A new era for Boston?

October 7, 2013

As Boston prepares to elect a new mayor in November, Ann Coleman explains why the candidates' claims that they embrace "diversity" aren't nearly enough.

FROM THE New York Times to Time magazine, many mainstream news outlets have been commemorating the retirement of "the last of the big-city bosses"--Boston mayor Thomas Menino.

For 20 years, Menino has ruled with more authority than most city mayors--through the 1991 elimination of an elected Boston Public Schools superintendent and school committee, appointment authority over every city agency, and veto power over city council decisions.

As the longest-serving mayor of Boston, Menino has a legacy--a legacy that has been long-lasting and devastating for the vast majority of poor and working residents of Boston.

Menino is famous for his public-private partnerships, but he's most proud of his private right of ways for companies like New Balance. The shoe company broke ground on September 23 for its new 1.45 million square foot and $500 million office and athletic complex, establishing its new world headquarters along the Massachusetts turnpike on the site of an old manufacturing plant in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston.

Boston mayoral candidates Martin Walsh and John Connolly
Boston mayoral candidates Martin Walsh and John Connolly

Whether it was the dismantling of public health by overseeing the merger of Boston City Hospital with Boston University Medical Center to create the privatized Boston Medical Center in 1996 or administering federal bailout money that went to the banks, Menino's vision of growth and prosperity has been directed to those at the top of society.

Many progressives were hoping the 12-candidate open primary of four African Americans, a Latino, an African American woman and a range of non-profit executives, city council members and state representatives might yield a candidate or two who better represents the Black, Latino and Asian residents of Boston who make up more than 53 percent of the population.

At the close of the primary on September 24, State Rep. Martin Walsh and city councilor and former teacher John Connolly--both Democrats--won the primary with 18 percent and 17 percent of the vote respectively. They will face off in the mayoral election this November.

Charlotte Golar Richie, senior vice president for public policy, advocacy and government relations for the nonprofit YouthBuild USA, came in third with 14 percent of the vote.

Although the New York Times concluded, "tradition trumped diversity" by bringing back the 60-year legacy of the white Irish-American to the mayor's office broken by Menino's election in 1993, "diversity" and the drive for "reform" was at the heart of what launched Walsh and Connolly to the top of the primary.

Walsh, a former union laborer, charter school founding board member, and founder of a pre-apprentice program connecting women and people of color to the building trades, is no stranger to his "smart growth" and diversity-driven solutions that put a progressive spin on gentrification and the channeling of public funds into the pockets of private "partners."

AS WITH most elections, all one needs to do is follow the money to see where the candidates stack up and who gets a wider audience among potential voters.

While Walsh was endorsed by labor unions, Connolly was endorsed by Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, launching education "reform" to the top of campaign issues being put forward by this election.

Connolly, a Harvard graduate, former teacher, lawyer and city councilor doesn't hide his solution for continuing education "reform" in the name of public-private partnerships.

His Building Blocks Initiative includes seeking private investment in new schools on the campuses of "large institutions," including private universities, health care facilities and research facilities. With more than $3.4 billion at stake, Connolly sees the "partnership with Boston's schools a natural fit."

Boston is the home to public education in the U.S. and like many other cities became a center and model for education reform throughout the country.

Talk to most parents, students or teachers in the Boston Public Schools system and you will hear them describe disappointment in the re-segregation of education in Boston and the desire for more student-teacher-parent led curriculum with more funding for the arts and after-school programs.

More than a central issue to this year's mayoral race, corporate education reform is about continuing a long-term project to stratify education into tech-based low-wage job opportunities and extract public funds into private hands.

Boston education reform started in the 1980s when teacher-centered school funding was defunded. In the early 1990s, the business community entered the stage for education reform through introduction of the MCAS standardized testing in 1998.

Today, the ongoing corporate education reform is being packaged as "solutions" for so called underperforming students, parental irresponsibility and failing teachers.

All 12 candidates gave some nod to corporate education reform, and when they were asked about segregation in education access and opportunity, their only solution was more diversity in the hiring of teachers and the appointment of the next superintendent of Boston Public Schools.

Over the last two months, through a series of packed public forums hosted by unions, high school students, non-profits, churches and professional organizations, residents throughout the city were exposed to the candidates' plans for education, transportation, jobs and public safety.

In many of these meetings, groans could be heard from audience members who didn't want to hear empty promises about job creation, safer streets and better schools but wanted to hear the candidates' answers on how to end poverty, stop the school to prison pipeline and end the opportunity gap mostly divided along racial and gender lines in Boston.

In addition to education "reform," the question of public safety was almost unanimously centered on hiring a more diverse police force and the appointment of a new police commissioner. In August, the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers took a vote of no confidence in Ed Davis, who has since stepped down from his position as commissioner.

Instead of addressing segregation, poverty, health care and access to a living wage as public safety issues, the candidates and progressive groups alike have narrowed the debate around the question of diversity.

BOSTON CITY politics has been a reflection of a deeply segregated and racist system that works to widen the gap between rich and poor and between diversity and justice.

In 2008, under Menino's watch, the FBI was involved in investigating and convicting Chuck Turner, a Black member of the Boston City Council, who was arrested on charges of taking $1,000 in bribes from a local Black businessman, Ron Wilburn, who was acting as an FBI informant in seeking a liquor license for a club in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

The investigation happened at the same time that it was revealed that 65 percent of liquor licenses in 2006 were handed out to the clients of a single politically connected law firm--which in the previous five years alone donated $112,075 to local politicians, including Menino and council member John Connolly, whose father was on the Boston Licensing Board.

That law firm wasn't accused of any wrongdoing.

The only time that Boston has had a candidate of color in the final race for mayor was in 1983 when Mel King's mayoral candidacy was built on the grassroots activism that ended desegregation of Boston Public Schools, fought sexism and homophobia, and took on housing issues.

As King said in a recent interview with the Boston Globe:

What's more important than the composition of the field is how candidates respond to a community demanding affordable housing, access to high-quality schools, and an end to the 'lock-'em-up' prison culture.

It's interesting that most candidates waited until Thomas M. Menino revealed he wouldn't seek re-election to announce they would run. If folks had that burning desire to change things, why wouldn't they try to change them while he was in office? If you were going to do it, do it.

Boston has a tradition of corrupt, racist politics but it also has a hidden history of grassroots activism and working-class struggle that didn't take candidates promises at face value and didn't worry who was in office, only whether they were seeking justice against oppression and exploitation.

The mayoral primary highlighted the urgency to rebuild struggle from below in communities, on campuses and in workplaces not only to defend against corporate education reform, gentrification and cuts in social services, but to highlight the connections between city politics and the drive for corporate profits.

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