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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Lawrence Harmon

No clues from 1983 mayoral race

Boston mayoral candidates Mel King and Ray Flynn debate at the Old South Church in 1983.

file 1983/john blanding/the boston globe

Boston mayoral candidates Mel King and Ray Flynn debate at the Old South Church in 1983.

The decision of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to retire from office at the end of the year has created a cloudburst of candidates. A lot of the activity will dry up by May 21, the deadline for submitting signatures of 3,000 registered voters. Still, Boston hasn’t experienced a race for an open mayoral seat in 30 years. It’s an exciting time, made all the more so because no one in town has a firm sense which candidates might survive the scheduled Sept. 24 preliminary election and move on to the final.

It’s tempting to look for clues from 1983, when the late Mayor Kevin White announced he’d had enough, prompting nine candidates to get into the race. But history isn’t likely to be a useful forecasting tool for the 2013 race. The politics, culture, media, and demographics of Boston are different today.

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In 1983, money didn’t talk. Candidates Ray Flynn and Mel King could barely rub two nickels together. Yet they emerged as the top two vote getters in the preliminary election. Credible candidates with deeper pockets — former school committee member David Finnegan, former Suffolk sheriff Dennis Kearney, and former city councilor Larry DiCara — went home disappointed. But voters shouldn’t expect underfunded candidates to repeat such a feat this year.

Thirty years ago, politics was a source of entertainment for Bostonians. Reporters jockeyed for space at City Council and school committee meetings. Television and newspaper editors subscribed to the following theory: If you aren’t covering politics, you aren’t doing anything. The abundance of free media meant that candidates didn’t need to fall back heavily on ads, mailings, and paid strategists to establish their identities with voters. Flynn, who would go on to win the final election, was particularly adept at attracting press coverage.

Last Monday night, a couple of dozen people were sitting in a library in Roxbury’s Dudley Square discussing city politics when the discussion leader read down the list of 24 people who had applied for nomination papers in this year’s mayoral race. About a third of the candidates rated little or no name recognition. Even prospective candidates who had run and won citywide, such as at-large city councilors John Connolly and Felix G. Arroyo, drew some quizzical looks. Contrast that with 1983, when the average voter could easily pick their local elected officials and even political wannabes out of a line-up.

DiCara, who recently penned a political history of Boston during the 1970s and 1980s, said that the candidates in his race got out of the blocks much quicker than the current field. Mayoral forums and debates were well underway by early spring of 1983. It was lively, too. Several hundred people attended a debate that April at Simmons College where DiCara questioned why Boston Police officers work four days on, and then take two days off. Requiring police to work five days before taking two off, he argued, would be the equivalent of adding 100 more police officers to the force. Let’s see how many candidates will be prepared to go toe-to-toe with public safety unions during this year’s preliminary election.

Identity politics was a lot stronger in 1983 than it is today. King, a former state representative, was the only minority candidate in the field back then. He stayed above the fray during the preliminary race while the leading white contenders concentrated on beating up each other. None of them wanted to risk alienating minority or liberal voters should King fail to make it into the final.

This year, there are several credible minority candidates hoping to get on the ballot, including Arroyo, community activist John Barros, and former city official Charlotte Golar Richie. But none of them has clout comparable to what King had in 1983. And none of them could expect to be treated with kid gloves by their opponents.

The wild card this year may be the relatively affluent, liberal newcomers who have moved into downtown and northern sections of the city during the past decade. They haven’t made their presence known in a local election, yet. If they get behind a candidate, it would be a new day in Boston politics. But for all anyone knows right now, the race could be decided in the city’s elderly housing developments, where turnout is always high.

Only one thing is certain at this point: To be caught without money in this race would be a grave mistake.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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