Council contortions

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 6, 2006

Presidential politics
The first and most ominous clash of council political ambitions comes next month, in the annual vote for president. Michael Flaherty has been voted council president five straight years, an unusually long run. He has been challenged before, but dodged the bullet each time. A challenger needs seven votes to unseat him; last year, according to several sources, six councilors offered Maureen Feeney their votes, making the presidency hers if she wanted it, but she declined.

That was all done quietly, in closed-door conversations or over coffee far from City Hall Plaza. That’s how challenges for the presidency have gone in recent years — you don’t want to plot openly against the current president, unless you’re sure you’ll win.

This year, John Tobin, in a break from recent tradition, is throwing caution to the wind. “I have every intention” of seeking the presidency in January, he tells the Phoenix. “I’m going to ask every one of my colleagues for their support.”

Of course, all of them want the job, and some may start actively campaigning if it looks like Flaherty is history. Some foresee Rob Consalvo, Menino’s favorite, emerging as the choice, although Consalvo tells the Phoenix he is not running. (Maybe next year, he says.) Others think Mike Ross or Jerry McDermott could ultimately get the job.

“I have never known a member of the city council who doesn’t look themselves in the mirror and think about being mayor,” says Lawrence DiCara, who failed in his attempt to make the jump in 1983. That means they don’t want to help others too much. That’s one reason why Flaherty’s opponents went to Feeney last year: with her eye on the city clerk’s job, not the mayor’s, she’s considered less threatening by her peers. And it’s why some observers expect counselors to elect Tobin this year to dash Flaherty’s hopes — and then cut Tobin down next year, perhaps by voting in Consalvo.

Frequent changes in the presidency used to be fairly common, but Flaherty’s five-year run in the office ups the ante for him. If Flaherty loses the presidency now, it will be a huge blow to his political ambitions, people say. “You’ve got to be perceived as moving forward,” says former city councilor Paul Scapicchio.

In fact, Flaherty’s time may already have passed. More than one current councilor says that Flaherty regrets not running against Menino last year, in what might have been his last chance.

This year, the road to getting, or keeping, the presidency will go through the four minority councilors — Charles Yancey, Chuck Turner, Felix Arroyo, and Sam Yoon — who plan to vote as a bloc. That’s assuming that Arroyo and Yancey, who has been president before, both tamp down their own desires to take the gavel.

If these four are in a position to choose the next council president, they plan to use that power to gain influence they’ve lacked under Flaherty. “Clearly, whoever we support as president, there is going to be some expectation of a working partnership,” says Yoon.

That could mean higher-profile committee chairmanships, which are almost as important as the presidency for getting press attention and building a reputation. The highest-profile issues in city government are the budget, education, and crime; those committees are chaired, respectively, by Consalvo, Tobin, and Ross. “One of my requests from whoever gets my vote for the council presidency, is to retain that chairmanship,” says Consalvo.

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