"I don't look at it as using the tragedy," says Hennigan, who after her failed campaign for mayor won election as criminal clerk of Suffolk Superior Court. "Raising issues, raising awareness, saying what needs to be said — that's why you run."

Indeed, Hennigan points out that this is exactly why many have wanted a serious challenge to Menino, regardless of who ultimately wins. Usually, these types of tragedies bring some grousing from the public and community leaders, but no strong voices openly challenging the city's policies or practices that may be responsible. Once every four years, at least, that changes — even if it doesn't end the reign of the man dubbed "mayor for life."

Murphy for life?
Speaking of lifetime tenure, some are accusing another Boston pol of trying to secure that status. That would be at-large city councilor Stephen Murphy, who spearheaded a change to election law that took effect this year: raising the signature requirement from 500 to 1500 for at-large candidates.

Passed as a Murphy-sponsored home-rule petition (requiring state passage) by the City Council in late 2006, the change was finally approved in the state legislature amid a flurry of last-minute bills at the start of this year, and was quietly signed by Governor Deval Patrick.

The new requirement has made it much tougher for the 23 candidates who pulled papers to run for the four at-large seats in 2009 to qualify for the ballot. They had just three weeks to get the signatures from registered Boston voters. The deadline was this Tuesday; the city's Election Department will be verifying and counting for a while yet.

"It's challenging," complains candidate Natalie Carithers of Dorchester. "I do not have a powerful organization. . . . They put these roadblocks up, so it doesn't allow people the equitable opportunity to do this."

"If you truly believe in democracy, you won't see 500 signatures as a frivolous number," says Tito Jackson, a first-time candidate. "Raising the barrier for people to participate is standing against democracy."

Getting 1500 valid signatures really means getting at least 50 percent more than that, or even double, because many end up invalidated. Adding to the problem, voters are allowed to sign only four at-large petitions. With such a large field of candidates, the most well-trafficked folks who pass through the commonly targeted areas — T-station entrances, grocery stores, and public events — max out quickly.

Murphy argues that the new rule merely puts the requirement back where it was until 1993, when it was slashed in deference to the late Albert "Dapper" O'Neil, who was aging (along with his supporters) and didn't want to stand out gathering signatures.

"The signature requirement should be hard work," says Murphy. "The job is hard work."

This is the second straight election in which Murphy has been accused of bending the rules to his favor. Two years ago, Murphy convinced the city to save money by canceling the at-large preliminary election — which is normally held in September to winnow the field of candidates to eight. With only nine running, Murphy successfully argued that all nine should be placed on the final ballot, rather than hold an entire election to eliminate one candidate.

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