^^ at the door : District Eight’s Jen Nassour
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There exists, in this year’s City Council race, a curious disconnect between what the candidates are saying to the voters and what the voters are telling the candidates. Perhaps I should say “most of” the candidates, not all. Some candidates actually give voice, or try to give voice, to what the voters are saying when one meets them at the door.
I have door knocked with two candidates this year, in Districts Five and Eight, and I have canvassed a little bit for an at-Large Council candidate. I’ve probably knocked on 5,000 doors. That’s a fairly respectable number, I think, whence to generalize. Here’s what the voters are saying :
The number one issue is the unacceptable condition of Boston’s schools : the potluck assignment system, which sends kids all over the city and, if you’re not lucky, to a choice of school you’d rather not agree to; the physical plant of many schools, in poor condition, or with outmoded,. ineffective ventilation or heating systems; the lack of classroom supplies. Some express concern that the exam school tests will be weakened. Hundreds of voters have expressed to the candidate I’m walking with — expressed in detail and at length, sometimes ten minutes of talk — their dissatisfactions and, in many cases, their desire to leave the city, if they have to — if their child doesn’t make one of the exams chools — to assure their kids an acceptable school system.
Number two issue is a potpourri of very, VERY local matters : trash pickups that don’t get picked up; one way street requests; speeding traffic; sewers in need of cleaning; noisy neighbors at three in the morning.
Number three is development. Almost everybody who mentions development agrees that it’s good for the neighborhood, but few like the process of zoning variances overriding the zoning laws, and nobody likes proposals that build right to the property line, or build too high, or both. Along with development comes the matter of affordability, for which few voters feel they can offer any solution. (Nor do the candidates have one that actually works.)
Number four are the many, many voters who tell the candidate that they’re quite OK with how things are going and don’t really have any neighborhood concerns at all. They are glad, however, to have a neighborhood Councillor — and a District Councillor is that — whose office they can call upon if need be.
A few voters raise transportation issues. What are these ? Increased cross-town bus service; parking at Forest Hills T hub; too much bike laneage; out of towners parking on the neighborhood streets.
Overriding all of the above, the voters who we meet and talk to want to be listened to, want to be recognized, want to feel that their Councillor values their vote and their opinion.
Given all the noise and the drama going on in the political arena as it plays to the social media audience, what I’ve written may read impossibly out of touch, seem naively pollyanna, look mundanely obvious — and not news at all. So be it. The voters of Boston get up in the morning, go to work, or take care of the kids, come home, eat dinner, watch a little TV or take the kids into the backyard to play, or walk the dog, perhaps paint the fence or fix a bathroom sink, have a night out at the local trendy bistro. If they’re elderly, they may stay at home — many do not — be visited by a social service provider, or go to a senior center for socializing and a meal. Mirror er, this is true regardless of their last name, or skin color or other personal attribute.
Pretty mundane, right ? Naive maybe ? Not news at all.
The voters do not breathe politics, do not eat wedge issues, shrug the protests they see on the evening news. Activism, for them, means Main Streets, or the local Art Association, or the Garden Club, or the Library committee — and of course caring for the local park. (Park people are passionate about the park whose well-being they’ve adopted.) Or it means the neighborhood crime watch, or the Farmers’ market, or Porchfest. In East Boston, where I have my base, activism also means caring for the Harbor, or confronting it, transporting over it, finding ways to channel it; and showing love to Constitution Beach.
Small stuff, mundane, not news at all.
You would think, given what the voters I have listened to are saying — the voters whose concerns and lives I have written about — that Council candidates would be talking about these matters, humble and small; about school improvement; about the City’s traffic policies. No such luck. Most of the candidates whose literature I’ve read talk a whole other world of words. They write big words, fancy terminology, loaded phrases, slogans. You would think they were running for Congress.
What I do NOT hear at the door : “social justice” ; “environmental justice”; “transportation equity” or “sustainable mobility.” (Who invents these terms ?) Nor does anyone say we should impose the $ 25.00 resident parking fee that one Councillor suggests.. (I do hear people who think this fee is crazy.) I don’t hear calls for increasing taxes. I don’t hear anyone say “I’m tired of voting for old white men.” Only one person, of the 2,500 or so that I have listened to, has mentioned an immigration matter. A few people — not many — grumble about “the progressives.” A few say they’re sick of politics and all the yelling and insulting. All such complaints don’t amount to more than one percent of the voters I have met.
Yet these are subjects focused by many of this year’s candidates. You’d think they were running for Congress.
I have news for you if you’re a Council candidates : The big bad, evil Trump doesn’t live in Boston, he’s not the Mayor, he isn’t a kind of “Kilroy was here,” a schmoo lurking in every shadow ready to pounce upon you and say “boo !” When you run for a seat on the City Council, you’re not marching to do battle with President Kilroy. You are sitting down: to pore over the City budget, to make a phone call to the DPW to fix a street light, to host a constituents’ coffee hour, to attend a neighborhood abutters’ meeting, to moderate a dispute about where to put the proposed Roxbury Prep school.
The voters of Boston want Council candidates who will do the detail work, who will address the many, many BPS deficiencies and waste of millions of dollars. They want Councillors who will guide the development process going forward. They want candidates who will support the Boston Police in their dangerous work. They want their tax dollars used effectively and not heaped upon failure. They want District Councillors who will be just that : Councillors for the District, for the neighborhoods within it.
When we set up Council Districts 38 years ago, the whole idea was to give a voice at the table to the NEIGHBORHOODS. The District Councillor was to bring his or her unique neighborhood viewpoint into policy discussions. The City already had at-Large Councillors whose brief was to represent city-wide issues, big issues (but still City issues, not issues for Congress) What had been missing, in City policy talks, was recognition that its neighborhoods had character all their own and that that character needed to have its voice written into the City charter.
We cannot overcome the Congress-campaign agenda so many Council candidates are spieling at us unless we have a competing agenda that rings true, that speaks the actual voice of the actual voters. That agenda is NEIGHBORHOOD.
It is a politics of SMALL. Of HUMBLE. A politics in which facts on the ground override will o’ the wisps and wake up to the mistakes that neither the administrators nor the Congress wanna-be’s care to talk about. (This is especially true of the City’s $ 1.27 billion schools budget and its misplaced priorities.) It is, and has to be, a politics of community, of unique community: because why else even have District Councillors ? And it has to be, at the City-wide Council level, a politics of congregation, in which the various communities of Boston pool their common interests to arrive at a policy that every sort of voter can feel he or she has a personal stake in. I don’t see that in some of the at-Large candidacies, a few of which feel more like candidacies for Mayor than for a Council seat.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere