Sympathy for the Devil
THE EXPRESSION "political reform" has positive connotations: it implies increasing the responsiveness and integrity of the political system. In the light of this meaning, Mayor Kevin White's proposed changes for Boston's charter--originally derived from the recommendations of his Committee for Boston--should be called manipulations or at least alterations. Slightly amended but approved by the city council, the main proposals are:
1. Increase the school committee from five members elected at-large for two year terms to 15 members elected by districts for three year terms.
2. Strengthen the budgetary and hiring powers of the school system's superintendent at the expense of the school committee and have the school budget be reviewed by the city council and the mayor. A ceiling would be placed on the school budget, making it proportional to the average per student expenditures of the next nine largest cities in Massachusetts.
3. Enlarge the city council from nine to 13 members, elected at-large, and increase their term from two to four years.
4. Convert the city council and mayoralty elections from the present open primary, bipartisan races to partisan primaries and races.
With these recommendations White has combined long-needed school system reforms with self-serving proposals and then added a few sweeteners to placate potential critics.
According to Tom Atkins, head of the Boston NAACP and a longtime observer and participant in Boston politics, black voters have supplied White's winning margin in his three mayoral races. In return, Atkins claims, White has given blacks nothing more than "Griffin Bells."
WHITE IS TRYING to make amends. The school committee has long been a source of strident racism and fiscal irresponsibility; the city spends over $3000 per student each year to provide a grossly inadequate education. District elections will grant representation to previously ignored neighborhoods such as the South End, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. By reducing the committee-person's constituency from over 600,000 to 40,000, representatives will be held more accountable. Budget restraints and strengthened powers for the superintendent are prerequisites for greater efficiency.
After these laudable reforms would come White's political concessions, the changes for the city council, a group which presently has "almost, no redeeming value," according to Atkins. Back Bay State Representative Barney Frank '61 once described city council elections as a "lottery." With upwards of 20 or 30 candidates running for nine city-wide spots, the electorate is forced to rely on surface perceptions based on pseudo-issues such as "anti-busing" or "law and order." By not changing over to district elections White will increase the prizes and confusion without making the game any more legitimate.
The city council has little real power: it generates headlines, and it obstructs programs for minorities (e.g. the Third World Jobs Clearinghouse), the improvement of police services (e.g. the rejection of federal funds in 1976), and other liberal action. Adding another four rings to the circus practically assures the re-election of all of the incumbent councilors; with this prospect in mind, they have stamped their approval on White's plan. The alterations now require the approval of the state legislature. Next year the Massachusetts House of Representatives will be cut from 240 to 160 members: White is currying favor by creating potential jobs for displaced state representatives.
Two minor points raised by White are commendable. The lengthened school committee and city council terms will reduce the pressure on incumbents to constantly campaign. White's half-hearted recommendation to prohibit school committee candidates from soliciting funds from school department employees was quickly rejected by the city council. Squeezing the people you employ for donations is a routine practice of Boston politicians that the mayor himself has perfected. Last year former City Fire Commissioner James Kelly and two of his assistants were indicted for reportedly shaking down firemen for donations to White's '75 campaign. Despite the testimony of six allegedly victimized firemen, Kelly and his assistants were acquitted.
THE MOST CONTEMPTIBLE of White's proposals is his plan to reinstitute partisan elections in Boston. In an appendix to the Committee for Boston Report, Harvard Professor of Government Doris Kearns recommended this move, a longtime ambition of White's, claiming it would revitalize city elections. Her academic prestige is one of the few legitimate props behind this idea. Kearns, whom Atkins characterizes as "myopic--at least," and her husband Richard Goodwin are White's personal friends, and Goodwin has campaigned and written speeches for the mayor.
Democrats have rarely lost elections in Boston. Republican Senator Edward Brooke carried the city over his Democratic opponent in '72 because he was an incumbent running against an ineffectual party hack. Then Congresswoman Louise Day Hicks lost her seat to independent John Moakley who immediately returned to the Democratic Party. Even George McGovern carried Boston in '72.
From the South Boston Irish to the upwardly mobile blacks, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Boston 12 to one, according to Atkins. The city has no alternative party structure or political leadership. An American Independent Party candidate or an anti-busing Republican would be the only potential opposition--candidates who would capitalize on emotions, not issues. The city's government would come to resemble the state legislature, a body run by a dictatorial Democratic leadership with a powerless Republican minority barely preserving the facade of a two-party system.
Because they have a local orientation, City Hall and to a lesser extent the state legislature have a more immediate impact on Boston residents than the senate or governorship. These local offices are the sources of patronage and favors that make life in Boston more pleasant--last year selective tree planting in East Boston was one of White's ways of rewarding supporters. This difference between statewide offices, where Republicans often win, and local ones, where they usually lose, justifies Representative Frank's comment on the Kearns Report, "If that is going to be Harvard's contribution to Boston politics, they better stick to Asia."
Supporters of White's plan often point to New York as a Democratic city that elects Republicans. But with a population larger than Massachusetts's it is far more diverse. Boston City Councilor Larry DiCara '71, who voted for White's package with "mixed feelings," said that 45 per cent of New England cities and 81 per cent of Middle Atlantic cities have bi-partisan elections. Boston's extreme racism, balkanized ethnic neighborhoods, and overwhelming Democratic tendencies place it in a different situation.
THESE POLITICAL MANIPULATIONS can be understood by examining Kevin White's public career. A liberal during the '60s, White is going through political menopause. His ambitions to be governor (he lost in 1970) and vice-president (he tried desperately to get the nomination from 1971 to 1976) have been crushed and he has redirected all of his energies toward creating a legacy, a machine. Boston has long been a city of factions and White envisions himself as the chieftain who will overcome and unite the warring tribes. Political loyalty is becoming increasingly important for those seeking city jobs or favors, from the elderly commission to the assessing office. With hundreds of city employees to be laid off this month due to fiscal troubles, the importance of loyalty increases. DiCara points out that White could never reach the heights that Chicago's late Richard Daley did because he does not have the seats in the state legislature--Chicago has 30 per cent of Illinois's population, Boston has 11 per cent of Massachusetts's. But by controlling the city as well as the dominant party organization, White could build an effective, lasting machine.
In the short-run, partisan elections would hinder Mattapan State Senator Joseph Timilty's mayoral ambitions. Timilty, who narrowly lost to White in the '75 general election, is still White's main antagonist. He probably would be unable to win a primary race against White because due to its smaller turn-out, a primary emphasizes political organization rather than general popularity.
White "obviously did a lot of heavy trading," Representative Frank, an executive assistant to White in the late '60s, has noted, and the city council approved the mayor's proposals with minor changes in a rush session between Christmas and January 1, when the move would receive the least attention from the voters. Now the alterations will be sent to the State House to get the legislature's and governor's approval.
White has good relations with the legislative leadership but trouble may arise. Along with Timilty, the school committee will fight the proposals and committee member David Finnegan's brother is a powerful House chairman. However, last December the State House rejected White's pleas for a financial bail-out (Boston's property taxes jumped by 25 per cent this year) and this has increased the pressure to accede to White's demands. It is expected that White will get the needed votes and the signature of Governor Michael Dukakis, who is usually amenable to home rule petitions.
THERE ARE RIBBONS of reform around White's Christmas package for Boston but they are as much concessions from a politician as they are improvements for the city. If he had truly wanted to reform Boston's character White should have forgotten about partisan elections and recommended district elections for the city council along with his school committee reforms. Atkins believes districts will lead to "fanatical parochialism," but Representative Frank points to the cooperation and comparatively higher quality of leadership present in Boston's State House delegation which is elected by districts.
Mayor White is frustrated because he will never reach a higher office and frightened that he may follow John Lindsay's path of failure and anonymity. So he is shamelessly tampering with Boston's political structure. In the corrupt world of Boston politics it is mandatory that one makes deals and protects one's own interests in order to be successful. But White has abandoned any pretense of integrity, immersing himself in an unjustifiable mire of compromise and self-interest.
Atkins adeptly summed up the situation when he said, "Any proposal may be an improvement, but that is not the criteria to judge by. He is giving us what is next to worst, not what could be best."