Sunday, September 6, 2009

First Boston Mayoral Debate

Mayor absorbs opponents’ digs, keeps composure” and “Menino brushes foes aside in debate” headlined the analyses of the first mayoral debate in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald respectively. The Globe’s Brian Mooney stated that the Mayor succeeded in his goal “not to lose his composure in the face of attacks” and responded to his opponents’ criticism with responses that “were generally measured and on point.” The Herald’s Richard Weir stated that the Mayor “cruised through a televised debate last night, emerging unscathed as his three rivals threw barbs - but none packing enough sting to knock him back.”

I won’t waste much space dismissing the 200 words the Herald spent on the debate. Suffice it to say that nobody without an ulterior motive or an inclination toward hyperbole would categorize Menino’s jumbled rebuttals to his opponents’ criticism as cruising. The Globe’s analysis warrants a closer examination. Is merely keeping one’s composure in the face of criticism the standard for success in a debate? Shouldn’t the ability to coherently articulate your position on an issue be at least a minimum requirement for an elected official?

Lets give Menino a pass on articulation as Boston voters have been inclined to do. A sixteen-year incumbent who by most accounts has kept the city in decent shape for four terms deserves some slack when it comes to elocution. Lets not, however, let him slide on his inability to adequately address the charges of his challengers. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that because Menino holds nearly every practical advantage whether in fundraising, popular support, or even name-recognition, all he has to do in these debates is keep his composure. He could blabber incoherently about bike riding for an hour so long as he doesn’t let his opponents get under his skin.

At times, Menino was strong in his responses to direct charges. When opponent Keven McCrea alleged that a Menino campaign contributor was the beneficiary a shady property deal, Menino clearly explained that the deal was a legitimate transaction under a program that grants a discount to abutting property owners on land that the city does not want to maintain (Nevertheless, paying only $5,000 for land assessed near $100,000 seems a bit dubious). On charges from McCrea and City Councilor Sam Yoon that detailing police officers to construction sites wastes city resources, Menino effectively argued that police officers are necessary for directing traffic around construction sites on main thoroughfares and also that detailed officers are valuable assets in community policing.

However, the Mayor’s responses to other charges could hardly be classified as brushing away harmless barbs. When his three challengers harped on City Hall’s inability to install 311 (A phone service in many other major American cities that allows residents, businesses, and visitors to inquire about city services, report problems, and get information) he dismissed the issue stating, “This is not about numbers, it’s about results. That’s what I’m talking about. Phone numbers just don’t do it. It’s about results you get when you make that phone call.” He did not even attempt to explain why Boston has not instituted such a fundamental program.

When Yoon brought up the Boston Redevelopment Authority (the agency directly under the Mayor’s control that oversees all city planning and development), a popular lightning rod for criticism of the Mayor’s overreaching grasp, Menino skirted the issue. Yoon’s argument was clear, “[T]he problem is the BRA is an agency that operates under the control of a single person — and that is you, Mr. Mayor — and operates behind closed doors in which millions of dollars changes hands and agencies like the research bureau or the Boston Finance Commission can’t even look in to what what’s going on at the BRA in terms of the way resources are allocated because it is, because of this structure.” Menino responded with the following statement:

“Let’s talk about the BRA. The BRA has developed the city over the last several years. But let’s look at the other parts of the BRA. They preserved 9,500 units of housing that were units that were going to be lost because of mortgage come due. So the BRA is doing a lot of good things. Look at what they’ve done around the city and the neighborhoods. They’ve rezoned a lot of our neighborhoods in the city of Boston, helped and redeveloped a lot of the neighborhoods of Boston, because neighborhoods are really where the vitality of Boston is and that’s where the BRA does so many good things. But you know, BRA is a change agent and people don’t like change.”

He did not address the charges that he is overreaching his authority, wielding too much power, or operating without transparency. And this is the crux of the problem. While none of his opponents established clear visions of how they would move Boston forward should they be elected, they were able to effectively portray Menino as a figure with too much power holding the city back from its potential. Perhaps Boston voters are content to keep control of the city consolidated in Menino’s hands, but the Mayor’s opponents raised serious concerns in the debate about such an autocratic arrangement.

For the best analysis of the debate I’ve come across, check out this article by Michael Jonas on Commowealth Unbound.

For a transcript of the debate, click here.

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