedly from the "Parkway Coalition" and the "South Boston Association," both of which don't exist, according to the Herald's Howie Carr). Vicious, anonymous attack mailings are lore of old-time politics, not YouTube or internet-savvy young 'uns. Embarrassing thing (for me) is that Howie Carr seems to agree with this assessment: "Just when you think the old Boston is dead and buried, things like these farcical flyers pop up."

Casino Gambling. Connolly has come out solidly in favor of casino gambling in the state -- and in Boston itself -- although he notes that he wants East Boston residents to have some kind of say in the matter. Putting Governor Deval Patrick aside, gambling as revenue generation is usually more a conservative position than a progressive one: conservatives who don't want to raise taxes instead support raising "voluntary" taxes through gambling, while progressives express strong opposition to the terrible human cost gambling inflicts on the under-priviliged classes. It's no coincidence that Councilor Arroyo strongly opposes casino gambling and Councilor Yoon expresses strong reservations about it based on the human costs. Connolly mostly sits on the other side of the aisle from new Boston Councilors Arroyo and Yoon.

City Planning. The formation of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1950s gave every Mayor since then a cover to undertake large-scale urban renewal (like razing the West End), thereby keeping his hands clean. What has made the situation far messier now than then is the breadth of land ownership by tax-exempt institutions, and their massive proposals to develop on those lands. The BRA regulates their development proposals while simultaneously promoting economic development in the city and undertaking city planning. Those three functions of regulation, promotion, and planning often conflict on a fundamental and unresolvable level.

Recent years has seen a surge in the interest in splitting off at least the planning arm of the BRA into a separate city planning department; Councilor Arroyo proposed the current ordinance. These are the realities of the new Boston: dealing with the complicated and messy problem of planning a city's redevelopment while simultaneously regulating the developers. Connolly favors the status quo to keep the half century-old BRA as has been since old Boston times.

Public Schools. More than anything else, Connolly's stance on schools betrays his old Boston roots. He's 34-years-old, so when he grew up Boston was already under court-ordered desegration and mandatory busing. He told me he did not attend the Boston Public Schools himself, and he also strongly favors returning to neighborhood schools. In fact, he sat down with me in August and lectured for probably a solid 10-15 minutes on why neighborhood schools were the key towards improving the public schools.

The problem with wanting a return to neighborhood schools is that the city may revert to pre-1970s battle lines with schools segregated based on neighborhood demographics, and uneven school quality from neighborhood-to-neighborhood. It's not a surprise that new Boston Councilor Arroyo opposes continued movement towards neighborhood schools. Councilor Yoon summed up a progressive take on the issue by ensuring equality of schools for all: fix the schools first so that every neighborhood has a good school, and only then can overhauling the school assignment system occur. Connolly instead thinks doing the latter will accomplish the former, which sure sounds like an old Boston approach to me.

In the end, voters on Tuesday may well choose Connolly's ideas over one of the incumbent Councilors-At-Large. Good arguments can be made on both sides of each of these issues in the election. But somehow Connolly has convinced the mainstream media that these ideas are new and even urban progressive, when they sure seem like they are old -- and sometimes even conservative.

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