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Kerry's lost opportunity

ON MONDAY, the nation's mayors hoped to hear from a well-known Massachusetts officeholder, a man with both presidential aspirations and the guts to cross a ridiculous picket line. And they did. But unfortunately for Democrats, it wasn't scheduled speaker John Kerry who addressed the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors. Instead, Mitt Romney stepped to the plate -- and the podium -- when the presumptive Democratic nominee decided he couldn't defy the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association.

Accustomed to the similar tactics from their own unions, the mayors had sharp words for Kerry's decision.

"We're very disappointed and angry that Senator Kerry didn't come," said Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors. "We believe it was a missed opportunity on his part."

Indeed it was. "It could have been a similar situation to Bill Clinton . . . and the Sister Souljah issue," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. The June 1992 moment when Clinton used an appearance before the Rainbow Coalition to rebuke the rap singer for her irresponsible comments has become a political metaphor for speaking necessary truths to the party faithful.

Kerry, viewed by 55 percent of respondents in a new New York Times/CBS News poll as a politician who says what he thinks people want to hear rather than what he really believes, needs to show some of that resolution. And though the BPPA is nothing like Sister Souljah, union members need to hear this truth: They've lost all sense of perspective. Menino has offered them 11.9 percent over four years, or an average of about 3 percent annually. The BPPA wants 17 percent over that period, or an average of 4.25 percent a year, according to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. The difference would cost the city $14 million to $17 million, the bureau says.

Since this contract will reach back to 2002, it's instructive to ask this question: What have other folks been getting? Average Boston-area private-sector wages have risen by 3.8 percent over the last three years, for an average yearly increase of about 1.3 percent, according to an Administration and Finance analysis of data from the state Division of Unemployment Assistance. (For Boston-area government workers in justice, public order, and safety jobs, the increase was 1.8 percent.)

How can the BPPA justify demanding raises that are more than double the yearly increase other workers have been getting? "They had a higher base to begin with because the private sector is paid much higher," claims BPPA President Thomas Nee.

Actually, no. According to the research bureau's new data, the average base pay for the BPPA members is $53,786. With overtime, Quinn Bill benefits, and paid details, average pay jumps to $83,760. Average private-sector pay, by contrast, is $52,470.

In bailing on the mayors, Kerry's campaign issued a statement saying he never crosses picket lines. But that reflexive stance cedes clout to the BPPA that clear thinking -- and a little political courage -- wouldn't. If he had actually taken the time to assess which side is acting fairly here, it's hard to see how Kerry could have escaped the conclusion of Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City.

"When the police union uses these kinds of tactics to press their incredibly unreasonable demands, that hurts everybody," said the liberal Democrat.

One well-placed source said that though his campaign was split over whether he should defy the BPPA pickets, Kerry told Menino that he had decided against doing so for two reasons: He wants peace at the Democratic National Convention, and he hopes for the union's endorsement.

Menino wouldn't comment on that, but it certainly looks as though Kerry got his first wish, anyway. Although he denied any deal, Nee announced Monday that the BPPA had decided not to picket the convention. And he offered kind words for Kerry as a friend of labor.

But make no mistake: In his pursuit of those goals, Kerry cut a low profile in courage. Think how much more presidential the senator would have seemed if he had addressed the mayors and then met with reporters to offer this message: "As an executive . . . you have to make it very clear that you will always respond to the people and will not be guided necessarily by a picket as the highest and greatest authority."

That, of course, was Romney. And though there was obviously a political motive to Romney's move, on Monday, it was the governor, not the senator, who seemed more like a real leader.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is 

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