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Council contortions

Boston’s city councilors are jockeying to be the next mayor — but that’s yesterday’s playbook
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 6, 2006

WHO’S NEXT? Will Mayor Menino be succeeded by Mike Flaherty (left), Sam Yoon, or . . .

For more than a generation, being president of the Boston City Council was a springboard to the mayor’s office. That’s how Ray Flynn succeeded Kevin White in 1983. And 10 years later, Flynn passed the baton to council president tom Menino, who’s held it ever since. Almost every serious challenger to both men came straight from the council, if not from the position of president: Joseph Tierney in 1987, Peggy Davis-Mullen in 2001, and, last year, Maura Hennigan.

With little actual power, aside from passing the mayor’s budget each year, the council wields whatever prestige and influence it has — including campaign-fundraising clout — by serving as a breeding ground for future mayors. The practice serves to bind council members together, as well as command respect from other government players. You’d better take them all seriously, the thinking goes, because one of them will run this town someday.

That line of thinking has inspired a steady crop of candidates to challenge the council seats every two years, even as Boston’s state legislators go unopposed time after time.

Before Flynn, Boston’s mayors typically came from government positions: Kevin White was secretary of the commonwealth, John Collins was city councilor and state senator, and John Hines was city manager.

But old assumptions disappeared when governor-elect Deval Patrick shook up politics as usual across the state on November 7.

The November elections left little doubt about today’s voters’ preference for outsiders, particularly “New Bostonian” candidates who are minorities but do not define themselves through their race or ethnicity. Deval Patrick swept Boston with nearly 60 percent of the vote, despite Menino’s support for Tom Reilly and Chris Gabrieli’s strong local connections. And on the council itself, business leader Sam Yoon swung out of nowhere to beat strong, politically connected candidates like John Connolly and Patricia White for an at-large council seat.

These days, it’s hard to find people who don’t believe Boston’s next mayor will come from elsewhere than City Hall. Some point to private activists like Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation; some to minorities with track records, like former district attorney Ralph Martin or State Representative Linda Dorcina Forry. And many say the next mayor will be someone currently on nobody’s list — Deval Patrick’s status two years ago.

As one City Hall insider says: “The first poll after Tom Menino announces he’s leaving will have [current council president] Mike Flaherty in first place, with several other councilors behind him. The last poll will have none of them.”

Even some councilors privately acknowledge this new reality. “The old rules are out the window,” one concedes.

Yet, like players in some anachronistic ritual, councilors can’t help but go through the same motions, jostling one another for lead position, as though one of them really will be the next mayor. They have to keep acting as though they believe that the old mayoral-accession rules still apply. After all, if the city council is irrelevant to the next mayor’s race, is it relevant at all?

Presidential politics
The first and most ominous clash of council political ambitions comes next month, in the annual vote for president. Michael Flaherty has been voted council president five straight years, an unusually long run. He has been challenged before, but dodged the bullet each time. A challenger needs seven votes to unseat him; last year, according to several sources, six councilors offered Maureen Feeney their votes, making the presidency hers if she wanted it, but she declined.

That was all done quietly, in closed-door conversations or over coffee far from City Hall Plaza. That’s how challenges for the presidency have gone in recent years — you don’t want to plot openly against the current president, unless you’re sure you’ll win.

This year, John Tobin, in a break from recent tradition, is throwing caution to the wind. “I have every intention” of seeking the presidency in January, he tells the Phoenix. “I’m going to ask every one of my colleagues for their support.”

Of course, all of them want the job, and some may start actively campaigning if it looks like Flaherty is history. Some foresee Rob Consalvo, Menino’s favorite, emerging as the choice, although Consalvo tells the Phoenix he is not running. (Maybe next year, he says.) Others think Mike Ross or Jerry McDermott could ultimately get the job.

“I have never known a member of the city council who doesn’t look themselves in the mirror and think about being mayor,” says Lawrence DiCara, who failed in his attempt to make the jump in 1983. That means they don’t want to help others too much. That’s one reason why Flaherty’s opponents went to Feeney last year: with her eye on the city clerk’s job, not the mayor’s, she’s considered less threatening by her peers. And it’s why some observers expect counselors to elect Tobin this year to dash Flaherty’s hopes — and then cut Tobin down next year, perhaps by voting in Consalvo.

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Related: Can Sam Yoon win?, He's number three, Time for a big change, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Boston City Council, Bruce Bolling, Charles Yancey,  More more >
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