HOW DOES a challenger raise enough money to run against four-time incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino? "With difficulty," replies Lawrence S. DiCara, a onetime Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate.
Maura Hennigan, who challenged Menino in the last mayor's race, mortgaged her house to do it. "If you don't have a half million dollars, you can't run a credible campaign," she said. A former city councilor who is now clerk magistrate of Suffolk County Superior Court, Hennigan thinks about what it took to run every time her mortgage bill comes due.
Incumbency is a powerful fund-raising tool. People with clients before the city or who want to develop property in it often try to stay on a sitting mayor's good side; indeed, Menino's campaign finance reports are thick with contributions from lawyers, architects, and real estate interests. The advantage is even more powerful when an incumbent has been in office as long as Menino: 16 years. He is expected to seek an unprecedented fifth term.
Menino had a war chest of about $1.4 million at the end of January, which dwarfs that of his announced challengers. At-Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty had about $600,000 on hand, the benefit of years of experience in political fund-raising. At-Large City Councilor Sam Yoon, a relative newcomer to politics, had about $140,000. Kevin McCrea, a community activist and local businessman, had less than $1,000.
Yoon has come in for criticism for raising more than half his campaign fund from outside Massachusetts. But the need to look elsewhere for support is inescapable when taking on a powerful incumbent. Some potential donors don't want to bet on a long shot; others may be inclined to give a mayoral challenger a contribution, but dislike the public reporting aspect of it. "People are afraid," said Hennigan.
That fear factor is an unfortunate byproduct of incumbency. Candidates report that friends and neighbors worry they will have difficulty getting building permits or run into other bureaucratic hassles if they appear on a challenger's donor list. City workers are especially nervous about contributing to challengers. Some tell candidates they will do it only in a relative's name.
Money doesn't guarantee victory. But without it, a candidate cannot target voters or buy advertising. Without it, the media are reluctant to take a campaign seriously.
It's hard to defeat an incumbent mayor of Boston. The last mayor to lose was James Michael Curley in 1949, and that was only after Curley's incarceration for influence-peddling.
The pattern promotes complacency. Voters should combat it by demanding that incumbents - in this case, Menino - submit to multiple debates with opponents. Those brave enough to challenge the status quo deserve at least a fair hearing.