The Political Trail

Maybe it's time for city to awaken

By Michael Jonas
March 29, 2009
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Tour guides may still describe Boston as a city steeped in the hurly-burly of politics and local elections, but they are largely painting a picture of a storied past.

Four years ago, as Mayor Thomas M. Menino prepared for his umpteenth State of the City address, Jack Beatty, author of "The Rascal King," the acclaimed biography of James Michael Curley, said of the Menino age, "It's kind of been an Era of Good Feelings with him." Beatty likened Boston under Menino to the period in US history in the early 1800s when "politics kind of went away."

That is not all a bad thing.

Some of the lively political give and take of the city's past - the 1967 hurling of an ashtray in the City Council chamber by one member at another and similar stuff of local lore - is better remembered than relived. Curley was colorful, but corrupt, a reminder that the best political theater sometimes makes for good copy but not good government.

The waning of ethnic rivalries that often formed the lines of political demarcation, and the healing of the open wounds of racial hostility from the 1970s, have also brought some welcome calm to the political scene. The influx of newcomers not rooted in Boston, many of them part of a rising class of more educated, professional residents, has meant local elections are not the citywide bar fight for patronage jobs that animated local races for decades. And few would argue today that the city's neighborhoods are being ignored by a downtown-focused City Hall, the battle cry of the last great race for mayor, in 1983.

But when it comes to finding new terms of engagement for the political life of the city, Boston has been a victim of its own success.

For all of its big-city problems, Boston remains among the most livable of major US cities. Crime is a serious concern, but not the overarching menace that it is elsewhere. The quality of the schools is far from stellar, but few would dispute that they have made progress over the last decade, are much better than most large urban districts, or doubt the sincerity of Menino's commitment to public education.

All of that has meant that even muddling along means we're not doing half bad, a situation many cities would gladly take, but one that has also contributed to a local body politic gone flabby.

It was a Boston newspaperman, Benjamin Russell, who coined the "Era of Good Feelings" term in 1817 after a visit here by President James Monroe. With the Federalists in decline, the phrase referred to a time of placid politics following the War of 1812, when nearly everyone marched under the banner of what was then known as the Democratic-Republican Party.

In today's Boston, even with Republicans an endangered species, it is not so much one-party rule that seems to have drained the life out of the political landscape, but one-man rule. Menino has reigned supreme for 16 years, barely nicked by a couple of weak earlier challengers, but also rarely questioned by civic and nonprofit leaders, who are captive to an administration that holds all the cards in town, or by business leaders who increasingly answer to out-of-state headquarters and don't claim much of a stake in the life of the city.

There are some flickering signs of fresh life on the political stage. Two city councilors have thrown in for mayor, along with a businessman-activist who has already put the issue of closed-door dealings in City Hall on the election radar. The two at-large council vacancies created by the mayoral wannabes have helped draw a large, and still forming, field of council contenders that reflects the city's growing racial and ethnic diversity.

For all of the city's strengths, there is plenty to discuss, from the weighty to the literal nitty-gritty.

For example, despite the progress made in the schools, the system still leaves many children woefully behind. Isn't it time for some of the bolder, out-of-the-box reforms being pushed in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities? And shouldn't it be possible to sweep Boston streets more than half the year, as is done in many other major cities familiar with wintertime snowfall? That's just a start.

Hold the ashtrays, but let the well-formed criticism and policy pronouncements fly.

Michael Jonas can be reached at

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