Friday, September 28, 2012

Into the Fog of Student Assignments

If there’s anything clear about changing student assignments in the Boston Public Schools, it’s that two key political figures—Mayor Thomas Menino and the chair of the City Council committee on Education John Connolly—want to see more children going to school in their own neighborhood. And Boston still has plenty of parents dissatisfied with the current system of school assignments.

But, as parents, advocates, and elected officials at a new round of meetings look at five possible new plans, with more details and overlays, the nature of assignment policy becomes more complex and elusive.

Officials made their first presentation of alternative plans Monday night in Dorchester, at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. Despite several pages of maps and information about school performance and popularity, people in the audience, along with members of the advisory council appointed by the mayor, asked for even more information.

Since any new assignment plan is supposed to ensure access to quality schools from any subdivision of Boston, there is concern over measures of performance. Maps provided at the meeting referred to MCAS scores at each school, but BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson noted it would also be important to see a measure of school improvement.

There have been some examples recent dramatic improvements, whether at the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury or the Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester. MCAS scores were also much improved at a new in-district charter school, UP Academy in South Boston, compared with results from the middle school it replaced in the same building.

In his presentation of the five options at the meeting, Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar said schools throughout the city “have improved tremendously” since the last significant change in assignment policy was considered five years ago. But one of the maps handed out showed that, regardless of student performance, schools had different levels of popularity, with many of the least chosen schools in neighborhoods that are home to the most BPS students.

The co-chair of the advisory committee, Hardin Coleman, Dean of the Boston University School of Education, said any of the new options would still pose “some big challenges,” including access to quality schools for students from the poorest families.

One remedy to help improve access would be to change the schools themselves. This has already begun with recent school turnarounds and the expansion of popular and high-performing schools. Officials argue there’s potential for more improvement, thanks to provisions in the new contract with the Boston Teachers Union. And, following outside legal pressure, the BPS has taken steps to strengthen programs for students with learning disabilities and English language learners. Speaking Monday night, Goar said there are also plans to increase another popular choice—dual language schools, even combining English with Vietnamese and Haitian Creole.

 “Quality must be dealt with, no matter what,” he said.

 Another way to improve quality would be to spend money saved on busing on improvements such as extended learning time, a system-wide goal the new teachers contract failed to achieve. But that only raises more questions: how much money each assignment option would save, and whether it could be guaranteed that savings would go back to the schools.

Charter schools also provide options in some of the poorest neighborhoods, and their supply is growing. Despite some strong performance, they still lag behind the BPS when it comes to share of enrollment consisting of students with disabilities and English language learners.

Though they are public schools that accept students by lottery, the charters operate on a different standard. Their enrollment is citywide, and any busing needed for students in the primary grades is protected by state law and—if the school is in Boston—paid for by the city (along with transportation for parochial and private schools). It can also be argued the two kinds of public schools are judged by different standards: if racial diversity and inclusion are a prime goal in discussion about assignments for the BPS, the focus for charter schools in Boston is more on getting strong performance with a high percentage of students of color.

For all the uneven competition they might offer, charters are part of the assignment equation in the minds of parents. And that equation could change with any new expansion of charter school supply, or any accommodation that might potentially develop around transportation or enrollment.

For the BPS schools, Goar argued the points on a fixed map were less important than an annual “execution plan,” that is, adjusting the educational content to fit the needs of a given zone.

Advisory board member John Nucci, a former member of the School Committee and City Council, said any of the options would be better than the three zones in the current plan. But one Boston parent of a two year-old child, Meghan Doran, said, “If I look at all these maps and where I live, I see that my options are limited.”

Even with the best possible boundaries, overlays, and improvements, officials also spoke of the options as a choice among trade-offs. Increasing the number of zones would mean more access to a neighborhood school and more predictability, but also fewer schools to choose from and less racial or socio-economic diversity. And there could also be trade-offs concerning convenience and safety.

A long-time education advocate, John Mudd acknowledged that trade-offs had to be considered in deciding on a plan, but only if enough facts can be made available. “Do people understand and are personally empowered to give feedback?” he asked. “Or are they confused?”

Kim Janey, Senior Program Director for the Boston School Reform Project at Mass. Advocates for Children, also said there was a need to know more. “So, here we are again,” she said. “We have a bunch of maps and we have no idea what access to quality is for parents.”

For information on the schedule of community meetings on the assignment plan:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Officials React to Mattapan Murder Verdict

The following statements were issued by officials this afternoon in reaction to the verdict in the case for the 2010 murders in Mattapan. One of the two defendants accused of first degree murder in the killing of four people, Edward Washington, was acquitted on all charges. For the other defendant, Dwayne Moore, there was a mistrial on all charges, except for a guilty finding on one count of drug trafficking.

Suffolk County DA Dan Conley

“I want to make clear from the outset that we have every intention of holding Dwayne Moore accountable. Today’s mistrial does not change our position that he pulled the trigger on five human beings, killing four and paralyzing one. We are steadfast in the decision to continue moving forward against him. These crimes demand justice and the evidence supports a conviction.

“We knew from the outset that the case against Edward Washington was the more difficult to prove. It always is when the charge is felony murder and the theory is joint culpability. We believe the evidence supported his conviction, but the jury has spoken and we respect its decision.

“We don’t know what transpired in the jury room. We caught glimpses through the foreman’s notes but we’re not in a position to comment on deliberations.

“There’s a great deal more we’d like to say. But our determination to prosecute Dwayne Moore to a conviction on each of the remaining nine counts means we have to refrain from saying anything that could jeopardize a future trial. In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers now are, as they’ve been since that terrible morning, with the families and loved ones of those whose lives were lost.”

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino 

 “The verdict today in the emotional trial of Edward Washington and Dwayne Moore is difficult for the families and all of those that knew and loved the victims. It is hard to accept decisions like the one handed down today. The fact a young child was one of the victims makes it even more tragic. My heart goes out to all of those who are mourning once again and who have not yet found the justice they seek for their loved ones. I have no doubt that the efforts of our Boston Police Detectives, and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office will not be deterred in their search for justice for these families.

“I am most concerned now about the neighborhood and families of those involved in this case. I encourage all those who are grieving to seek the guidance of trusted friends or spiritual advisors and not act on raw emotion during this difficult time. Our city needs to heal. We need to be good to one another and take care of our neighbors to stop the cycle of violence and prevent another tragedy like this heinous one that occurred in 2010.

“I have asked our human service agencies to be visible and available to all members of the community by walking the neighborhood today and throughout the weekend. It is our resilience in the face of tragedy that makes Boston what it is and I have confidence in our city to come together during this difficult time.”

Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis 

"Today’s development in the Woolson Street quadruple homicide has not deterred the focus and commitment of the Boston Police Department in partnership with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office to secure the justice deserved for the victims, their loved ones and the entire Mattapan community. We continue to extend our compassion and sorrow to the family and friends of the victims as well as express our steadfast dedication to pursue the prosecution of Dwayne Moore.

"Officers are coordinating closely with city agencies such as the health department to provide residents with direct access to support services. As a precaution, additional officers will be in the area walking and talking with residents. At this time, the criminal justice process continues and it is imperative as a community to respect that process and allow it to work."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kevin White: A Neighborhood Perspective

Kevin White reached the end of his tenure as Mayor of Boston in 1984, and the last 28 years have done little to change the thumbnail biography. Widely hailed as a visionary who did so much to reshape and revitalize downtown Boston, he inspires admiration, sympathy--and no small measure of criticism--for his dealings with the surrounding neighborhoods in the grip of polarization and dramatic change.

But White's reputation as the downtown innovator who often clashed with Boston's sometimes contentious grassroots elements overshadows the way he reshaped Boston's neighborhoods. Even when the results were unsatisfactory, similar ideas would re-emerge later, sometimes applied more successfully with a different cast of leaders and political climate.

When White won his first term in 1967, the city's racial divide was already sharply defined. The city's economy and population were still in decline. Though two previous mayors--John Hynes and John Collins--were pushing the city toward a "New Boston," the side-effects on surrounding neighborhoods were sometimes neglect, disruption, or displacement.

With the renewal of Quincy Market in the 1970's and developments along the Boston Waterfront, White helped redefine the city as a new, post-industrial hub for a knowledge and visitor economy.

"The thing that people forget is that Boston was really on its knees," said Larry DiCara, an attorney who served on the Boston City Council from 1972 to 1981.

"He refused to accept that and looked beyond where we were to where we could be," said DiCara. "And made a lot of people mad in the process."

DiCara says White's refashioning of Quincy Market as a visitor portal helped lay groundwork for other changes in the Boston landscape, from the depression of the Central Artery to the creation of the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

For White's predecessor John Collins, the vision of a "New Boston" also included an express route between downtown and the suburbs--the multi-lane extension of Route I-95 that was supposed to cut all the way from Readville to Lower Roxbury. The extension was later dropped by Governor Francis Sargent, partly because of grassroots opposition.

Sargent took a stand against the highway in 1970, when he and Kevin White were running for governor. The former state representative from the South End, Mel King, credits the decision to the power of community action, but he also credits White for joining ranks against the highway.

By April of 1987, more than three years after White had left office, the path of the highway would be the new route for a depressed Orange Line. Though commuters from Dudley Square lost a quick ride to downtown Boston, the relocation had some advantages--from more sunlight on Washington Street to the creation of a new Southwest Corridor Park, joining neighborhoods that used to be divided by two sets of rail lines above street level.

Said Fred Salvucci, White's transportation advisor and later architect of the Big Dig, "It's a major achievement of Kevin's that continues to benefit the city, in my view."

White's tenure overlapped with the development of community health centers in medically under-served neighborhoods. These were also products of community action, but their incubation required help from City Hall. During the same time, there were also grassroots initiatives coming from non-profits in social services, from the earliest versions of community development organizations, and from neighborhood leaders at community centers, launched by White as community schools.

The most crucial problems with city leadership were in the Boston Public Schools. White correctly insisted that his control over education was limited by powers of the Boston School Committee, which had resisted pressures for voluntary desegregation. But King says White should have done more about concerns over education being raised by parents and leaders in the black community. As the city went down the path to desegregation under a federal court order, there would also be friction between the mayor's office and predominantly white neighborhoods.

Boston election results show signs of friction between the city's white majority and its mayor. Though a Republican, Sargent won his election for governor by carrying Boston and its heavily Democratic electorate. White enjoyed more solid backing--if with lower turnouts--from Boston's black and liberal voters, and he is remembered for a cast of appointments that was markedly more diverse than its predecessors. But the racial split among voters would register dramatically once again in the 1976 presidential primary, when the top vote-getter among Democrats in Boston was the notorious foe of desegregation, former Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Later in the same year, two years into the turbulence of court-ordered desegregation, White tried to increase his leverage over the school system through a proposal for charter reform that was placed before the City Council in December. By including district seats, the reforms were advanced as a way to allow more diversity among city office-olders on the School Committee and City Council. At the time, both bodies were all-white, until the election of 1977. But, with scant backing from any community, White's modified version of the recommendations from a charter reform commission was widely denounced as a power grab.

As it turned out, some of the ideas in charter reform would be adopted within little more than a decade. Voters approved a mostly district-seat City Council and School Committee in 1981. The elected School Committee would finally be abolished, in a campaign led by White's avowedly populist successor, Ray Flynn.

The turbulence around the schools overshadowed other areas where Boston's elected officials had to be pushed by grassroots pressure or legal challenges. One was example was public housing. A law suit by tenants over deplorable conditions resulted in the Boston Housing Authority being placed in receivership. There was also a lawsuit over alleged racial bias in the distribution of community development money from the federal government.

Another area that required court intervention was the city's assessing of property values. White did mitigate the burden on homeowners throughout the city, thanks to his 1978 referendum campaign to allow higher tax rates on commercial property. But, before the tax classification campaign, the city lagged in reflecting the loss of values in neighborhoods the most severely affected by disinivestment and abrupt racial turnover. In response, Fair Share organized tax abatement campaigns and staged confrontational actions, including a bus trip to the home of a deputy mayor in the suburbs.

Even when the intent was to benefit the neighborhoods--through Infill Housing or access to mortgages for people of color under the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG), the results were often blighted properties or vacant lots. Years later, some of the same affordable housing goals would be approached more effectively through cooperation between City Hall and non-profit developers more attuned to their neighborhoods.

Though White is lauded as a neighborhood ally against Logan Airport expansion and the aborted plan for I-95, his administration was also criticized when urban renewal plans went too far as a force of displacement. In the South End, renewal meant a new infusion of investment and neighborhood pride in 19th century brownstones, but there would have been even more displacement of black and Latino residents if not for grassroots campaigns leading to affordable housing at Villa Victoria and Tent City.

It can said that there were similar struggles at the time in other cities. And White's task was sometimes made more difficult by a climate of distrust and polarization at the grassroots level. Making the job even more difficult was statewide referendum that imposed a cap on property taxes in 1980--only a few years after a spike in taxes in response to a budget shortfall caused largely in connection with desegregation. And before the vote on Proposition 2½, taxpayers also became rate-payers, funding a new agency doing a sorely needed upgrade of the city's water and sewer system.

When former Governor Michael Dukakis tried to head off the voter rebellion by tapping the state surplus for aid to cities and towns, White absorbed the allotment for Boston without passing on savings to the taxpayers. It's impossible to say whether acting differently would have kept "Proposition 2½" from passing. But, when the necessary budget cuts took effect the following year, the closings of police stations, fire stations, and schools meant even more strains in White's relationship with the neighborhoods.

By White's last term, there was a noticeable fall-off in the quality of some appointees at Little City Halls. His earliest ambassadors to the neighborhoods included Fred Salvucci and Kirk O'Donnell, who later became a top aide to former US Speaker of the House "Tip" O'Neill. In White's last term, there was Jack Williams, the city's neighborhood liaison for development, caught in a shake-down over a proposed project in Dorchester's Upahms Corner.

Between the top-down flow of money from Washington, and the norms of governance at the time, White may have decided the best way to be more effective was to increase leverage for his agenda was by building a machine. If the current mayor, Thomas Menino, credits results to partnerships--often developed over long periods of time--White's tenure was more characterized by crises and pressures for swift action.

But there were times when White tapped connections and showed openness to ideas of other people--as when he followed up on the suggestion by City Councilor Tom Atkins to minimize violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The city's relative calm, in contrast with other cities around the country, has been widely credited to White's managing to have a Boston Garden performance by James Brown telecast live on WGHB-TV.

In his last term, White did turn attention to neighborhood regeneration in parts of his "Plan for Boston" and through a new effort to combat hate crimes. He also gave approval to an early version of a policy for more residents, women and people of color to get jobs on major development projects in the city.  City officials would be prodded for many years to put more teeth in a policy that originated in grassroots activism and gained momentum in Mel King's first run for mayor in 1979.

If White failed to meet the goals of his neighborhood vision, he did lay a path for development with more results under the next two mayors, as was the case with Blue Hill Avenue. Even when pursuing goals of their own--Flynn along Dudley Street and Codman Square, Menino in Dudley Square and the South Boston waterfont--the parallel with White is hard to miss.

In judging White's performance and legacy, it would be a mistake to overlook the role of Boston's grassroots leaders as agents vision and power. There were times when White showed his respect for that role. And that may have been done in grandest fashion at White's last inauguration, when he took the oath of office with  city councilors on the stage of the Strand Theater, an old movie palace trying to make a comeback in Uphams Corner.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Warren Touches Base in Dorchester

Elizabeth Warren came to Dorchester's Florian Hall Tuesday night for what was billed as a conversation. But the most prominent Democratic candidate for US senator from Massachusetts did most of the talking. And, if the idea was to engage the audience--well-stocked with local progressives and Democratic Party activists--it was by turning listeners into more active campaigners.

Introducing Warren to the local audience was Dorchester State Representative Marty Walsh--a staunch union ally and a leader of the Boston Building Trades Council. Walsh warmed up the audience by attacking the state's Republican US Senator Scott Brown for votes against measures to increase aid to college students and to extend unemployment benefits. 

Warren followed suit be labeling herself  "a maintenance man's daughter who ended up as a fancy pants professor at Harvard." She made it clear she would have voted for the spending measures opposed by Brown, including one to fund infrastructure work--providing more construction jobs--and another to preserve the jobs of teachers, police, and firefighters. 

The difference with Brown was about how the spending would be offset. The measures would have required an additional tax on people earning more than $1 million a year, and Brown has contended that tax increases would diminish economic growth.

As a consumer advocate with a national profile, Warren was raising alarms about household debt and questionable lending practices well before the collapse of the housing bubble. And, on Tuesday night, she put the blame squarely on banks, telling the audience, "The financial service sector broke this economy one lousy mortgage at a time."

There's plenty of agreement that the housing collapse was a leading factor in the recession and in slowing the recovery. But there's sharp disagreement about how the blame should be shared between the private sector and government. So far, the ensuing bail-out of lenders starting before President Obama took office has generated considerable backlash. Some of that sentiment is anti-Wall Street (as in the Occupy Movement), but aid to banks or even homeowners with mortgage troubles has also fed Tea Party outrage over government intervention.

While some regulators have called for new ways to help homeowners with mortgage troubles take advantage of refinancing--to keep the housing market from being too much of a drag on the rest of the economy--others have been quick to say homeowners who avoided trouble shouldn't have to share the burden. In her remarks at Florian Hall, Warren concentrated on the need for regulation to curb risk in lending, but there was no mention of relief for homeowners locked out of refinancing by upside-down mortgages. 

Rather than giving more details on policy, Warren concentrated on what she viewed as a larger trend--the erosion of living standards for many working-class and middle-class families over the last three decades. 

"We've hammered on America's middle class basically for a generation now," she said. "We've squeezed them harder than ever. We've pushed them with rising costs, with flat incomes. We turned loose a credit industry on America's middle class--to paint bull's eyes on their backsides."

In addition to supporting short-term jobs measures unsuccessfully proposed by President Obama, Warren called for long-term investment in infrastructure, education, and research. As for where to make budget cuts, she mentioned military spending, but there was no mention of a single entitlement program. On the revenue side, she favored higher taxes on the wealthy, and an end to "loopholes" that enabled some corporations to avoid paying federal taxes. 

If Warren goes on to face Brown in the final election, it's likely both candidates will be asked about their stands on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. On health care alone, there is considerable potential for more divisions among voters--not just between consumers and special interests or average people and wealthy people, but between consumers more worried about access to treatment and consumers more worried about the cost of mandatory health insurance. And employers' concerns about the cost of coverage are readily understood as concerns about jobs.

Instead of differences between the rich and less-than-rich, voters might also be primed to focus on differences over immigration policy or the racial code words embedded in campaign talk around the country about entitlements. And, thanks to new latitude on campaign contributions, there could be more messages on these topics, not only from candidates themselves, but from independent political action committees.

It's also likely any debate about government regulation will go beyond banks, and Republicans have been hammering the message that regulation of financial services and environmental quality stifles economic growth.

The location of Warren's event, at Florian Hall, is the home base of the Boston Firefighters Union, but it's also the polling place for territory that was carried two years ago by Brown--Ward 16, Precinct 12. The precinct results showed Brown with 55% of the vote over Democratic rival Martha Coakley, and the turnout was significantly above the citywide average. Though Coakley managed to carry the whole city, the Boston turnout was generally higher in the pockets of support for Brown. 

The turnout in the coming presidential election will be different, but Warren tried to cast herself as someone who can build alliances and marshall their support against strong adversaries. That was how she characterized her experience in the battle for Congressional approval of a new consumer financial protection bureau. The bureau was approved, but Warren withdrew as a candidate to be the agency's director, in the face of opposition from Republicans in Congress.

In Warren's account, the experience showed her ability to help get legislation approved, partly through mobilization of broad support against strong opposition. She also cast herself as the underdog who refused to settle for less.

In the closest thing to a challenging question from the audience, Warren was asked if she was serious enough about her campaign to "leave hair and teeth on the floor." To which she replied, "I didn't scratch my way to Harvard Law School to be anybody's sissy."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Council Results Show Boston Vote Shift

If you go back twelve years in Ward 18, the at-large vote for City Council looks like the politics of a different century. Even in 1999, the ward--comprising Hyde Park and Readville, along with parts of Mattapan and Roslindale--was racially mixed. But the top four candidates were (in order) Hyde Park resident Steve Murphy, Mickey Roache, Albert "Dapper" O'Neil, and Peggy Davis-Mullen. 

As it turned out, 1999 was the last hurrah for O'Neil, a racially divisive figure who in earlier votes had topped the ticket citywide. But, in November of 2011, the top four vote-getters in Ward 18 were (in order) Ayanna Pressley, Felix G. Arroyo, John Connolly, and Steve Murphy. Even excluding the ward's six precincts in Mattapan, the top four were the same, only with Pressley behind Arroyo and Connolly behind Murphy. 

But the most recent numbers show more than racial change. In the previous year with a vote for City Council only, in 2007, the vote was off in the ward's precincts in Hyde Park and Roslindale, though up in Mattapan. On Tuesday, the number of votes was up throughout the ward, and especially in the predominantly black Mattapan precincts, where the number of votes was more than 91% higher than it was in 1999. 

Boston's 2007 election is notorious for low turnout (13.59% citywide), and this year's figure of 18.13% hardly looks impressive compared with the figure for 1999, at 24.49 percent. But the steady increase in voter enrollment, plus growth in Boston's population, have also produced a larger electorate. That's one reason why a modest improvement in the turnout figure obscures the dramatic increase over 2007 in the number of votes cast--a jump of of more than 36 percent. 

Overall, the number of people voting Tuesday wasn't much higher than the figure in 1999--by only 5.72 percent. But a breakdown of the citywide figure shows some dramatic changes in the distribution of votes. For example, in the high-turnout Ward 20 (West Roxbury and part of Roslindale), the number of votes was down from the figure in 1999 by more than 20 percent. In South Boston, despite an increase over four years ago with this year's competitive race for a district council seat, the number of votes was still down from the figure in 1999 by 7.69 percent. In the same district, the number of votes from the largest piece of Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 8) was more than five times the figure in 1999, going from 124 to 825. 

Also posting substantial increases over the vote counts in 1999 were Ward 14 (Grove Hall, Four Corners, Franklin Field), by 62.62%, and Ward 17 (Lower Mills, Codman Square) by 70.22 percent. And, in Roxbury's Ward 12, the figure was up by 13.25 percent. 

Though the changing composition of Boston's active voters owes much to the mobilzation for the last presidential election in 2008, there is still a good deal of change to be found in the elections with the weakest draw, for City Council only. In 2011, as in 2007, there was no citywide preliminary vote to give the race added visibility, though this year's final vote had ideal weather for maximum turnout. If there was any political boost expected for turnout this year, it was supposed to be among predominantly white voters drawn to competitive races for district seats (in Dorchester, South Boston, the South End, Chinatown, Bay Village, and the Leather District), or to the best-known at-large challenger, former councilor and mayoral contender Michael Flaherty. 

In pre-election coverage by local media, there was speculation that Flaherty's campaign could be at the expense of the council's first and only woman of color, Ayanna Pressley. As it turned out, Pressley would finish ahead of all the other at-large candidates. Pressley and colleague John Connolly got some attention for making campaign appearances jointly. And this year's incumbents sometimes made appearances and statements expressing mutual support. 

The campaigns also resulted in votes that crossed the racial boundaries of the past. For example, in Ward 20, Pressley came in second, behind only Connolly, who lives in the West Roxbury. In Ward 19 (Pondside, Jamaica Hills, part of Roslindale), with its normally progressive tilt, Pressley came in first, even surpassing Jamaica Plain resident Felix G. Arroyo. 

Though Flaherty came close to matching his vote in 2007, when he topped the field, he failed to match shows of strength two years ago, when he campaigned for mayor with fellow councilor Sam Yoon as a running mate. This year, Flaherty finished behind the top four positions in Ward 5 (Back Bay/Beacon Hill/South End), which he carried in 2009, and in Jamaica Plain, where he lost that year with almost 49% of the vote. 

If Pressley showed it was possible to pick up votes across racial lines, then so did the the other winners at large, especially Arroyo and Connolly. Another example was the challenger for the council in District 2, Suzanne Lee, who fell short of beating the incumbent from South Boston, Bill Linehan, by only 87 votes. 

As expected, Lee carried almost all the District 2 precincts outside South Boston, with almost three-quarters of the votes in those precincts. Linehan carried all of South Boston and two neighboring precincts in Dorchester with less than two-thirds of the vote. In these precincts, Lee had more than thirty percent of the vote. 

In the race to fill the seat being left open in District 3 (Dorchester) by Maureen Feeney, Frank Baker took almost 56% of the vote against John O'Toole. Both candidates had their share of union endorsements and well-known political supporters--Mayor Menino's organization and an official endorsement from Maureen Feeney for O'Toole, and Dorchester legislators--including another Columbia-Savin Hill resident, Marty Walsh--for Baker. 

It was Baker who showed more strength outside his base in Columbia-Savin Hill, even carrying precincts in Port Norfolk and in Lower Mills, where he had support from State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry--and where O'Toole might have been hampered by disenchantment with Feeney over plans (later reversed) to close a branch library. For all the contentious campaigning, the results in District 3 were also explained by Baker's ability to make contact with voters, even close to O'Toole's base in Cedar Grove, with its high-turnout polling place at Florian Hall. O'Toole carried the precinct (Ward 16, Precinct 12), but union backing and direct contacts helped him get 308 votes, his fourth highest precinct tally in the district. 

The two other district races were much less competitive. In District 7 (Roxbury, parts of Dorchester, Fenway, the South End), Councilor Tito Jackson won his first full term, taking 84% of the vote over Sheneal Parker. In District 4 (Dorchester/Mattapan), Charles C. Yancey was re-elected over perennial candidate JR Rucker with almost 89% of the vote.


One reason has been given for the decrease in the number of votes this year--compared with 1999--from Ward 20: the lack of competition for the district council seat. In the earlier election, there was a strong but unsuccessful challenge to the City Councilor for District 6 (covering most of Ward 20), Maura Hennigan, by John Tobin. In the next off-year elections, there would be two other incumbents, John Tobin and Matt O'Malley, who were unchallenged. And there was little speculation in the media that West Roxbury's at-large councilor, John Connolly, was in danger of losing his seat. Though vote numbers could also reflect a drop in population or voter engagement, it has to be noted that the number of people registered to vote in Ward 20 (26,283) is higher this year by about 8 percent.

Comparing this year's figure for Ward 20 to that from November of 2007 shows an increase of almost 14 percent. But, in some areas of Boston without a competitive race for a district council seat (in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan), the numbers were up anywhere from 47% to 62 percent.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Challenger Makes Splash in Council Race

There's no doubt the most remarkable result from yesterday's preliminary elections for Boston City Council was the first-place finish for Suzanne Lee. Running in District 2 (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, Leather District, Bay Village), she received 39% of the vote. The incumbent from South Boston, Bill Linehan, received 35%, followed by another South Boston candidate, Bob Ferrara.

After reuniting with her parents at age 11, Lee grew up in Grove Hall and eventually became well known for her accomplishments as an educator and community leader. And she went into yesterday's election with endorsements from the Ward 5 Democratic Committee and the South End News.

Another way to view the results in District 2 is to say the two candidates from South Boston got more than 60% of the vote. That's greater than the share of the vote for Linehan in the final round of the special election to fill the vacancy left by the death of Jim Kelly. In that earlier contest, Linehan won with less than 53% of the vote. His co-finalist from the South End, Susan Passoni, received more than 46 percent.

One significant difference in the vote this year was in the largest subdivision that includes Chinatown, Ward 3, Precinct 8, which is also Lee's home neighborhood. The precinct gave her 484 votes, for 80% of the total. In May, 2007, the precinct vote was split, with Passoni getting 52% and Linehan almost 48 percent. Before yesterday's election, much of the precinct vote was thought to have been controlled by allies of Boston mayors. If that element was somewhat offset in Passoni's showing, then yesterday's election stood out for being the first district race in which people in the precinct could vote for one of their neighbors.

But figures from recent elections also show the precinct has more voters, partly as a result of mobilization by an organization Lee helped form in the 1970's, the Chinese Progressive Association. By comparison with the figures from May, 2007, turnout rates in most of the District 2 precincts throughout were down. Those figures will probably go up in this year's final election, November 8, when the ballot will also have 7 candidates running for the council's 4 at-large seats--including South Boston's Mike Flaherty.

Within South Boston, Linehan carried 11 out of 15 precincts, with the other 4 carried by Ferrara. In the preliminary round of the special election for District 2, Ferrara came in last place, in a field of 7 candidates, with less than 5% of the vote. This time, he got 25% of the vote throughout the district. And, in three South Bo
ston precincts carried by Linehan, Ferrara still managed to get more than 40% of the vote.

Another draw for voters in Boston will be the final round to fill the seat being left open by Maureen Feeney in District 3. The district covers most of Dorchester, from Columbia-Savi
n Hill, Fields Corner and Meeting House Hill, to Pope's Hill, Cedar Grove, and Lower Mills. The race had long been viewed as mainly a competition between three candidates, and that proved to be the case. Frank Baker came in first place with almost 32% of the vote, followed by co-finalist John O'Toole, with almost 26 percent. Finishing 150 votes behind O'Toole was Craig Galvin.

The two finalists come from opposite ends of the district. Baker grew up in what is now Blessed Mother Teresa Parish (formerly St. Margaret's), in a family of 13 children. A former shop steward in the city's printing department, he has also worked on other political campaigns and served as a leader of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association.

A realtor and former plumber, O'Toole
served 14 years as the president of the Cedar Grove Civic Association. He also came into the race with an official endorsement from Feeney and, many believe, the unofficial support of Mayor Menino.

In line with the geography, both finalists carried the bulk of their precincts closer to where they lived. For O'Toole, these were in areas such as Cedar Grove (including the high-turnout polling place at Florian Hall) and Lower Mills. In addition to prevailing in the Columbia-Savin Hill area, Baker carried precincts in Uphams Corner, Jones Hill, Meeting House Hill and areas near Fields Corner.

In other races, the results for candidates believed to have the mayor's unofficial support have been mixed. And the transfer of votes from other candidates, especially Galvin, could also be driven by other factors. Come November, any machine vote should be higher, but there could also be more voters drawn out by Flaherty, who's casting himself as the at-large candidate most likely to differ with the mayor.

The competition was much less intense in District 7, which covers Roxbury, along with parts of Dorchester, the Fenway, and the South End. After succeeding Chuck Turner in the special election in March of this year, Tito Jackson received 76% of the vote in yesterday's preliminary. His opponent in the final election will be Sheneal Parker, who placed ahead of two perennial candidates with 11% of the vote.

Yesterday's turnout figure was 13.77% That represents voting in only 3 of the 9 City Council Districts, so it's hard to find a recent comparison. But in the last final election for City Council without a concurrent vote for Mayor, in 2007, the turnout citywide was an abysmal 13.55 percent.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How Federal Budget Showdown Affects Boston

As President Obama and both houses of Congress negotiate over spending cuts and the national debt limit, advocates and providers of health care and social services are trying to get more attention for the possible toll on the needy. In a demonstration yesterday outside Government Center in Boston, they turned the heat on the state's Republican Senator in Washington, Scott Brown.

The next day, Brown would vote for the more stringent cuts that would have been required by the "Cut, Cap and Balance Act." The measure was defeated by a vote of 51-46, and liberal advocates were quick to denounce Brown for voting to "gut" Social Security and Medicare while protecting tax breaks for millionaires and "big oil." But a nationwide survey newly posted in the Rasmussen Report shows Republicans doing better than Democrats in handling debate over the debt ceiling. Even if that hardly proves Brown's vote would have a similar level of support in Massachusetts, he does have whatever political advantage there might be in favoring the GOP measure, yet without the disadvantage of its full range of cuts taking effect.

Should there be a political compromise along more moderate lines, that would still probably result in dramatic changes in federal spending. As of last night, President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner were reportedly trying to get support for a deficit reduction of $3 trillion over the next ten years. If that fails to appease many Republicans in the House, it could also be tough to swallow for many Democrats.

As for the effect of reaching an agreement before the deadline for action on the debt ceiling, the best scenario would have the advantage of a financial crisis averted and a more sustainable pace of federal spending, with benefits for the economy at some point. But, even in that scenario, there would be short-term disadvantages, with job losses and cuts in federal money for everything from publicly supported health coverage to grants for higher education--even for people working their way out of poverty at community colleges and programs offered by Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD). In response to the federal budget developments this week, ABCD President and CEO John Drew issued a memo, which included these observations on the possible range of budget cuts:

Our elected officials in Congress are battling in budget negotiations tied to an agreement to raise the debt ceiling. President Obama has convened ongoing meetings to reach a budget compromise. On the table are severe cuts in federally funded domestic programs, including CSBG. The two sides find themselves at an impasse over the President’s insistence that tax increases as well as spending cuts be included in the legislation. Thus ABCD programs and many others – including Medicare, Social Security, Food Stamps, public housing and other “safety net” programs – could be sacrificed in the budget compromise.

If Congress does not reach an agreement and the debt ceiling is not raised, then the government will be unable to pay its bills and ABCD programs along with Social Security, government pensions and salaries, and other programs will not receive the federal payments due them.

At a time when the economy is in desperate straits, when unemployment remains high and people struggle to pay their mortgages and rent and put food on their tables, our national leaders in Congress and the White House should not be putting Americans – especially our most vulnerable citizens – at this terrible risk. I call for our elected officials to get together and act responsibly so that increased misery is not inflicted on the most vulnerable in society. At a time when increasing numbers of Americans are at economic risk we should be investing in job creation, boosting programs that help the most vulnerable in society, and doing what is necessary to keep the country going. We should not be gambling with people’s lives.

Thus we are in a position similar to that of last spring – when the new conservative majority in the House of Representatives proposed huge domestic cuts including elimination of our critically needed Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) monies – in the budget that would continue funding America. At that time we let Congress and the world know that Community Action is too important to cut and that the work of ABCD and the 1,000-plus CAPs across America is essential to the survival and upward mobility of the huge numbers of Americans struggling in poverty and to the nation’s economic recovery.