Council contortions

Boston’s city councilors are jockeying to be the next mayor — but that’s yesterday’s playbook
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 6, 2006

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WHO’S NEXT? Will Mayor Menino be succeeded by Mike Flaherty (left), Sam Yoon, or . . .

For more than a generation, being president of the Boston City Council was a springboard to the mayor’s office. That’s how Ray Flynn succeeded Kevin White in 1983. And 10 years later, Flynn passed the baton to council president tom Menino, who’s held it ever since. Almost every serious challenger to both men came straight from the council, if not from the position of president: Joseph Tierney in 1987, Peggy Davis-Mullen in 2001, and, last year, Maura Hennigan.

With little actual power, aside from passing the mayor’s budget each year, the council wields whatever prestige and influence it has — including campaign-fundraising clout — by serving as a breeding ground for future mayors. The practice serves to bind council members together, as well as command respect from other government players. You’d better take them all seriously, the thinking goes, because one of them will run this town someday.

That line of thinking has inspired a steady crop of candidates to challenge the council seats every two years, even as Boston’s state legislators go unopposed time after time.

Before Flynn, Boston’s mayors typically came from government positions: Kevin White was secretary of the commonwealth, John Collins was city councilor and state senator, and John Hines was city manager.

But old assumptions disappeared when governor-elect Deval Patrick shook up politics as usual across the state on November 7.

The November elections left little doubt about today’s voters’ preference for outsiders, particularly “New Bostonian” candidates who are minorities but do not define themselves through their race or ethnicity. Deval Patrick swept Boston with nearly 60 percent of the vote, despite Menino’s support for Tom Reilly and Chris Gabrieli’s strong local connections. And on the council itself, business leader Sam Yoon swung out of nowhere to beat strong, politically connected candidates like John Connolly and Patricia White for an at-large council seat.

These days, it’s hard to find people who don’t believe Boston’s next mayor will come from elsewhere than City Hall. Some point to private activists like Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation; some to minorities with track records, like former district attorney Ralph Martin or State Representative Linda Dorcina Forry. And many say the next mayor will be someone currently on nobody’s list — Deval Patrick’s status two years ago.

As one City Hall insider says: “The first poll after Tom Menino announces he’s leaving will have [current council president] Mike Flaherty in first place, with several other councilors behind him. The last poll will have none of them.”

Even some councilors privately acknowledge this new reality. “The old rules are out the window,” one concedes.

Yet, like players in some anachronistic ritual, councilors can’t help but go through the same motions, jostling one another for lead position, as though one of them really will be the next mayor. They have to keep acting as though they believe that the old mayoral-accession rules still apply. After all, if the city council is irrelevant to the next mayor’s race, is it relevant at all?

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Elections and Voting, Bruce Bolling,  More more >
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