Mike Ross has plenty of ideas; it's voters he needs
Boston is full of places where Mike Ross can expect to run into Charles Yancey. Like the City Council chambers where they both work, or a political fundraiser, or one of the innumerable candidate forums that have filled both men’s calendars since the race for mayor began in earnest in June. Yancey and Ross have served together on the Boston city council for the past 12 years. Ross is used to seeing the guy all the time.
It’s just that Ross is not used to seeing Yancey waltz into one of his own campaign events and pull up a chair at the front of the room. But here he was, turning a Ross press conference with the city’s minority police officers into an epic installment of the Charles Yancey Show, happily accepting the microphone and tossing red meat around the room. Ross sighed, clenched his jaw, and stared absentmindedly at the ceiling. He has an atrocious poker face. There was no mistaking how he felt about what was unfolding at the podium beside him. His morning was going sideways in a hurry.
Every politician hits a rough patch or two on the campaign trail. But if Ross is going to succeed Boston Mayor Tom Menino, he can’t afford to have many mornings go as disastrously as this one did. He has a much thinner margin of error than his fellow mayoral hopefuls.
The headquarters of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers has not aged well. Ancient wood paneling covers the walls. The floor tiles are cracked. The dusty air conditioning units humming in the windows look like they predate the Clinton administration. The function hall near the bottom of Columbia Road in Dorchester is not Ross’s natural element. He’d driven down from his South Boston campaign headquarters, past a sea of signs for mayoral rivals Marty Walsh and John Barros, to criticize a lack of diversity in the Boston Police Department’s upper ranks. He went to the headquarters of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers to say that, in a majority-minority city like Boston, the police brass shouldn’t be overwhelmingly white. But the event became something else entirely. First, the minority officers’ association called for police commissioner Ed Davis’s head. Then Yancey crashed in and began working the room aggressively. Jamarhl Crawford, a neighborhood activist who had recently goaded Suffolk DA Dan Conley into losing his temper in a room full of Grove Hall voters, began chanting, “Demote Davis! Demote Davis!” The demotion of Ed Davis is not a plank in Mike Ross’s campaign platform.
Ross shouldn’t have it this rough. He’s easily one of the most polished and confident candidates in the mayor’s race. He’s at his best when he’s surrounded by the rest of the mayoral field, talking policy. While on the city council, he tackled policy issues ranging from food trucks, dog parks, and late-night MBTA service, to economic cooperation with Cambridge. He talks on the campaign trail about pitching Boston to CEOs from across the country and across the world, rather than just across the Charles River. In a field crowded with candidates from West Roxbury and Hyde Park and Dorchester, Ross is working under the influence of big-picture economists such as Ed Glaeser and Barry Bluestone.
Ross is unquestionably the darling of the real estate development crowd, but he forcefully argues that, if done right, City Hall can get developers to create vibrant neighborhood amenities, soften the threat of gentrification, and pad the municipal budget. He’s unabashedly pro-growth, but he’s also the only candidate proposing to increase the amount of affordable housing the city extracts from developers. He draws a direct line between the desire to invest in robust new education programs like the arts and citywide pre-kindergarten, and the need to pay for them. “It’s expensive,” he says. “We’re going to pay for it with new growth.”
He’s sharply critical of the attitude, cemented by two decades of the Menino administration, that municipal government should focus on handing out tax breaks and managing constituent services. “We need to get out of the weeds and take a macro focus on the stuff that really matters,” he argues. “There are neighborhoods where there’s nowhere to go to get food or go shopping. That’s what’s holding neighborhoods back.” And he says the permitting process for a new business should not be so convoluted that start-ups need to call on elected officials to help them navigate it. “You should never have to call a politician to get help opening a business,” he says. “Every day I have to expedite small business. I see that as a systematic failure. I’m ashamed I have to help them.”The issue for Ross will be finding enough voters who agree. He was one of the last candidates to jump in the mayoral race. He lacks the deep field operations of John Connolly and Marty Walsh, and the breathless media anticipation that Charlotte Golar Richie enjoys. His own constituents tend to sit out mayoral elections. Ross has to hope that the candidates who have natural geographic advantages over him — Connolly, Walsh, Conley, and Rob Consalvo — box each other in in West Roxbury and Hyde Park and Dorchester, and that Richie remains uninspiring on the campaign trail. Ross is counting on a big television advertising push to supplement a field organization that got a late start. Most of all, he’s counting on his ideas to win votes in surprising places, be it among cops standing in a chaotic function hall on Columbia Road, or at a house party full of total strangers.
Last month, Ross walked into the Ward 21 candidates’ forum in Allston, made his pitch, and without knowing anyone in the room, walked away with the ward committee’s endorsement. He thinks he can repeat this feat across the city. He has to think this way. All the obvious places to score votes are taken already.