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Boston Elections

By John L. Powers

"IT IS SAID that every people has the government it deserves," Bernard Shaw once wrote. "It is more to the point that every government has the electorate at deserves; for the orators, of the front bench can edify or debauch an ignorant electorate at will. Thus our democracy moves in a vicious circle of reciprocal worthiness and unworthiness." A prominent Boston doctor goes somewhat further. "Bostonians are basically thieves," he says, and they always put people in office that they can identify with.

Somewhere between the two philosophies lies the traditional spirit of Boston polities. Two weeks ago, when the Boston electorate voted seven incumbents, one former member, and Louise Day Hicks to the city council, it may again have gotten exactly what it deserves.

Boston politics have become comically notorious throughout the nation for their predictability and their scandal. Among Bostonians, the issue is a sore one. Most citizens feel that neither the council nor the school committee does much of constructive value, but on election day, they solemnly re-elect the incumbents. As one South Boston resident puts it. "They've got the experience, haven't they?

Clearly, they have. A comparison of turnover in the council during the 60's shows a surprising amount of stability. On the rare occasions when an incumbent is turned out of office, it is almost always to make room for a former member (as was the case in the re-election of Gabriel Piemonte this year) or to allow a politician who has made his name in another area, such as the school committee, to move in.

So when councilman Gerry O'Leary successfully used a radio slogan advising, "Vote O'Leary, he's been there before," it was one of the most valid appeals to Bostonian voter logic that could have been made.

It is difficult to explain the predictability of Boston's elections. Several plausible theories can be advanced but their mutual exclusiveness can be extremely puzzling. It is fair to say that the Boston electorate is quite conservative, law-and-order oriented, and votes in candidates that go along with it. But no one can determine why Bostonians would sweep Hicks, an outspoken anti-black politician, into office with an amazing plurality, and give second place to Tom Atkins, a liberal black from Roxbury who finished a badly beaten 16th in the primaries.

Granted, Atkins was an incumbent, and what is less well known is that he frequently votes law-and-order. But his conservatism was not made an issue in his campaign, and he had, in fact, deliberately played up his sympathy with Roxbury in order to maximize his drawing power in the black community. Since the blacks account for only 15 per cent of Boston's electorate, they alone could not put him in office, and what is politically incredible is the support he found in lily-white precincts where Hicks coasted to victory. For example, in Allston, hardly expected to be an Atkins stronghold, he ran second to Hicks in almost every precinct.

THE ETHXIC SPLIT in Boston is fairly clean-cut, but politically only the Irish and Italians rule Boston. The council has been divided between Kerrigans, Hyneses, Foleys, Iannellas and Langones for years. The majority of the Irish candidates live in Dorchester and South Boston, while the Italians reside in the North End and East Boston, both heavy Neapolitan sections of the city.

Necessarily, then, any successful candidate is going to have to sway votes in Roslindale, Hyde Park, Allston, Jamacia Plain and Charlestown- sections where one's neighborhood would not get him elected, but where his conservatism could. Since every candidate knows it, they all take the same stands. Naturally, the traditional pattern held up once again. Law-and-order, improved neighborhoods (without urban renewal), better schools, and closer-watched city finances are always successful platforms in Boston, but any serious candidate knows it, so there is little hope of selecting councillors by the issues. And drawing the vote from one's home ward is a misguided strategy in a city where seven or eight candidates live in the same ward.

The key to election then is incumbency and favorable ballot position. Close examination of the high position-large vote ration shows that Bostonians often select the first nine candidates on the ballot- or the first eight plus Hicks. Bulleting, the casting of a vote for only one candidate, also finds widespread use.

Sophisticated campaigning seems to be futile in a community that selects its councillors almost accidentally. The most effective approach is "street campaigning." where the candidate talks to the slice-of-life people at the subways and on the corners. Also valuable is word-of-mouth, or newspaper publicity, usually procured through the revelation of scandal.

John Kerrigan, who barely sneaked by two years ago, rolled to victory this month in the school committee race, politicking has brought him the chairmanship, and the disclosure of his ties with a Dorchester school repairs contractor got him into the headlines. Thievery, or the hint of it, is popular in a city that once elected a mayor after he had served a jail sentence for embezzlement of city funds. One could turn fraud into election if he attached a Robin Hood charisma to it. In the best James Michael Curley tradition. Kerrigan won in a landslide.

HICKS, however, is another story. She comes across as a simple housewife with an "I'm one of you" image. Her platform is simple, and perhaps, oversimplified. Hicks openly stated during her campaign that Roxbury's racial trouble was caused by outsiders, and insisted: "The people of Roxbury have been living in harmony with the rest of the city for years." This philosophy reassured an electorate that was looking outside the city for answers to its internal problems. With matronly pollworkers suggesting, "Don't forget Louise," she devastated the field.

Hicks wants the councilship as a steppingstone for a higher office, and has hinted that she might run for John McCormack's seat when he retires. Kerrigan is interested in the mayoralty. The electorate is aware of these ambitions, but this awareness did not keep Kevin White, who clearly has had his eye on the governor's chair, out of the mayoralty.

Two weeks ago, the deja vu nature of Boston city politics was simply reasserted, and there is no indication that things will change. Shaw, sadly, is still relevant.

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