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Yvonne Abraham

Big Boston mayoral field has big downside

Greetings from the land of Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For.

I longed for a big, fat, juicy field to succeed Mayor Tom Menino, departing after 20 years in office. Stunted by an opponent-crushing incumbent, open political ambition has been in pathetically short supply around here for way too long. So, when an army of candidates emerged to vie for Boston’s top job, I was thrilled. (Though not quite as thrilled as I would have been if there had been more than one woman among them. Seriously, people: 2013).

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At last, we have the makings of a spirited debate over the city’s future. But a huge field – 10 candidates so far, with five more awaiting certification – has a massive downside.

That was painfully evident at a Wednesday forum on development organized by the Boston Society of Architects. Eight candidates crowded onto the stage. A ninth, Councilor Charles Yancey, who has not officially declared his candidacy, was not invited. He showed up anyway, answering a couple of questions from the sidelines and protesting that he was being treated unfairly, to cringeful effect. (Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley had a scheduling conflict.) It was a battle for speaking time, as much as of ideas.

First, the ideas, some of which were delightful. Just about all of the candidates lamented the lack of predictability and openness in the city’s permitting process. Councilor John Connolly, the only candidate to declare before Menino announced his exit, made his case most forcefully: “We have to get out of a system that is basically about who you know, rather than the merits of your project,” he said. State Representative Marty Walsh called for bold architecture. He actually said, “We can’t be afraid of height.” John Barros, who heads the Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative, argued that the city should separate planning and development, currently married at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, because tensions between those two missions compromise both. He also called for promoting more public art through permitting, which brought me close to joyful tears. None of the candidates shares my love for City Hall, but at least most of them rejected the idea of building a new one. “We can invest our money in other things,” said former legislator Charlotte Golar Richie.

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There was a spirited discussion about transportation. All of the candidates agreed a vital city (some even used the term 24-hour city!) depends on a boffo, well-funded public transit system. Though they disagreed on whether that funding should come from a bump in the gas tax, which some called regressive. Bill Walczak, a former health care executive and now vice president at Shawmut Construction, said he was “astonished the Legislature came out with” a transportation funding package which he rightly argued falls far short of the system’s needs.

Still, it took an awfully long time for everybody to weigh in. At one point moderator Renee Loth, editor of the BSA’s magazine and a Globe columnist, attempted to speed things along, telling Walczak that “we’ve heard from you,” on the issue of MBTA funding.

“Thank you, but you haven’t heard from me much at all,” he objected.

Walczak, more than most other candidates, has good reason to be frustrated (though he might want to dial down the miffiness). Speaking time is far more valuable to some candidates than others. And that brings us to a downside of this huge field that goes way beyond debate logistics. Unlike elected officials, Walczak and other candidates running their first political races did not arrive in this contest with big public profiles, ready campaign funds, and established electoral machinery.

And in a field this big and a race this short (six months between Menino’s announcement and the September preliminary), those things are even more important than usual. In the worst case scenario, a candidate could get into the final with as few as 20,000 to 30,000 votes. Established politicians can get close to that number just by working their machinery. The two candidates on the November ballot could land there simply by turning out their usual voters, rather than winning over new ones with their ideas.

That’s a worry. We’ve just had 20 years of a mayor more famous for his machinery than his vision. Menino has done many great things for the city, but it would still be a crying shame if Boston’s next mayor didn’t tip the balance the other way.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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