^ Senator Kamala Harris of California : very Left but evidently not left enough for the purists’ identity politics and speech code utopias

—- —- —-

The American Left of today is flawed, maybe fatally. It came about as a reaction, a negation, of the American “right” Tea Party movement. But “what you are against” is not a political programme. Voters want to know what you are for; only once you have shown that you promote policies that voters can support do you acquire the legitimacy to be credibly “against.”

This has always been true of our politics in the mainstream, and though the practitioners of reactive activism do not see it — or do not care — it is true of them too.

The activist Left had it pretty good this week. It confronted nazis, white nationalists, KKKers, bigots of all kinds and suffered injury and one death, and almost every American stood n the Left’s side because the opponent was as disgusting as it gets.

Nor was there any validity whatsoever to comparisons attempted, by some, between the Left’s anger and the idiocy of the bigots. However we may critique the Left — as I will do in this column — at least its evident agenda has some basis in fact., while the grievances of the torch army are chimeras. If the Left’s talk were groundless, it wouldn’t be worth talking about at all.

So what ARE we to do about the Left ?

Because some of its grievances do need to be addressed — for example, the continuing prevalence of skin color judgments, vote suppression, income imbalance, attacks upon women’s rights to control their own bodies — the Left has a part to play in  reforming our nation’s social and economic habits. Politicians on the Left address these urgencies well and responsibly. I know of few who speak without thinking, or who waste our time with digressions into speech codes and Southern history shaming. Minimum wage laws should indeed be raised up. Women everywhere should have liberal access to birth control medicine and pregnancy decisions. The right to vote must be safeguarded vigorously and access to voting made easier. And yes, the South should free itself from beautifying the dark failures in its history. These are goals that every reformer either agrees with or can appreciate. The Left has all the opportunity any political movement could ask for.

All that is needed is for the Left to acquire some political discipline; to restrain its utopian addiction; and to not by its actions alienate voters who are trying to decide which movement has the wiser agenda and the greater maturity to see it accomplished by the compromises that are the only way a diverse democracy can progress without stoking contention that prevents accomplishment and can even set us back.

Will this be done ?

Much of tghe answer comes from how the media treats movements of reform. The owners of media want to attract attention (my Mother the Hearst newsgal used to say “we’re in the business of selling newspapers”), and outrage attracts much more attention than patient gruntwork. Thus instead of writing about ordinary political campaigns assembled in the usual manner, we see stories about anarchists attacking people with pepper spray, or about the taking down of statues of people dead over 100 years, or about the blocking of highways by Black Lives Matter activists.

Seeing such stories, one wonders if the media do not want reforms to happen. Maybe so, but one also wonders, seeing such stories, what bright bulb intelligence thought that blocking highways, or pepper spraying right wing jerks, or taking down statues, or shouting down speakers at college campuses, would win the public’s hearts and minds.

Nor is it very smart of the Left’s purists-in-a-hurry to excoriate its political leaders — potential presidents — as has been seen on twitter these past several weeks.

These are the actions of a very very few, but when publicized by the media, they quickly become the symbols of an entire movement and so render that movement anathema to most.

You would think that responsible leaders of Left-inspired reform would know this and would insist that such grandstanding stop now. I assure you that these leaders of the Left know the danger. They see that the more outrageous the miscues of Mr. Trump, the more outraged the responses by their own followers. They understand backlash. And if the incompetence and depravity of Mr. trump are far too egregious for him to be saved even by backlash, Mr. Trump is fast becoming a political irrelevance. The five points victory of Karen Handel in a Georgia Congressional district that Hillary Clinton almost won should make it clear that the voters are not going automatically to elect Democrats in contests against normal Republicans simply because they don’t like Mr. Trump.

The suburban Atlanta voters who decided to elect Karen Handel rather than Jon Ossoff want to hear what t.he Left’s activists are FOR, not just what they are against. And they aren’t much interested in exchanging the far right’s ugly intolerance for speech bans and identity utopias.

Will the Left rein in its iconoclasts and street actors and propose an agenda a majority of voters can support ? It has the chance to do so. we shall see if it gets its house in order — or not.



no hoods

^ we’ve all seen this picture of hoodless ugliness in the cause of totally imaginary grievanaces

—- —- —-

This was a bullshit event, of a college prank mentality, garbed in ignorance and driven by malice. Any comparison of what was done by idiots to the tactics of anti-fascists subverts itself. Let me explain:

These racists well knew what they were doing, taking their torch march to a major university. They could have held their flag and flesh rally somewhere in a Tennessee field, and the First Amendment would have protected their right to do so: but no, they went to where they knew they’d incite passionate opposition, and maybe — so they hoped — acts of violence against them. They wanted a fight, they longed for it, and they got it.

I cut these punks no slack at all. They invited it, they own it. All of it.

Of course every politician, Republican and Democrat, should condemn these jerks, be they KKK, neo-nazi, white nationalist, or whatever bullshit hallucination they shout and march for. That’s the easy part, the condemnation. I would hope that all politicians would take the next step: to call out the absurdity of these noises and the danger they pose to a society that thinks that the louder and uglier a shout, the more basis. This is a lie.

I also reject entirely any attempt to make equivalence between the idiocy at Charlottesville and any other political violence these past many decades in America.

Some may recall the violence of protests in the streets during the Viet Nam War, some 50 years ago. As much as I abhorred those protests and the often cockeyed ideologies embedded in some of them, at least the stated aim of those protesters was legitimately political: end the war. The same cannot be accorded the baseless hatreds screamed and marched by the white-shirted, khaki-uniformed kooks who disturbed the peace of Charlottesville. There’s no politics in their hatreds, nothing American about their borrowed naziism, nothing useful in their gun brandish hobby.

They have put themselves beyond the pale, and that is exactly how they want it to be. They do not want to be us. They do not want to be American. They want to replace America with an hallucinated storm trooper circus in which they can feel importantly ugly. Is that not the message their hollering faces express in the disgusting photographs we’ve seen of them torturing by torchlight a Virginia summer night ?

There will be a time and place for critiquing the tactics of anti-fascist groups and their co-actors on the left. That time is not now, and that place is not Charlottesville. What happened there was entirely unlike anything the left has shown even at its most ridiculous. You can talk to me, if you want, about the BLM movement blocking traffic: I would agree with your outrage about it: but the issue raised by BLM, however off-putting many of their actions be, is a real one: the evil results of persistent racism against people of color. Critiquing BLM and the anti-fascists is a matter of tactics and objective. That is NOT the case with the imagined grievances irresponsibly thrust upon Charlottesville.

These grievances do not exist except in the vicious street theater that weans them. It must end. If not, it must be smacked down. The boys who advance it must be spanked, woodshedded, shamed. Their nonsense must have consequences for them, because at bottom it is all about them. Isn’t it ?

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



3rd district

After five terms in Congress, representing Lowell, the entire Merrimack Valley, Route 2 towns out to Gardner, and the Route 495 belt from there to the Mass Pike, Niki Tsongas will not seek re-election. I admit that I did not see this coming, and it seems that no one else saw it either. So what now happens to the 350,000-odd voters of the 3rd Congressional District ? Let’s take a look.

In state elections, this region is often winnable by Republicans. Not so much when the election is national. Governor Baker easily carried its towns and either won or came close in most of its cities. Scott Brown in 2010 and Gabriel Gomez in 2013 also won the District. That said, few communities in the 3rd District voted for Donald Trump: Dracut, Tyngsboro, Pepperrell, Townsend, Ashburnham, Ashby, Winchendon, Westminster. Of these, only Dracut, Winchendon, and Ashby gave Trump a win by more than two or three points. I doubt seriously that any Republican who seeks this Congress seat can do much better. Trump’s favorable and unfavorable numbers in Massachusetts right now could hardly be worse : only 25 percent approve, 62 percent disapprove.

Any Republican who wants to campaign for this seat faces at least three obstacles all but impassable : ( 1 ) will he or she vote for Paul Ryan as Speaker ? If so, he or she carries Ryan’s un-Massachusetts agenda on his or her back. ( 2 ) does he she support Trump or was he or she is the Trump campaign ? If so, game over. ( 3 ) If he or she has zero connection to Trump and commits to not voting for Paul Ryan as Speaker, what, exactly, will his or her platform be, that his or her likely Democratic opponent cannot advocate more convincingly or with a longer record of elective office ?

Within the District reside several Democratic office holders significantly well liked across the state : Senators Jamie Eldridge of Acton, Eileen Donoghue of Lowell, Jen Flanagan of Fitchburg, and Kathleen O’Connor Ives of Methuen; and State Representatives Jen Benson, David Nangle, Natalie Higgins, Kate Hogan. (Brian Dempsey of Haverhill — who would have ben the obvious choice — left the legislature perhaps too soon, and Stephan Hay of Fitchburg only just won a special election as State Representative.) Add to this list the wife of former Congressman Marty Meehan (now chancellor of the University of Massachustts system), and you’ve assembled a long bench of major league electeds.

There are two Republicans who have plenty of star power too : State Representative Sheila Harrington of Groton and Rick Green of Pepperrell, who was the choice of many to be Senator Warren’s Republican opponent but decided not to run. Will he now seek a lesser post, albeit without an incumbent to face ? Perhaps. Will Harrington give up her very safe seat State House seat to climb the hill of disadvantage ? Maybe. If neither of them runs, it will be difficult to find a Republican who has large name recognition, is well liked in the state as a whole, and can credibly surmount the obstacles I have already assessed.

Which leaves the many, many Democrats who would all be formidable final election favorites but who cannot all run. Something has to give.

Historically this has been Lowell’s seat in Congress — reliably Republican until Paul Tsongas won it in 1974, but Lowell no matter what the party label. Which spots the light on Senator Eileen Donoghue, State Representative David Nangle, and Marty Meehan’s first wife, Ellen Murphy Meehan. (See the Boston Globe : https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/08/09/ellen-murphy-meehan-thinking-about-running-for-marty-meehan-old-seat/axgmhxvTeQQeusSrt8r1CL/story.html) And on many other Lowell politicians, not overlooking State Representative Rady Mom.

That said, the District is no longer restricted to Greater Lowell. Lawrence has a claim — Mayor Dan Rivera has plenty of statewide credibility and has been a go-to advisor to Governor Baker, and if he runs, he will, or should, be a formidable presence — and the Fitchburg-Leominster-Gardner area has at least as much population as greater Lowell. Then there’s the high tech communities of the Route 495 belt, from Westford and Littleton to Acton and Hudson, Marlboro and Bolton. The Senator who represents this area, Jamie Eldridge, is perhaps the best known and most followed “progressive” in the entire state and has “fighting Congressman” written all over him.

My own guess is that Lowell activists will settle on one candidate : Ellen Murphy Meehan, that progressives will insist Jamie Eldridge run, despite the District’s decidedly centrist leanings; that Dan Rivera will, unfortunately, not go; and that none of the Democratic State Representatives will enter the contest, but that there will be one surprise candidate if not two. Of these — plus Sheila Harrington if she runs — who will win ? It’s much to early to say, but unless Ellen  Murphy Meehan has some major impediment in her resume, she’s the one to beat — though in my opinion as a centrist reformer, Sheila Harrington would be the most broadly representative voice for a District far less progressive than Jamie Eldridge’s supporters hope.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere






^ use your mind. Why ? Because you have one. Do not let other minds use you.

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Anybody who uses social media as constantly as a journalist must sees the vulgarity that pervades it; the ugliness; the ignorance. We are tempted to declare it the result of social media rather than a temporary aberration. Myself, I think the opposite. I think the ugliness —  especially the personal rudeness and the self-absorbed political dumps — is extremely temporary and will soon be discarded.

How so ? Simple. It will be done away with the same way that societies have always done away with it : by shaming it, declaring it bad, shunning it and, on social media, blocking it. We’re no different, as a society, than any of our antecedents. They were people, so are we. Community norms are crucial to us just as they were to the societies that preceded ours. Then, and soon for us too, rudeness got you disinvited. As for political extremism, it too was never applauded except in times of crisis and then only by a few. Why should we be any different ? The novelty of seeing people speak vulgarities perhaps misleads us into assuming it’s here to stay, but all one has to do is block the vulgar user and he or she is gone. Same for those who throw nazi-ism at us, or bigotry, or wilful ignorance. If you choose not to block it, you can laugh it away.

Of course there’s another way to dispose of vulgarity and ignorance : use your mind. Frank Zappa said it well: “think — it ain’t illegal yet.” If you use your mind, you can know when you are being fooled with. And when what is shown to you or said passes muster.

There are a few who will almost certainly continue to stink the threads of social media, no matter what, just as their predecessors stunk the pages of yellow journalism, or promoted hatred on hand out sheets and placards. The only difference now is that these hitherto shunned folks now get seen by all of us on our social media page feeds. It’s a difference of sensing only. We see it and thus assume it has increased in volume or dispersion.

What to do ? Here one can benefit from re-visiting the work accomplished almost 300 years ago by science, as those who practiced it looked at the world of things and actions with a skeptical, inductive eye un-tempered by opposition and untainted by myths.

Scientific philosophers of 300 years ago asserted that the eyes see many things that are not what sense perception says they are. Let us sample this principle in operation, here in some pages of Bishop Berkeley, who in or about the year 1733  wrote these lines (paraphrased in t.he Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) in his “Essay on Vision” :

“When one perceives mediately, one perceives one idea by means of perceiving another (NTV §9), for example, one perceives that someone is frightened by perceiving the paleness of her face (NTV §10). Empirically, the geometrical account fails, since one perceives neither the requisite lines, nor angles, nor rays as such (NTV §§12-15), even though such mathematical computations can be useful in determining the apparent distance or magnitude of an object (NTV §§ 38, 78; TVV §58). So, what are the immediate ideas that mediate the perception of distance? First, there are the kinesthetic sensations associated with focusing the eyes when perceiving objects at various distances (NTV §16). Second, as objects are brought closer to the eye, their appearance becomes more confused (blurred or double, NTV §21). Third, as an object approaches the eyes, the degree of confusion can be mitigated by straining the eyes, which is recognized by kinesthetic sensations (NTV §27). In each case, there is no necessary connection between the ideas and distance; there is merely a customary connection between two types of ideas (NTV §§17, 26, 28).”

(Berkeley’s entire ewssay is worth reading, by the way. Assuming that we have the emotional courage to embrace his all encompassing skepticism about things and sayings. I fear that our desire to believe is so strong in these turbulent times that we dare not shun the easy route of faith rather than travel the hard road of science.)

Where Berkeley’s skepticism applied to sense perception, and what we read on social media has a meaning apart from how it looks to the senses, his insistence on observing things, and on the changes that appear in those things as one shifts one’s position relative to them, so we can apply the principles of observational judgment to meanings too. Just because someone expresses his or her meaning in words does not require that we accept that meaning. We are free to reject it.

Myself, I live by skepticism about the things — and for this purpose words are things — that I encounter. T<here is far more on social media that I do not like at all than there was in social interaction before the coming of internet conversations; but more does not mean more acceptable. I think that I am not alone; far from it; and that soon enough the society at large will bring the permanent truths of social interaction to bear upon anti-social internet talk and scorn it. We will all breathe more freely when that happens.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


door knocking 2010

^ door knocking in 2010 : the right thing to do, but the list in his hands does not look like an official, all-voter list.

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It is, or should be, an axiom of the art of politics that every registered voter is entitled to have his or her vote personally asked for.

Famously, the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, said that ‘all politics is local” and that you have to ask people for their vote if you expect them to give it to you. He was right then — and still is right. Unhappily, most voters never do get asked for their vote, and they know it and feel disrespected thereby. Can you blame them ?

We in the political community — and I count myself in it — must accept much of the blame for this situation. All of us have contributed to it; every campaign. (NOTE : Some have suggested that by this column, I am criticizing the campaign I now consult for. Not so. I am not directing this column at ANY one campaign but at ALL local campaigns.) If we decry that voters feel left out, that they distrust us and feel that “we’re all on the take, and that in consequence they vote for angry and negative voices, perhaps it is WE who are doing it wrong ? Let me explain :

It’s become standard for campaigns now to use “likely voter” lists — called “voter-file” and purchased from several data-mining companies — that allow candidates to give attention to those who vote in most elections. Since campaign time is limited, and since most local campaigns can’t find enough volunteer door-knockers to do a precinct properly, these “likely voter” lists become THE voter list, replacing the list of ALL voters that one gets from City or Town Hall; those who are on the “likely” list get campaigned to A LOT, and those who are not on it get minimum attention, if any.

Because only about 37.5 percent of the voters actually vote in Boston elections — and often less than that — the substitution of “likely voter” information for an all-voter list means that a majority of voters are barely campaigned to.

This cannot stand. But it does stand. Which is why so many voters feel left out and why, when they have the chance, as Mr. Trump gave them, they sometimes vote for angry, negative voices. Can you fault them ?

Do we believe in democracy, or don’t we ? Democracy grants to every eligible adult the right to vote. It is bad enough that many do not register — I will discuss this later — but to ignore those who do register betrays democracy. If only 37.5 of registered voters get campaigned to, we undermine our democracy. Because this artificial restriction of the voters list now happens in almost every campaign, it has become a system in itself, of vote suppression. We who live by this system have scant right to decry the vote suppression efforts going on in some states, when we ourselves have solidified our own method of vote limitation.

I do not criticize campaigns for ascertaining the leanings of a voter and thereafter avoiding those who support one’s opponent. That makes sense : you mobilize your supporters and hope that your opponents forget to vote. But the process of ascertaining must include an initial door knock that offers the voter — every voter — a choice. If a voter chooses against you, fine, as long as you gave him or her that choice.

Nor do I decry the information offered in “voter-file” lists. It is useful to know that a voter is “likely.” We in the campaign community have always wanted to know this. I recall going to Boston’s election department with my four pens — red, yellow, green, and blue: one color for each of the four elections I wanted to know about — and spending countless hours doing a “check list” by hand. But the campaigns I worked this work for used “likely voter” information the opposite of what is done today. For us, likely voters required less campaigning, because we felt pretty sure that they would vote. Our time and effort was directed to0 those who were less likely.

The “likely” would get a mailing from us, or two. The less likely would get door knocked and telephoned.

But that was when fifty to seventy percent of Boston voters voted in most elections. Because a majority voted, it was crucial to campaign to a majority, even to all. I do not know for sure why that has changed, but I do know what keeps a 37.5 percent turnout — and less — in place: we do.

(NOTE : those who swear by “likely voter” lists misjudge the information in it. Please remember that campaigns have followings, and those followings vote, including many who were not classed as “likely” voters. Thereafter, those voters, followers of one candidate, become “likely” although they may become “likely” by being intensely campaigned to. And could not the same be said of almost any voter ? A campaign that does not build its own following of voters likely or otherwise is a campaign with one leg missing. )

SO: to sum up : if we are to restore the voters’ confidence in politics, and reassure them that we do, in fact, listen, we who do campaigns must campaign to ALL the voters on the City voter list. It is our duty. If we do not do this, we betray the voters — and thus get from them, perhaps more than just this once with Mr. Trump, an angry negativity that we fully deserve.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




ugly 2

^ the triumph of ugly : “units” and more “units” and a grim massive body; but no design, nothing one wants to call “home”

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That almost an entire young generation of ambitious, bright people want to live in Boston, in center City and the neighborhoods near to it, is a very good thing indeed. We applaud the Mayor for welcoming this enormous influx.

That said, the influx means two worrisome changes: a cataclysmic rise in rent and house prices, and a forest of residential developments as demeaning to look at as they are soulless to walk through.

There isn’t much that the City can do about rents and house prices: a market is a market. But the design factor is another matter : the City controls. The Boston Planning and Development Agency, as the Former BRA is now called, requires “design review” for every project brought to it. At minimum this means that a project’s architecture must look like that of the surrounding structures. But is the minimum all that the City should ask ? we say “NO.”

The East Boston waterfront, for example, now claims hundreds of condominium units and apartments whose outward appearance depresses one’s eyes. Of design, there is none : just flat-faced, veneer exteriors, blank windows, tarmac-like roofs, doors as featureless as plywood. This is true even of buildings with rents beginning at $ 3,200 and unit prices in the $ 800,000 range. You can;’t tell one development from another. All look the same, like prisoners at a morning roll call. Inside, you find narrow hallways as mouth-less as the passageway in a Motel 6, although, granted, the walls of said passageway seem better constructed.

Is this what $ 3,200 rents and $ 800,000 condo unit buyers are willing to accept ? So it seems, but I wonder. What will these design-less buildings, as functional as a container on a container ship, look like in 20 years ? In 50 ? assuming they’ll even last that long.

One thing you can say about the woodwork tenements that were plastered all over East Boston 100 to 140 years ago : they’re still here despite decades of disrepair because the neighborhood’s immigrant families often didn’t have the money to renovate. Swedish woodworkers built many of them; they brought immense craft and pride to these shores, and the accomplishments of their skills still stand prominent even in buildings that need renovation.

Those homes are still here, and though fairly featureless themselves, they boast solid proud doors and sheltering vestibules. Today’s developments offer no such welcome, no such pride.

The entire skyline of our City suffers from the same bare bones. At least the skyscrapers that have call but inundated our iconic, 1919 Custom House, have that stovepipe look : straight up and down, windows all alike, no variety, no quirks of curve or indent, no humorous campaniles, no color blink — nothing at all to proclaim the imperfections of human life rather than a shape as strictly disciplined as a prison.

Compare the skyscrapers of Barcelona, colorful, shaped to surprise, entertaining to look at, full of narrative on the inside.

The message sent by Boston’s downtown buildings is that there are rules  and more rules, that life is work and more work, that you report at 7 AM and leave at 7 PM and meanwhile the supervisor monitors every file you create, every Excel Spreadsheet you send, the way a proctor supervises a high school exam. It’s a world of bean counting, cost cutting, no frills insecurity. Is this what work life is like, for those who eagerly spend $ 3,200 on rent ? Is this the message they want sent to themselves, the parameters of what they allow their lives to be ?

To my eyes, brought up in an earlier age, the message feels sad. Fortunately, the same Boston skyline also flaunts several buildings in which imagination tickles the straight line, buildings shaped like a smile, even like a guffaw. The same cannot be said, however, of our residential or mixed use developments. Here, what rules is to spend the lowest possible amount of money and charge the highest possible rents and prices. The consequences have of late turned sour. The Treadmark fire tore the excuses off building a large box with wood construction. Apologists for the developers point out that wood construction met all current codes: but is a bare minimum compliance all that we want ? I hope not. Nor do I see much difference between the Treadmark’s design and that of brick tenements built 110-odd years ago. Scrape the shiny newness off, and you have the same measure of worn out, unpolished boxes within a box set up.

So why was wood construction used ? At Treadmark and at 100 boxes like it ? Cost. Cut costs. Cut, cut, cut. I think our City deserves better.

Do not conclude that we opose development. We welcome it. We like a dynamic City. What we do not like is to cut corners. Dynamism should not mean “el cheapo.”

Presumably we are building 53,000 “units” — mark that word “units” — of housing not just for a moment in year 2030 but for generations to live in, to plant roots and create a family tradition. I recognize that “family tradition” is a rather old fashioned concept : yet I suspect that many, even of the young $ 3,200 renters, believe in it, though they may not admit to it. I think that if given the choice, our City’s newcomers would prefer something more than a mere “unit.” How about buildings with windows of different sizes and shapes ? How about actual bow windows, not just a shallow exhale ? How about roof revelry, vestibules comfortably cool, tall doorways filled with well sculpted, varnished wood doors and brass doorknobs that the owner can polish ? A home, whether owned or rented, should be special.

The development frenzy continues. I used to call it “developmentia praecox.” This was perhaps an unfair epithet, but I find nothing fair about under-designed, default “units.” Unfortunately, many, many more such “developmentia” projects are on the way to BPDA review, projects with nothing to offer except a “unit” and many of them constructed on industrial l;and where traffic  already overflows and the site resembles an airport’s tarmac.

I remind you that the BPDA’s Design Review has full power to require more than bare minima. Why will it not exercise its authority  here ?

Sometimes, where a strong “community review” constituency exercises itself, attends a “community review” meeting, and stands its ground, enhancements can come to pass. Example : 3200 Washington Street near Egleston Square, a large residential building with plenty of shape variety, extension, and breathing room. So far, these successes are exceptions.

Our building trades people deserve better jobs on offer than cost-cut construction, and we the residents of — and visitors to — this City deserve much better homes than any “unit” can ever be.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



City Council

^ taking the oath of office : Boston’s City Council preserving appearances

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As the primary voting day comes nearer — it’s barely two months away, September 26th — one looks at the major contests and cannot help but ask the question : why does our City even have a City Council ? What are its members elected to do ?

It’s a cliche to say that government has become the captive of “special interests,” but when one peruses the donor records at the Office of Campaign Finance (OCPF) one sees the cliche readily at hand. Most of the donations come from very, VERY interested parties. (disclosure : I am consulting to a campaign in Council District One and so am not an objective observer of these events.)

Overwhelmingly, the donations listed at OCPF come from two sources : labor unions and the building boom-developer-real estate pool, including architects, attorneys, brokers, investment firms, construction companies). Given the enormity of the building boom, it’s no surprise that donations from those who make it happen far, far outweigh donations from labor unions. As for labor union donations, dwarfed by building boom money, they far outweigh donations from candidates;’ personal friends.

But why do the building boom people donate at all to a Council candidate ? In Boston, the mayor is all. Read Section 17 of the current City Charter and you see that though the Council can initiate ordinances, and hold hearings — even have subpoena power to force witnesses to testify at hearings — nothing happens that the Mayor does not approve. So why not just donate to the Mayor ? (Clearly many do just that. Walsh has almost $ 3,000,000 on hand in his own campaign account according to OCPF.) Yet the building boom interests do not only donate to the Mayor. Right now, in Council District One, the candidate showing almost exclusively building boom donors has out-raised the labor union donated candidate about FOUR TO ONE in dollar amount.

As for ordinary voters, who go about their business every day in the usual manner, they hardly show up at all on the various Council candidate donor lists. What, then, is our role in the election process, we who are “ordinary voters” ? (I count myself as one, because although I am an “operative,’ I do not belong to, or lobby for, any of the “big interests” that almost monopolize donor lists.) True, we do the voting. We’re the jury, we give the verdict. But for what ?

Perhaps you have figured out what I am implying here but not saying. So let me say it : the building boom people want their projects approved. That’s how they earn their gelt. No approval, no construction, no pay check, no commissions, no rents. All such projects are approved, or not, by the Boston planning and Development Agency, which answers directly to the Mayor and which, these days, gives the impression that it will approve almost everything, as the Mayor presses forward his goal of building 53,000 new housing units by 2030. So the last thing the building boomers want is a Councillor who might say, “hey, wait a minute, perhaps this or that project needs to be rethought.” And such like.

But again I say, if  a Councillor is not to weigh in on something as major as developments that change utterly the arrangements (and the face() of the communities he or she represents, why have a Councilor at all ? When we created the current system of four at large and nine District Councillors, the whole idea was to give major city neighborhoods their elected voice in processes of governance. Can there be any issue more in need of a District voice than the Building Boom ?

Little wonder that the donors who have inundated a candidate’s bank account do so. At the very least, the goal is to have said candidate go silent. Little wonder that the most common words I hear from voters is “they don’t listen to us.”

This is not a unique situation, is it ? In today’s elections it’s quite the norm. Because money is the lifeblood of a campaign — with not enough of it, you can’t do even the basics that a campaign must be able to do — candidates have little choice but to accommodate those who have it to give.  Make sure that the Councillor you’re donating to does not impede the Mayor from doing his thing.

In which case, why do we even have City Councillors ? To put a fig leaf of democracy on one-man rule ? I’m afraid that it sure looks that way.

People run for Council for many reasons. Some run because it’s a start toward a really important elected office. Others hope to represent this or that interest group. I do not mean to disrespect any. Quite a few are my friends. I wish them the best. But I do expect that their service will make Boston civic life better than it would be if they did not serve.

We who created the current Charter — and I was there — were perhaps naive. Our view was that Councillors still have to get elected, and thus the voters are the ultimate source of legitimacy and authority. That, they are, but with their voices sidestepped, diluted, moot.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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