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Campaign Trail of Tears

Menino's challengers look to capitalize on tragedy. Plus, council candidates try to meet the tougher new ballot requirements — set by an incumbent.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 20, 2009


Mayoral candidates Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon have looked a little like ambulance chasers of late, seizing on two recent tragedies for political gain.

In the first instance, a woman was sexually assaulted in a downtown hotel garage — by the same attacker who raped another woman there 11 days earlier, according to police allegations. Flaherty sharply criticized Mayor Thomas M. Menino's administration for failing to alert the public of potential danger after the first rape.

Next, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed on Dudley Street in Roxbury. Yoon issued a press release later that day, criticizing the city's violence-prevention-and-response protocols.

Some will denounce it as tacky opportunism; others will praise it as speaking truth to power. Either way, you can expect much more of it during the next six months, as mayoral challengers try to draw attention to the city's problems, and their own campaigns, by politicizing tragedy.

In fact — at the risk of sounding ghoulish — the challengers almost have to be hoping for bad news. With Menino sitting on a massive lead in the polls and his opponents struggling to get any attention whatsoever, some political observers argue that, to make the incumbent vulnerable, Menino's challengers need Boston to suffer.

"You almost can't beat Menino if there is no crisis in the city," says Larry DiCara, former city councilor.

But seizing on misfortune hasn't usually played well in Boston politics, say several veterans. "I'm not sure there's a lot of votes in doing that," says DiCara.

"It almost never works," adds a local political consultant. "It looks like the kind of political game that people don't like. And when it works, mostly all it does is . . . [turn] people off."

They and others could think of few times when a Boston pol has been able to turn city adversity into electoral gain. In 2005, Maura Hennigan tried to highlight the growing gun-crime problem in her race against Menino, to no avail. That same year, Gibran Rivera lost his bid for the City Council, despite seizing on a teen murder in Jamaica Plain, which suggested that councilor John Tobin was not doing enough to stop violence in the district.

It doesn't seem to have helped so far in these two situations, either; neither Yoon nor Flaherty got much media attention for their responses to the shooting and the rape. The Boston Globe didn't mention Yoon's response to the gun violence, for instance, choosing instead to run an article about his out-of-state fundraising.

Jim Spencer, a strategist with the Yoon campaign, defends his candidate's quick response to the Roxbury shooting, pointing out that, as a councilor and a mayoral candidate, it is appropriate and even necessary to speak out. "As horrible as a tragedy like this is," says Spencer, "it's important to talk about what the city could be doing better."

Natasha Perez, spokesperson for Flaherty, says that, in the case of the sexual assaults, her candidate could legitimately point to a specific, relevant policy that he had been advocating. The campaign chose not to respond directly to the Dudley Street shooting, she notes, because, though Flaherty has much to say about city violence, he did not have a direct policy connection relevant to that specific incident.

"I don't look at it as using the tragedy," says Hennigan, who after her failed campaign for mayor won election as criminal clerk of Suffolk Superior Court. "Raising issues, raising awareness, saying what needs to be said — that's why you run."

Indeed, Hennigan points out that this is exactly why many have wanted a serious challenge to Menino, regardless of who ultimately wins. Usually, these types of tragedies bring some grousing from the public and community leaders, but no strong voices openly challenging the city's policies or practices that may be responsible. Once every four years, at least, that changes — even if it doesn't end the reign of the man dubbed "mayor for life."

Murphy for life?
Speaking of lifetime tenure, some are accusing another Boston pol of trying to secure that status. That would be at-large city councilor Stephen Murphy, who spearheaded a change to election law that took effect this year: raising the signature requirement from 500 to 1500 for at-large candidates.

Passed as a Murphy-sponsored home-rule petition (requiring state passage) by the City Council in late 2006, the change was finally approved in the state legislature amid a flurry of last-minute bills at the start of this year, and was quietly signed by Governor Deval Patrick.

The new requirement has made it much tougher for the 23 candidates who pulled papers to run for the four at-large seats in 2009 to qualify for the ballot. They had just three weeks to get the signatures from registered Boston voters. The deadline was this Tuesday; the city's Election Department will be verifying and counting for a while yet.

"It's challenging," complains candidate Natalie Carithers of Dorchester. "I do not have a powerful organization. . . . They put these roadblocks up, so it doesn't allow people the equitable opportunity to do this."

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Related: Can Sam Yoon win?, He's number three, City Hall writes its own report card, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Boston Mayor, City hall, Deval Patrick,  More more >
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 See all articles by: DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

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