Tuesday, September 15, 2009

E-mail Controversy Creates Momentum for Menino Opponents

Just over a week ago, I wrote a post about the first Boston Mayoral Debate. I was frustrated because news coverage of the debate in both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald didn’t reflect what I saw as a poor showing by Mayor Menino. In my eyes, the Mayor’s opponents (Michael Flaherty, Kevin McCrea, and Sam Yoon) raised serious concerns over whether Menino wields too much control over the city. The news coverage in both papers indicated that the Mayor wasn’t seriously damaged by his opponents’ charges.

The conventional wisdom leading up to the debate seemed to be that Menino’s practical political advantages would trump any poor debate performance. An object at rest remains at rest, and unseating an established sixteen-year incumbent just wasn’t in this election’s political physics. Menino would likely win through sheer inertia.

Well, less than two weeks after the first debate, the forces of opposition are aligning in such a way that they be able to budge the entrenched Menino machine. Flaherty, Yoon, and McCrea repeatedly hammered away at the Mayor in both debates for his excessive control over city politics, and have continued to do so in the days following.

In the past months, the Globe has churned out extensive pieces on Boston Public School sports and the Boston Redevelopment Authority both reflecting poorly on Menino. This week, the Globe has turned up the heat on the Mayor. On Sunday, the Globe published an article describing Menino’s extensive political machine, pointing out the blurring of lines between city business and mayoral campaigning. On Monday, Kevin McCrea was featured in favorable Globe profile after successfully establishing himself as a persuasive and informative gadfly in the debates. Most recently and most significantly, the Globe published a harshly critical editorial of the Mayor stating, “Menino runs the city government as his own fiefdom, which can make interacting with City Hall like trying to accommodate the imperious ways of a monarch.”

All of these efforts, however, may have gone for naught if the Globe hadn’t uncovered the recent e-mail deletion controversy. After “a public records request by the Globe unearthed only 18 e-mails to or from [Top Menino aide Michael ] Kineavy between Oct. 1. 2008 and March 31 of this year,” it became apparent that Kineavy had probably been illegally deleting e-mails. This led to a joint press conference by Flaherty, McCrea, and Yoon in which the mayor’s opponents stood in front of City Hall, called for an investigation, and accused the Menino administration of a cover-up. Now it appears that an investigation of some kind will take place.

This e-mail business has given the Mayor’s opponents exactly what they were missing just a week before the primary election, a sexy storyline. Earlier, they could point to excessive control over development or cite statistics that demonstrated bureaucratic inefficiency, but those arguments aren’t flashy enough to catch people’s attention. That Globe debate analysis that caused my original frustration pointed this out, “the debate at times meandered through the workings of City Hall bureaucracy and an array of statistics that probably numbed the minds of many viewers.”

This e-mail storyline has the power to do what effective debating could not. It can drastically and rapidly change public perception of the Menino administration. Debates may be easily overlooked or ignored. Frontpage headlines, investigations of top City Hall officials, allegations of corruption, and press conferences on the doorstep of City Hall, however, will not be. Whether this e-mail controversy turns out to be an actual cover-up or just a computer glitch, it has provided the momentum that had been missing from the political equation.

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