Boston’s embrace of political predictability

Mayoral election failing to generate enthusiasm or debate

THE EAST BOSTON NEIGHBORHOOD I grew up in was abuzz that late summer evening in 1967.  The Community Club was our neighborhood “men’s club,” a place for mid-century male camaraderie and (so I later came to suspect) serious gambling, a place forbidden to me except on July 4 when the club members put folding tables on the sidewalk outside and handed out Hoodsie cups to the kids.  The club was directly across the street from our triple-decker, and I could see out our second-floor window that it was unusually busy with people coming and going.  In those days, when stoop sitting was widespread and windows were kept open to catch the occasional breeze, word of local events spread quickly from house to house.

She was coming.

It had to have been late afternoon because it was still light out when her car rolled up and double-parked directly in front of the Community Club, and several dozen local residents gathered in close to catch a glimpse of the mayoral candidate who was exciting passions the likes of which Boston has not known before or since.

Jim Aloisi’s autograph of Louise Day Hicks.

Caught up in the excitement, I rummaged through my desk to dig out my autograph book.  I was there in the crowd when she appeared, and started shaking hands.  Someone yelled out “Make a speech!”  Others joined in, but she demurred, saying in a soft voice that it was not the occasion for a speech.  As she turned to enter the club, I held out my autograph book and a pen, and she stopped to sign it.  I still have that book, filled with autographs of childhood friends and grade school teachers. On one page in the middle of the book there’s a signature that has every feature of classic Catholic School Palmer Method penmanship, with none of the typical political adornments such as “Best wishes” or “To my friend.” There was just a signature: Louise Day Hicks.

I recall this long ago moment because I can’t imagine such a thing happening in today’s Boston. With two exceptions (1993 and 2013), elections for mayor of Boston since 1983 have been dull affairs, foregone conclusions where weak, underfunded challengers provide the illusion that voters have the benefit of a real choice when it comes to selecting city leadership.  For reasons that are worthy of exploration and reflection, the city hasn’t been able to generate the kind of political energy that, through most of its late nineteenth and twentieth century history, led to colorful campaigns waged by contestants who each had a viable chance of winning.  The great political battles waged by John Fitzgerald, James Jackson Storrow, James Michael Curley, John Hynes, John Powers, John Collins, Kevin White, Louise Day Hicks, and Joseph Timilty were not rarities but standard fare.  In today’s Boston, the candidate vanquished at the last election does not plot a comeback, but instead (as John Connolly did last week) endorses his one-time opponent, the two former rivals awash in mutual admiration.

There is an adage – or a truism – that it is pretty much impossible to defeat a first-term incumbent running for reelection barring some sort of significant intervening event.  In fact, it has historically been true that it is very difficult to beat any incumbent regardless of how many terms have been served.  A series of scandals or acts of ineptitude can certainly defeat a first-term incumbent, as happened in 1907 to John Fitzgerald and 1917 to James Michael Curley.  George Hibbard, who defeated Fitzgerald in 1907, lost convincingly in the 1909 battle between Fitzgerald and James Jackson Storrow.  The incumbent Curley, completing his fourth term, famously lost in 1949 to John Hynes, a defeat that came when Curley was in his political dotage and a recent occupant of a federal jail cell. So it does happen that incumbent mayors are deprived of reelection, but it does not happen often, and hasn’t happened since 1949.

The outcome of this year’s race for mayor already seems a forgone conclusion, following a pattern we have become all too familiar with.  A massively well-funded incumbent mayor challenged by a woefully underfunded city councilor – you do not need to be a political historian to predict the outcome.  This is not good for the city.  The quadrennial coronations of Ray Flynn and Tom Menino provided predictable leadership, but that predictability comes at a price, largely manifested in the absence of the kind of civic debate that pushes back on status quo thinking.  This has nothing to do with whether the incumbent mayor is worthy of re-election.  It is about whether the city – and the mayor – would benefit from the rigor of a spirited, policy-oriented campaign.

It may be unfair, or unrealistic – or even undesirable – to think that Boston in 2017 can generate that type of political excitement, because we are so fundamentally a different place, with changed demographics and priorities that do not lend themselves to the rough and tumble politics of the past. Few yearn for the days when every election cycle brought the possibility of new political leadership; perhaps most of us welcome a more stable (if not genteel) political landscape.  The often petty political animosities and grudges that divided neighborhoods in the days when political primacy was frequently and hotly contested stood in the way of municipal cohesiveness.  It was exhausting and expensive, to be sure, but it also generated an environment where voters had to think hard about their visions and values, and select candidates who reflected those.

Cohesiveness was historically elusive in a city once famous for its tight-knit, insular neighborhoods, and it did not serve the city well during times of social crisis and upheaval.  Yet what passes today as cohesiveness may represent less a shared perspective and more the generic apathy of a larger, younger population less rooted in the city’s politics and parochialism.  Exhibit 1 is the primary election for city council in District 2.  South Boston and the Seaport are chock full of millennials who apparently do not vote, or aren’t registered to vote, in municipal elections.  As a result, they abdicate their right, and forfeit their responsibility, to influence public policy in the city and neighborhood they are making their home.

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And so we limp along toward a general election where the mayoral outcome is not in doubt.  I began this electoral reflection with a memory of Louise Day Hicks running for mayor in 1967.  In that year the voters of Boston were faced with perhaps the most meaningful choice ever presented to city voters.  Would Boston have become the city it is today if Hicks had defeated Kevin White?  An impossible question to answer, but worth reflecting on.  What is also worth reflecting on is whether we think our city is well served by elections that fail to generate either real public enthusiasm or real civic debate.  In the era of Donald Trump many people may think it a relief to have a quiet, non-contentious election for any important office. I understand that perspective, but wonder whether in the long run it serves our city well.  I’m not convinced it does.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group.