DO PANIC. That was the gist of an editorial in the November 8 Boston Globe, which bemoaned the meager turnout for the Boston City Council elections two days earlier — just 13.6 percent of registered voters had shown up — and which warned that the city’s storied political culture was in grave decline. “Despite what Mayor Menino and the other incumbents might want to believe, the lack of vigorous challenges does not mean that voters are happy with the status quo,” the editorial fretted. “Boston’s political system is rigged against change, and it needs a major rethinking.”
|Titanic turnout |
In contrast with this year’s Boston elections, which brought less than 14 percent of registered voters to the polls, 37 percent of the electorate turned out in 1981 — a recent record for non-mayoral contests. Why the big numbers? Chalk it up to a bevy of extra ballot items, including proposals to change the structure of the City Council and school committee, and to call for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. (Voters said Yes to all three.)
Whether or not the editorial writers knew it, this was an ironic plea. After all, in the run-up to elections, the Globe had helped foster the very apathy it was now lamenting — ignoring some campaigns, skimping on candidate profiles, and generally signaling that the election didn’t matter much.
Consider the paper’s treatment of John Connolly, an at-large challenger who ended up winning one of the council’s four at-large seats. Connolly did nab the Globe’s only at-large endorsement. But despite his political promise and bloodline (his father, Michael, is a former secretary of state), the paper’s news side barely noticed him. The first piece that focused on Connolly’s campaign ran the weekend before the Fourth of July, in the relatively low-profile City Weekly section; the second, which ran on Election Day, was only written to address an anonymous-mailing scandal Connolly foolishly sparked at the last minute. But at least he received that coverage. Michael Flaherty — the at-large incumbent, perennial ticket-topper, and possible mayoral challenger — wasn’t the subject of any article, period.
In fairness, the Globe wasn’t the only local heavyweight outlet that downplayed the council races. For example, WBUR-FM (90.9), the Boston University–based NPR affiliate, didn’t do a single reported news story on the elections until after they were over. And the Herald only covered the aforementioned Connolly mailing flap. Which raises the question: if, as the Globe editorial page put it, Boston politics need CPR, why is the press idly standing by?
No news is bad news
Earlier this year, the council race in Roxbury-based District Seven looked like it might provide some juicy political drama. The long-time incumbent, Chuck Turner, was a Harvard-educated organizer with a penchant for incendiary tactics; his main challenger, Carlos Henriquez, was a former aide to Flaherty and the son of Sandra B. Henriquez, the head of the Boston Housing Authority and an appointee of Mayor Tom Menino. On paper, this showdown resembled the District Four race in 2003, which pitted incumbent Charles Yancey against challenger Ego Ezedi. In that contest — which saw the relationship of nonwhite politicians to Boston’s white power structure become a major campaign issue — Ezedi got plenty of press, and gave Yancey a real scare before losing in the final.