Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"The Campaign That Changed Boston - 1983"

A note from Jed: I saved this column from the Dorchester Reporter's web site about 7 years ago. This was a great "insider's" perspective on what happened the last time there was a free-for-all for Mayor. I looked on their site tonight and the column can no longer be found. I present it here because I think the public benefit outweighs the copyright issue. I will, of course, take this down upon request but sincerely hope the Reporter reposts their column on their site!

Community Comment
The News This Week from Dorchester
November 20, 2003
The Campaign That Changed Boston- 1983

By Neil Sullivan

As Boston moves beyond the 2003 vote and its surprising surge in electoral participation, it is worth remembering what happened in this town twenty years ago. There is not a person over 40 in Boston, who lived here back then, who does not have vivid memories of that remarkable campaign. It was a fall classic, one of the great mayoral races in the city's history.

The election was two weeks later than usual. Both the preliminary and the final were delayed by disputes over the configuration of the nine new City Council districts. The race for nine open seats drew a swirl of new personalities onto the political landscape, including the first District Five winner, Tom Menino.

When the race began in late winter, no one knew whether Kevin White would run for a fifth term. Despite a remarkable tenure, Mayor White had opened himself to charges of patronage and downtown favoritism. Budget cuts, a result of the Proposition 2 property tax referendum, forced the unpopular closing of police and fire stations, eroding White's popularity. Both public schools and public housing had fallen to court control.

A swirl of legitimate candidates emerged. Each postured himself as the alternative. The leading contender, former school committee president David Finnegan, went into overdrive with his bumper sticker, "Finnegan or Him Again."

White waited until the last possible moment to declare his intention to leave office voluntarily at the end of the term, and then only after toying with the politics of the town one last time with a well-placed leak. "White Will Run," declared the Boston Herald full page headline the morning that White announced the opposite.

Over the next several months, it seemed like the whole city got to know the candidates personally. In addition to Finnegan, there was Sheriff Dennis Kearney, city councillors Larry DiCara and Fred Langone, community activist and former state representative Mel King, former city official Bob Kiley, and city councillor Ray Flynn, who announced his candidacy from the grounds of a South Boston public housing development.

Ray Flynn's electoral coalition was particularly unusual. An opponent of busing and abortion, his populist style and progressive commitment attracted young organizers from activist groups such as Fair Share, 9 to 5, the Mass Tenants Organization and left wing state representative Tom Gallagher's campaign. They were all struck by Flynn's tireless advocacy on behalf of poor and working class people. He never missed a hearing or a rally.

Flynn added this highly motivated team to the broad base of support he had cultivated in neighborhood meetings and parades over the previous decade as well as through the campaign's 125 house parties. Organized labor and a talented group of South Boston operatives filled out the campaign organization.

The candidates would face off at 76 separate campaign forums, sponsored by neighborhood associations and issue based organizations. The 11 o'clock news routinely featured highlights from that night's debate. The newspapers covered the action as regularly as the Red Sox games.

Finnegan started out with 24 percent in the polls. His television ads ran for 26 weeks. The rest of the field hung back in the low teens and single digits. In mid-July, Flynn criticized Finnegan for refusing to endorse linkage, the community proposal to impose a mitigation fee for affordable housing on downtown development. Combined with the hot button issue of rent control, this created a split in the field of candidates. "Finnegan Is Him Again," the neighborhood pundits postured, however unfair to White, who had backed both rent control and linkage at various times.

With five days to go to the October 11 preliminary election, Ray Flynn stood on City Hall Plaza and confronted frontrunner Finnegan on live television at the top of the Six O'Clock News. "This building is not for sale," Flynn shouted as he pointed to City Hall, the concrete fortress behind him.

"Stop yelling at me, Ray," Finnegan responded. Flynn kept pressing. "First you called me a racist, then you called me a lizard," he said, referring to a Finnegan radio ad comparing Flynn to a chameleon.

The confrontation played out as four shots of the television screen spread across the front page of the morning newspaper. Channel Four built up its audience by playing the clip over and over again. Everyone had an opinion. Had Flynn blown his underfunded chance to get into the final? As it turned out, the brawl helped mobilize the spirit of working class Boston on Flynn's behalf.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, tens of thousands of newly registered voters got ready to make a bold statement of racial pride and solidarity on Mel King's behalf. King may have traded the African garb of the 1979 campaign for his signature bow tie, yet the strength of his presence inspired an electoral response not seen since. This year's strong turnout for city councilor Felix Arroyo, himself a 1983 school committee candidate, is an echo of what happened in the community of color twenty years ago.

The drama of preliminary election night was extraordinary. King's victory surfaced first, based on the unprecedented turnout in the African-American community. Later in the evening, Flynn's win took shape, though not until after he had begun writing a concession speech, presuming Finnegan's success to be inevitable. Days later, a Paul Szep editorial cartoon captured the shocking result. A dignified, elderly woman had fainted on the pavement. To the rescue came the mayoral finalists, Mel King in his dashiki and Ray Flynn in his scally cap. The matronly lady in distress was the Vault, the well established committee of corporate CEOs who had backed anyone but these two.

The final election saw two men arguing over who was more authentically dedicated to social and economic justice. The potential for racial violence was clear and present in those days. There were two incidents, and each time King and Flynn appeared jointly on television to call for calm and better behavior.

Over 201,000 voters went to the polls on election day, almost 70 percent of the newly swollen electorate. Ray Flynn won, but both Flynn and King declared the city the winner that evening.

Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, was Mayor Ray Flynn's chief policy aide from 1983 through 1992. He also served as scheduler and traveler during the campaign.

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