Thursday, September 16, 2004

There is no 'New Boston'

A lot of hay is being made about the primaries Tuesday with all kinds of grand comments and schemes being bandied about by the media. Most egregious, IMHO, is this piece in the Boston Globe this morning: ["City's political landscape shifts"] which seems to believe that there will be a massive liberal/progressive/minority/gay takeover of Boston politics. Other columnists are touting that “New Boston” has taken over “Old Boston.” But I think these people aren’t really looking hard enough at the numbers. Personally, having watched and participated in Boston politics for almost two decades, I think these folks are assuming a lot - and missing a lot.
In order to come to these conclusions, one has to look beyond the semantic evidence that the Globe has looked at. Sure, minority registration is up. Sure a black [former Republican] woman beat a white long-time Democrat male in a bloody fight for the sheriff’s office. Sure, MassVOTE spent what $700,000 [?] in registration and GOTV efforts which directly benefited one of the two sheriff candidates which is probably legal but bordering on unethical. Sure, Marty Walz won Rep. Paul Demakis’ Back Bay/Beacon Hill/Cambridge seat so a progressive replaces a pseudo progressive [In that race, Kristine Glynn, an acquaintance of mine, would have been just as good a choice]. Sure, an "out" candidate for state rep. beat a Finneran thug in Somerville, showing hope outside of Boston. Sure, another Finneran thug from Cambridge barely held on to his seat. All of this is good news but it isn't a radical change in Boston's body politic.

In the case of the sheriff’s race, low turnout was actually the culprit for Stephen Murphy losing not a groundswell of support for Andrea Cabral. While minority neighborhoods did turn out for Cabral, at higher than expected levels, the turnout in the largely white neighborhoods - Murphy's strongholds - were way below normal primary levels.
According to Boston’s Election Department, only 17.7 percent of voters in Boston voted [less than 50,000 out of 281,000 registered voters]. This paltry amount is closer to an off-year city council race and not party primaries which regularly range in the 25 to 30 percent level. Cabral beat Murphy 29,831 to 18,938 with 949 blanks and 197 write-in votes in the city. Murphy losing by almost 11,000 votes is shocking and was the difference in the race. Murphy won Revere by 295 votes. He lost Chelsea by 50 votes and Winthrop by 219. In other words, outside of Boston, Murphy beat Cabral [3,318 to 3,282]. In all these towns, voter turnout was also extremely low and not on par with normal primaries.
The reason the primary turnout was so low in these areas was the lack of competitive races. In Boston, for example, there were only four contested primaries: the sheriff’s race, the 2nd and 8th Suffolk house seats [usually high voting Charlestown and historically low voting Back Bay and Beacon Hill] and a governor’s councillor’s race. Had there been a normal level of turnout for the primaries - especially in historically high voting turnout areas like Hyde Park, South Boston, Charlestown, and West Roxbury - or higher turnouts in outside of Boston where Murphy won, I doubt it would have been enough for him to win. But I know it would not have been a landslide. An analysis of past voting turnout goes against the New Boston theory.
Sticking with the sheriff’s race for a moment, it is not surprising Murphy got shelled: The entire Democratic establishment - from Sen. Ted Kennedy, to A.G. Tom Reilly, to state Sen. Robert Travaglini of East Boston, to former-Gov. Mike Dukakis, to four Boston City Councilors, and numerous Democratic City Committees - was behind Cabral despite the fact that she was a Republican last year. Murphy was backed by four other councilors [the rest remained neutral], U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch of Southie and black Rev. Eugene Rivers. Murphy, granted a conservative Democrat, has always been a supporter of Democratic candidates. There were rumors that he endorsed Republican Paul Cellucci in 1998 but he denies it and no one has been able to prove it. So when push came to shove, the Democrats abandoned one of their long-time own for a newbie.
Despite what liberals and minorities may say about Murphy being a part of the "Irish establishment," they are really jumping the gun here suggesting that this is "New Boston" and the end of “Old Boston.” It isn't New Boston. Nothing has really changed. The sheriff’s race is one race and one race only. Many of the white male Democrats who backed Cabral probably did so to appease the liberal establishment which is always complaining about the lack of "diversity" in urban politics. Yet these same liberals refuse to really take on Old Boston and they have wholly abandoned Greens and other independents who have tried to take on the old guard. As stated before, Old Boston will probably remain in charge. They threw a bone to Cabral who had a slightly scandalous background - from unpaid school loans, etc. She received the endorsement of both Boston dailies but the more liberal editorial board of the Boston Phoenix went with Murphy. Figure that out. This isn't groundbreaking.
Despite all the complaints about Murphy, he is a good guy. I've known him for years. He isn't progressive; but he is fair and he is a good city councilor. He answers his phone and gets the job done. But unfortunately, Murphy is always looking to move up which is probably why he got hammered from the Dem establishment for being too ambitious. In 2002, despite being an early front-runner, he lost a grueling primary for treasurer. He later applied for the sheriff’s job after the scandals erupted [in which Cabral was hired] and jumped into the 2004 primary race after squeaking through reelection in 2003 instead of taking a break. All he seems to know are political races and constituent services. Before coming in fifth in an at-large race - and eventually moving up after Trav moved up to the state Senate - Murphy had run for multiple offices, over and over again. When Trav backed Cabral, it was no surprise since he and Murphy have been feuding since the older city council races. A lot of this was political payback - not a groundswell win for liberals.
But what about other successes by minorities and progressives? Isn’t there hope?
The media and liberals/progressives will point to Boston City Council Felix Arroyo’s 2003 reelection campaign as another example of growing clout. But Arroyo didn’t win because the minority vote was "powerful" although it has grown. He won because there was a liberal vacuum in the race and progressives were able to consolidate [i.e. bullet] their votes behind one candidate [with others also voting for Maura Hennigan, a progressive on some issues] instead of two or three which was the case in previous years. Turnout was high in 2001 when he came in fifth and was, again, the only progressive candidate in the race [43,100 in the preliminary, Boston’s definition of a primary; 89,000 in the final]. Because there was a mayoral contest and liberals/progressives tend to only vote in these city elections, it helped Arroyo. After Mickey Roache took a Registry of Deeds job, Arroyo moved up. In the 2003 election, however, Arroyo was in serious trouble - placing fifth in the preliminary. Thankfully, at-Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty who is eyeing the mayor's seat, pushed his entire organization over to Arroyo in a shrewd move to bump off Hennigan, also a presumed future mayoral candidate [Hennigan has been getting a lot of play city-wide fighting potholes]. This move boosted Arroyo from fifth to second in the final race that year [66,000 votes cast or 25 percent turnout, which isn’t bad turnout for a non-mayoral city election]. Arroyo also learned that yes, city council campaigns aren't about hunger strikes and speeches, but door-knocking, shoe leather and constituent services. His workers got out there and mobilized voters instead of wasting their time marching in protest rallies. Although, as noted by Chris Lovett of NNN here: [How the vote went in Boston] minority turnout is on the rise in off-year city elections, buoyed by minority candidates running for office. At the same time, turnout in white neighborhoods is on the decline.
However, in order for Old Boston to truly be declared dead [or wounded], one has to watch the city council races next year and see who emerges and with what backing. With Matt O'Malley successfully running Cabral's campaign, look for him to return to the at-Large field in 2005 [O'Malley came in a distant sixth in 2003]. With a mayor's race, O'Malley invigorated with new contacts and help from Cabral's org, and Patricia White probably returning [she lost by only 1,000 votes in 2003], there is hope for a more progressive council in 2005. I'm betting that while minority candidates will hold their clout - in this case Arroyo, and District Councilors Chuck Turner and Charles Yancey, holding their seats - I doubt they will gain more seats. On the state representative and senator front - mostly very conservative Democrats - minority and progressive candidates will be hard-pressed to see any gains due to the entrenched nature of incumbency in Boston and surrounding towns. As noted above, most of these candidates ran unopposed. The old guard remains.

In surrounding towns, however, there is more of a case that can be made about the potential for progressives to gain seats.
In Somerville, for example, a major crony of the despised House Speaker Tom Finneran was beaten by a 100 vote margin which will most surely prompt a recount. Carl Sciortino, a 26-year-old openly gay neophyte beat state Rep. Vincent Ciampa in a shocking upset. Ciampa, who has ruled over the North Somerville/Medford district for 15 years, was clearly outworked as Sciortino was out door-knocking six months before the election. As well, the makeup of the area has changed. Rising home values and condoization have changed the area from a working class, traditional values [Read: Catholic] stronghold to one where yuppies and progressives now reign. A lot of old-timers have sold their three-families while the getting was good. Ciampa had two major challenges in the past by Josh O’Brien, who ran blistering campaigns against him, in the mid-1990s, but was never able to capitalize on the changing demographics. As well, low turnout also helped Sciortino who’d clearly gotten out there early and often.
Another Finneran stooge, state Rep. Tim Toomey, whose district covers East Somerville and West Cambridge, won by 500 votes against liberal activist Avi Green: Toomey 3,161; Green 2,666. Green beat Toomey by 200 votes in Somerville precincts but Toomey prevailed in Cambridge precincts.
Green built upon the candidacy of Green-Rainbow candidate Paul Lachelier who garnered 37 percent of the vote [over 3,700 votes] in the 2002 general election. At some point, Toomey, who is a double-dipper [he gets $59,000 for being a “full-time” Cambridge City Councilor too], will need to get out while the getting is good. Someone will eventually come along and beat him.

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