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."