Boston's main police union abandoned yesterday their threat to picket at the site of next month's Democratic National Convention, handing Senator John F. Kerry a major victory on the day he honored the union's picket line by not making a speech before a US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston.
Kerry's cancellation of the long-scheduled address was widely praised by union leaders, and one Kerry campaign official said yesterday that the move was made in part with the expectation that the union would respond by promising not to picket outside the FleetCenter during the convention.
"The senator . . . kept his eye on the big prize, the convention, in order to achieve a trade-off with the unions," said a Kerry campaign official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The shift in the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association's picketing strategy would allow Kerry and thousands of convention delegates and members of the media to enter the FleetCenter unimpeded, despite the city's ongoing labor woes. But Kerry's cancellation drew sharp criticism from both Democratic and Republican mayors, who angrily accused the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of caving in to a local union that is making unreasonable demands.
Thomas J. Nee, the police union's president, said the union decided against FleetCenter convention pickets more than a month ago, because of the limited access they would have to delegates as a result of security precautions ordered by the US Secret Service. Kerry's aides had been expecting the union to scale back, but were not certain that picketing was off the table until yesterday, when Nee informed reporters after Kerry honored the picket line.
By delaying the announcement until yesterday, the police union won several days of publicity with pickets outside the Mayors Conference and left the impression that both Kerry and Senator Edward M. Kennedy support their cause in the contract fight with the city.Both canceled plans to speak to the conference, playing into a union strategy meant to embarrass Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a former head of the Mayors Conference, on his home turf.
Yesterday, Nee said Kerry was on a "pedestal" among union members because of the cancellation and added that the Patrolmen's Association would narrow its focus from the convention as a whole to Menino in particular.
"I am not going to block John Kerry from doing anything," Nee told reporters yesterday morning outside the Sheraton Boston, where the conference of mayors meeting was being held. About 100 police officers and firefighters marched a picket line in front of the hotel to highlight the fact that they are working without contracts.
"The fact of the matter is, the fight is with Tom Menino, not John Kerry," Nee said. "The fight is with Tom Menino, not Teddy Kennedy. The fight is with Tom Menino, not the Democratic Party."
The prospect of a police-led picket line at the convention prompted hand-wringing among Democrats starting in March, when the Patrolmen's Association first said it would ask delegates and Kerry not to enter the arena if they didn't have a contract by July 26, when the convention begins. The chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party had said her delegation would honor such a picket line, and many labor-friendly Democrats would have been in a tough spot.
The police union's decision to scale back its protest appeared to surprise Menino yesterday. Before hearing of the union's decision yesterday, Menino himself suggested that Kerry would face a difficult decision at a convention picket line. The fact that Kerry respected the unions' call to stay away from the Sheraton yesterday would seem to set a precedent for next month's convention, the mayor said.
"If there's a picket line at the convention hall, do you have a convention where the candidate does not show up?" Menino said yesterday. But that won't be an issue now, since the Patrolmen's Association is promising to stay away from the FleetCenter during the convention.
"I'm obviously delighted with that outcome," Kerry told reporters at Baltimore-
Pressed later by reporters about whether he had persuaded the union to forgo picketing at the convention, Kerry winked and smiled. Asked if a deal had been brokered, he responded: "Just diplomacy."
Nee said the plans to picket outside the FleetCenter announced in March had to be revised in the wake of Secret Service regulations that will prevent groups from congregating in all but a "designated protest zone" near the arena. In addition, a federal judge this month issued strict rules to prevent pickets from blocking access to the FleetCenter during convention preparations, suggesting that it would be difficult for protest groups to get close to the building during the convention itself, Nee said.
Nee said the union will still have picket lines at other convention events attended by Menino, and at all of the opening night parties for various state delegations at sites around the city. The patrolmen's association is joining with the local firefighters' union to have a party of their own that night, July 25, for delegates who want to show their solidarity with organized labor.
Kerry campaign officials said they did not discuss protest plans directly with the unions; rather, they counted on a web of relationships that would advance their interests in Boston. For instance, Jack Corrigan, Kerry's top local convention planner, is a long-time friend of Thomas F. Birmingham, a former state Senate president who is serving as an emissary between the city and its unions on Menino's behalf.
Kerry's respect of the police picket line yesterday virtually assured him that he won't suffer an embarrassment similar to that of former governor Michael S. Dukakis in regard to the Patrolmen's Association. Dukakis, the last Massachusetts resident to lock up the Democratic nomination for president, saw his Republican opponent, George H.W. Bush, endorsed by the police union in his 1988 campaign for president.
Nee said no decision will be made on an endorsement in this year's race until August. But he said Kerry's move has certainly boosted the candidate's standing with the police union.
Kerry's cancellation and an earlier snub by Senator Kennedy dominated the news coming out of the four-day conference, which wrapped up yesterday. As the gathering proceeded, Kerry's move drew heated denunciations from several mayors.
Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami called Kerry's cancellation "a slap in the face of the nation's mayors" and added that Kerry allowed a local labor dispute to scare him from an opportunity to discuss urban issues with a crucial audience.
"I am thoroughly disappointed in his decision, thoroughly disappointed," Diaz said.
Mayor Douglas Palmer of Trenton, N.J., president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, pointedly noted that Kerry will need the support of local leaders, especially in swing states, in his bid for the presidency.
"We are really where the rubber meets the road," he said. "We're very disappointed and angry that Senator Kerry didn't come to address the mayors."
Conference of Mayors officials said they would push the Kerry campaign to arrange a meeting between mayors and the candidate in the coming weeks, so they can strategize about the coming campaign. Palmer said Kerry will have to engage in fence-mending with Democratic mayors, but said they would continue to support Kerry in his matchup with President Bush.