No letting up
John Connolly, championing a school-reform agenda, started the race with a head of steam. He’s doing all he can to maintain it.
Go ahead, try to hide behind your sunglasses. Stare down at the sidewalk — no, better, stare right through the concrete on the ground. Walk as quickly as possible. Discover the most fascinating detail on your iPhone screen, and never, ever break eye contact with it. Try it all. Your resistance will be futile. All the feigned preoccupation in the world will not stop John Connolly from shouting campaign slogans at you and stuffing political literature into your hand.
The race for Boston mayor unfolds on two distinct fronts. There’s the noisy mess bubbling away in the press and on social media, and then there’s real contact with the voters who, Connolly hopes, will propel him past this month’s preliminary vote and into the November final election. Connolly, the West Roxbury city councilor, is pouring himself into the second front because he has had a difficult time mastering the first. In recent weeks, he’s been savaged by pro-union public school activists, appeared to sit on the fence on the casino debate roiling East Boston, and watched as a valuable endorsement got overshadowed by some nasty, racially-tinged neighborhood politics. Welcome to the life of a political front-runner, awash in a great churning noise, with a potential landmine lurking under every footstep.
Connolly has been sitting near the front of the pack since the race for Boston mayor began in earnest this past spring. But if the last several weeks are any indication, the few days remaining until the September 24 preliminary election will be among the longest of John Connolly’s life. Which is why Connolly is now standing on Boylston Street, outside the Apple Store, haranguing pedestrians. If Connolly is going to make it through these next two weeks, it’s going to be by ignoring the noise around him, and shaking as many hands as he can.
Connolly knows the lunchtime crowd on Boylston Street isn’t fertile territory for voters — not like the parking lot of the Roche Brothers supermarket in West Roxbury, which Connolly had worked for 10 hours one day earlier in the week. Many of the folks walking past the Apple Store aren’t Boston voters. Many are doing their best to dodge the loud guy with the tie and the campaign button. He’s relentless about chasing them down anyway.
“How ya doin’, sir?” he asks one pedestrian. “John Connolly, runnin’ for mayor, I want to make sure our city services run like the Apple Store.” To another: “Our city services should be user friendly and fully online. I hope you’ll consider me.” Half-running down the block, offering a campaign flyer to a man who has his arms glued to his sides: “I just wanna say hi!” That last line doesn’t work, so Connolly breaks off his pursuit and doubles back toward a guy dressed in blue scrubs. He’s dogged about working the crowd, and there’s not an ounce of shyness or self-doubt on display. He’s having fun, interrupting strangers, and pumping them for votes. He could do this all day.
Connolly loves the City Hall-as-Apple Store angle. He’s been working it for months. That’s because there’s an Apple-like elegance to the metaphor. It’s simple but telling — the argument that, in 2013, in the East Coast’s tech capital, citizens should actually be able to do city business on the city’s website. It also lets Connolly claim the mantle of young, ambitious reformer, without actually courting controversy. Voters like iPhones and hate clunky municipal bureaucracies.
Connolly straddles a strange political space, with one foot in Boston’s past, and the other pointed toward its future. He lives in shamrock-speckled West Roxbury, speaks with a marked Boston accent, and hails from a family of political heavies. At the same time, he’s a Harvard guy who ascended to the city council as an environmental advocate, and who campaigned for reelection arm-in-arm with fellow councilor Ayanna Pressley two years ago. (She topped the ticket; he placed third.)
He enjoys a strong power base in West Roxbury, but his mayoral campaign has made great efforts to move past neighborhood politics, engage occasional voters unused to voting in municipal elections, and build an organization based on demographics. He’s building a movement of parents who are already invested in the Boston school system, and young professionals – residents who will become parents down the road, and who will decide to either remain in Boston or decamp for the suburbs based on the quality of the city schools. He’s building a network of supporters organized around parents in individual schools, rather than neighborhood precincts.
“It’s about demographics, not neighborhoods,” Connolly says. “Our supporters are as likely to be in Fort Hill or Ashmont Hill, as West Roxbury,” he says, ticking off neighborhoods in Roxbury and Dorchester. “If you’re 30-to-50 years old with kids, we’re coming to your door.”
While on the city council, Connolly used his chairmanship of the education committee to hone a sharp critique of the city school department, on everything from student assignment to the department’s Court Street bureaucracy to the teachers union contract to school cafeterias that serve expired food to students. Connolly was the only one of Boston’s 12 mayoral candidates to enter the race before Mayor Tom Menino, the 20-year incumbent, bowed out. He’s made school reform — unfettering charter schools, and overhauling district school management — the centerpiece of his mayoral campaign. He’s adept at talking about transportation, development, technology, and the arts while out campaigning, but the talk always doubles back to schools.
Connolly doesn’t believe that his campaign has a leg up on many of his rivals solely because he was the only candidate willing to take on the entrenched Menino machine. Rather, he argues, it’s because his critique has resonated, regardless of what the rest of the field looks like. “We didn’t change messages,” he says. “Functionally, we had a 10-week head start, but it’s useless if you don’t have the right message. There is a need for change in the city. We’re going to stick to that message to the end.”
Connolly is still trying to finish off the same game plan he’s been working since the wintertime. In a largely static race, every bump has resonated.
At times, the process of cobbling together enough votes to make it to November’s final has made Connolly look slick and opportunistic. He voted to fund city councilor Charles Yancey’s farcical Mattapan high school proposal. He gladly accepted the support of East Boston state Rep. Carlo Basile, who dumped Conley after the Suffolk DA began pushing a citywide vote rather than an Eastie-only plebiscite on the proposed Suffolk Downs casino. While Connolly has been glad to advocate for an East Boston-only vote — the party line of the neighborhood power structure — he’s been elusive about whether he actually supports the casino. Last week, he trumpeted an endorsement from South Boston Rep. Nick Collins, even though there was speculation that Collins might be looking to exact revenge on Walsh, who had abstained from endorsing in Collins’s recent failed run for state Senate. In no time, Connolly’s new Southie ally was jumping into the losing side of an ugly, racially-fraught fight over control of the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast — the same breakfast, by the way, at which Collins had in March publicly declared Connolly’s mayoral campaign (then presumed to be against Menino) dead on arrival.
As the guy running out in front of the field, Connolly has been worked over far worse than many of his rivals. The late August conflagration involving Stand for Children, the education reform group, has been the messiest such episode. Connolly was actually beaten on both sides of the issue. Before Stand strode into the mayor’s race, thumping its chest and promising to wage a “full-frontal assault” on Connolly’s behalf, the Globe was editorializing against outside money in the race. But when Connolly — under fire from teachers union partisans, good government types, and his fellow candidates — turned down the $500,000 Stand wanted to pour into his race, one of the paper’s columnists slapped him for that. It didn’t help that, in turning down the Stand money, he initially declined to sign on to rival Rob Consalvo’s pledge against outside spending, calling it a “political gimmick,” and earning him reprisals from Consalvo and Dan Conley; when he reversed course hours later and took Consalvo’s pledge, Walsh hit him for yielding to gimmickry and political theater. Connolly did everything he could to tamp down the fire as quickly as possible, but it burned him nonetheless.
Connolly believes the Stand for Children controversy didn’t stick with most voters. “I haven’t heard a lot about it,” he says. “My decision ended the debate. They made their announcement, and within 24 hours, I said I wouldn’t be beholden to anyone, even groups I may have worked with on some issues in the past.”
He says that during his 10-hour handshaking marathon in the Roche Brothers parking lot on Labor Day, “I heard about education nonstop,” but he only heard about Stand’s $500,000 from three people who were glad he turned down the money. Three people in 10 hours. “I wouldn’t say that’s a groundswell.”
That’s why Connolly is spending the few days he has left until the preliminary election standing in grocery store parking lots and harassing pedestrians on Boylston Street. More than ever, he needs personal contact with voters, and with it, assurance that he’s actually heading where he wants to go.
“I’m naturally nervous,” he says. “I feel like we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do. The field organization has really come through. We’ve raised the money we need to compete. You can do those, but it all comes down to having the right message, and we’ve had that from the beginning. I don’t sleep a lot at night when undecided is the biggest vote-getter in the polls. A lot of people will make decisions over the next three weeks, but that’s where all this work early on, touching voters, makes a real difference.”
Homepage photo by Connolly for Boston and published under a Creative Commons license.