It sounds ludicrous but the most exciting controversy in the Boston mayoralty race is over the format for the public debate scheduled for next Monday.
Both sides are charging one another with backing off from negotiations on the terms of the debate. Challenger Louise Day Hicks spent much of her time at yesterday's press conference denouncing Mayor White for failing to come to an agreement. White's negotiator Frank Tivnan then retaliated last night by accusing Hicks' campaign manager John Day of cancelling a meeting scheduled for that night. Mrs. Hicks has even gone to the extreme of requesting that there be a debate about the debate with newspaper and television reporters as witnesses.
However, even the intensity of this controversy has failed to provoke much interest in Boston as is evidenced by its poor treatment in the Boston papers (for example the debate controversy only made page 28 in Thursday's Boston Globe). But why should it stir interest? A recent poll conducted by the Globe showed that White is leading Hicks 52-25 per cent; and although the poll also suggested that a majority of the remaining uncommitted 23 per cent may go to Hicks, White still has a decisive lead.
A brilliant performance by Mrs. Hicks in the debate could sway a majority of these votes but this seems highly unlikely, as well as relatively unimportant considering White's impressive lead. The controverial Congresswoman has a propensity for becoming embroiled in controversies where she comes off looking singularly inept. This happened in a televised debate before the preliminaries last September when she unintentionally reversed her position on 100 per cent tax assessment, and again yesterday at the news conference when she found herself in the embarrassing situation of confusing the role Mayor White played in the School Committee referendum controversy.
A televised debate could only help the front-runner White who exudes political coolness and charm. Moreover, it is generally acknowledged that White came off very well in the televised debate against Governor Sargent in the guber-natorial elections last year.
Mrs. Hicks said yesterday that she wanted a debate to "bring the issues to the people." She criticizes the spiralling tax rate, the crime in the streets, and the inefficient administration but her fiscal program, rather than proposing a feasible fiscal savings program, wants to make Summerthing concerts free, to reduce MBTA fares for Boston residents, and to lower Boston car insurance--hardly a program of fiscal austerity.
The dominant issue in the race--other than the debate itself--is campaign strategy, in particular the immense sum of money in the White campaign chest. Mrs. Hicks has vehemently insisted that White spend $296,000 on his campaign for the September 14 preliminary, while righteously claiming she spent only $40,000. She also complains that this lack of campaign money has denied her as much television and newspaper publicity as White has.
The Congresswoman's campaign operates in the "Get out and meet the people" tradition. She shows up at most of the candidates' nights around Boston (unlike Mayor White). Her manager and brother, John Day, says, "Louise is our strongest asset"; and the campaign relies heavily on Louise Day Hicks' image as a Bostonian among Bostonians.
White, on the other hand, has relied on his campaign machine rather than on his personality to win the election--an approach which his weekly polls tell him is working well. The primary thrust of his organization is a canvass of almost all 152,000 voters in the city, using computers to discover the issues most important to different groups of voters. His campaign manager John P. Marttila, who also ran Father Drinan's campaign last year, last week denied the charge that the campaign lacked the personal touch, "What could be more personal than going door to door and talking to the voters?"
The Hicks-White race has certainly not been a very exciting one in terms of the issues or even the personalities involved. But what is interesting are implications of the battle between the old populist campaign approach of Louise Day Hicks and the new computerized "behavioralist" approach of Kevin White. Whether for better or for worse, it seems as if White's computerized campaign will win him the election on November 2 and even more important that this kind of campaign organization will determine the style of future electoral races.