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Opposition in City Hall has crumbled in the past

By Steven Wilmsen and Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff, 8/3/2000

espite the tough talk coming out of City Hall about shooting down the mayor's plan to build a new Fenway Park, few beyond its concrete walls think the City Council can hold together long enough to do it.

In fact, no one can remember a time when the council successfully blocked something a mayor really wanted. At least not since 1983, when the city's legislative body was changed from nine members, all elected at large, to 13 members, with nine of them district councilors.

The district councilors rely heavily on the mayor for services like getting streets paved and summer jobs for constituents.

"I've been elected since 1987, and I don't remember the council ever winning," said Councilor at Large Peggy Davis-Mullen, who was elected to the School Committee in 1987 and the council in 1993. "But who knows -- this could be a new chapter in Boston history."

The council has talked big before over issues ranging from city budgets to the Boston City Hospital merger and, briefly, the convention center. Not all councilors folded. But each time, enough backed off their opposition for the mayor to get his way.

"I really can't recall a situation when the mayor really wanted something that was important to the city and he didn't get his way in the end," said Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog group.

The reason, Tyler said, is the expanded council, which was changed with the idea of making it more representative of the city's diverse neighborhood interests. The number of at-large councilors representing the entire city was reduced from nine to four. At the same time, nine district councilors were added, each representing neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Dorchester.

The new district councilors found their small, specialized constituencies judge them by what services they brought to the neighborhoods. And often, it was the mayor who had control over those services.

"In the end, it made the council very dependent on the mayor for district services," Tyler said. "When an issue comes up and it comes to horse-trading time, it's very hard when you're a district councilor to resist the administration. It makes it very hard to stand fast when you're trying to look out for your district constituents."

Not all political observers agree, saying that district councilors haven't had to deal with serious challengers at election time as often as at-large councilors, making it easier to vote their conscience.

"When I was there, it was a fight to get reelected every time," said Larry DiCara, who was a city councilor from 1978 to 1981. "I'd argue that they have more freedom to ignore the mayor now."

But DiCara's view is in the minority. And other former councilors said they have watched as the body has slowly lost power.

"The district councilors are more beholden to the mayor and have become more so over the years," said another former councilor, who asked not to be identified. "I don't remember feeling that it was quite that way as much as it is now. We all complain about the lopsidedness of the distribution of power, but when it's within their grasp, they don't take it because they can buy something for it."

Even in situations when the council has come out thundering with passionate vows to hold up the mayor's plans, it has ultimately caved. In one well-known reversal, councilors vowed in 1996 to block Mayor Thomas M. Menino's proposed merger of Boston University Medical Center and Boston City Hospital. The council opposed the merger because it said it would end the city's tradition of caring for the poor and indigent.

But several months later, the council voted 9-4 to approve what Menino had called "the most important thing I will do as mayor."

"There were very strong statements made publicly by the councilors," Tyler said. "But by the time it was over, all but a few supported it."

One key to the mayor's power is the office's influence over district elections, as former councilor Diane Modica of East Boston now knows. After she angered Menino by helping to hold up approval of the capital budget in 1997, the mayor pressured city workers who live in her district to turn against her. She lost that November to Paul Scapicchio by 625 votes. "There are entrenched political bases that are difficult to shake up," she said last year. "A lot of arm-twisting was going on."

Councilors now attempting a showdown with Menino over the ballpark know they are in for a fight. But they say the outcome will be different this time.

"My constituents don't want this ballpark, not where it is," said Maura A. Hennigan (Jamaica Plain), who is considered by some council members and the administration as one who could change her mind, despite her statements.

"There's no convincing that can be done to change my mind. It would be irresponsible. Here is a chance for me to do the right thing, and I'm going to do it."

Seven councilors have come out strongly against the park. But head counters at City Hall say all but four of those might switch their positions, leaving the council one vote short of what it needs to kill the deal. Because the plan will likely involve the taking of land by eminent domain, it requires the approval of two-thirds, or nine council members. Five can block the deal.

"We've got four for sure," said Davis-Mullen. "We need one more who is not going to turn. Whoever that fifth person is, it's going to be a tough vote. It's the most politically dangerous one I've seen in years."

The four ballpark opponents seen as least likely to switch are Davis-Mullen, at-large Councilor Francis M. Roache, district Councilor Chuck Turner of Roxbury, and Michael Ross, whose district includes the Fenway.

The Menino administration is likely to focus its attentions on councilors like Hennigan, Kelly, or others seen as needing something from the mayor. And rumors have begun circulating about what offerings Menino might float to break the council's opposition.

This story ran on page F05 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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