Boston--The Same Old Names... But a Chance for Change

Over the past year, the city of Boston has suffered through nearly every modern urban trouble--the subways have stopped running more than once, the treasury has run dry, the former city council president sold the school bus contract, thousands of parents pulled their children out of school, and police, firemen and teachers were laid off by the score. But few candidates for city office have made an effort to even talk about the issues, and voter concern about them seems to have little impact on this fall's campaign. As usual, two much more traditional factors--name recognition and neighborhood base--will decide tomorrow's elections.

But if the names--the never-ending stream of McThats and O'Thises--do not change very much this year, voters do have three opportunities to change the future of Boston politics. First, Questions One and Two are binding referenda on establishing district representation for the city council and the school committee. A second change could come if candidates with backgrounds in neighborhood work and supported by a city-wide coalition of progressive community organizations--a new phenomenon in city politics--run well. These candidates finished better than expected in the preliminary, and another strong showing would signify the potential political strength of these groups. In the school committee race, the election of "neighborhood" based candidates would be a shift from a committee long-dominated by members concerned with their own political gain to one dominated by people with a commitment and need for public education; those from the Black and Hispanic community.

The third sign of change would be a strong showing by current city councilor, and potential mayoral candidate, Ray Flynn. Flynn placed well in almost every precinct and topped the ticket in most wards. Following the repudiation of the Kevin Seven (candidates backed by Mayor Kevin H. White) in the preliminary, an improvement by Flynn over his strong vote would make him White's strongest challenger for the mayoral race in 1983.

District Representation

The issue is not new; Boston elected councilors by district until the early 1950s and there have been proposals to bring back a district system ever since; a similar referendum was on the ballot in 1977 and was defeated, despite the predictions of local political observers.


Proponents argue that much of the city has been disenfranchised over the last 30 years--that only districts with high voter turnout (white Irish and Italian precincts) are represented. Minority communities, like Roxbury and Mattapan, and isolated communities such as Charlestown, Allston-Brighton, and Roslindale have been excluded under the present system, they contend. But critics of the proposal, generally from South Boston, Dorchester, Hyde Park and West Roxbury, have argued that they should not be punished for civic-minded voting habits.

While most bets are on the passage of the reform, the safe money is still out. The represented communities will again vote heavily against the plan, and it is uncertain how strongly the disenfranchised neighborhoods will support the change. (In 1977, many voters--especially in the underrepresented wards--never voted on the question because it was hard to find on the voting machines).

But even if the referendum passes, districts will have to be drawn. Under the enabling legislation, the City Council has 90 days following the passage of the referendum to draw the districts, which the mayor can then veto. And if the council can't agree on the lines within 90 days, the mayor gets to do the job all by himself.

Should district representation pass, it is unlikely that the current council, with at least three departing members, will make any decisions. By the time the new council is sworn in, 60 of the 90 days will have been used up. No one will bet that any Boston City Council can agree on the districts 30 days; the alternative concerns many voters.

Finally, with only nine districts, two important disenfranchised neighborhoods, Charlestown and Roslindale, are likely to remain so. In 1977, both voted heavily against change. If they go the same way this time, district representation may not pass.

City Council

Of the six incumbents running for re-election, all are favorites to win one of the nine positions; Flynn is a sure bet to top the ticket while Joe Tierney and Patrick McDonough may not finish in the top six. Aside from Flynn, who has reached out beyond his conservative South Boston base, and become a strong advocate for rent control and condominium conversion restrictions, none of the incumbents could be accused of a thoughtful or decisive discussion of any issues. They all rail against the mayor and demand more fire and police protection; with established names, if not reputations, that should be enough to win.

The real fight will be for the three open seats. With only small differences, the likely winners will look very much like their fellow councilors. Michael McCormack and Bruce Bolling should win seats while anti-busing advocate Jim Kelly and Maura Hennigan will fight it out for the final spot.

McCormack, despite living in the rental neighborhood of Brighton and therefore endorsing a pro-tenant position, has the advantage of a good political name (it is spelled the same as the late Speaker of the U.S. House, John McCormack, and his nephew, former city councilor and lieutenant governor, Edward McCormack) and a good connection (he worked for Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti). Bolling, the only Kevin Seven candidate with a chance, is the strongest Black candidate and has the substantial support of his father, a former State Rep., and his brother, a current State Rep. Both Bolling and McCormack get most of their support from communities that will turn out in greater numbers in the final than in the primary.

Kelly ran very strongly in his home, South Boston, and white Dorchester, both of which vote strongly in preliminaries, but his vicious, blatantly racist reputation has hurt in the other Irish wards. Hennigan, herself a newcomer but with a large political family, may pick up liberal support (she favors district representation and is pro-ERA); she is seen as the likely replacement for the only current woman councilor, Rosemarie Sansone, who is not running. Watch for The Boston Globe to push Hennigan in an attempt to keep Kelly of the council.

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