Except when City Hall is hiring, mayors don’t create jobs. But they can create the conditions that allow local economies to flourish — or they can burden business to such an extent that seasoned executives and young entrepreneurs alike shy away.
Most of the 12 candidates running to be Boston’s next mayor seem to understand the power they hope to have. By my count, eight of them focus directly on economic growth. District Attorney Dan Conley, with a plan he calls “Better Jobs Now,” has the most detailed proposal out there. At the other extreme are those such as City Councilor Felix Arroyo whose platitude that “all jobs in Boston are good jobs” doesn’t show much thinking as to what that means or how to get there.
There was a time, not long ago, when politicians would treat commerce as the enemy, setting up an us-versus-them dynamic that regarded doing business in the city as a privilege for which companies must dearly pay. The mayoral candidates have mostly gotten away from that kind of thinking; they seem to understand basic economics. Rather than trying to tell voters what they hope to extract, they’re trying to help companies grow with the belief that a thriving economy naturally creates local jobs. Doing so means making Boston an attractive place to do business, with better infrastructure, better services, and smarter employees.
City Councilor Rob Consalvo, for example, focuses on an old but worthy idea — the Urban Ring — that would connect Boston to neighboring towns. Conley talks about coordinating transportation planning directly with mayors from other cities around Boston. He’s not alone in this regional approach — City Councilor Mike Ross is also a fan — and it’s a welcome shift in tone from the current administration, which is Boston-centric to a fault. If the new mayor can work with other mayors as if they were his or her peers, the results could be remarkable indeed.
Meanwhile, City Councilor John Connolly wants to upgrade City Hall. A few months ago he posted an amusing but telling video titled “The Amazing Permit Race,” which compared applying for a dog license and a moving truck permit in both Boston and Philadelphia. Boston proved a nightmare. And the complexity of the city’s regulations doesn’t just make life tough for applicants. It also creates the perception of favoritism; insiders can get stuff done while those who are not politically connected lose out.
Connolly promises reform. So too do community activist John Barros, Conley, Consalvo, and Ross. Of course, so too did incumbent mayor Tom Menino, who during his two decades has also decried the city’s byzantine processes. His failures suggest that improvement is hard, requiring real legislative changes and a willingness to let go of regulatory strings that many would just as soon see in place.
Companies also need good employees, and that’s particularly true for Boston’s burgeoning innovation economy. Training and education are thus a key part of any growth strategy. That’s good for potential employees as well; long gone are the days when an unskilled job could keep a family in the middle class. State Representative Marty Walsh, a one-time labor leader, is especially passionate about the subject. Then too, Boston is expensive. Promoting affordable housing, Barros and Conley argue, thus becomes an economic growth strategy by helping to keep skilled workers in the area.
For all of these good ideas, there is a dark undercurrent. A number of candidates — such as Arroyo, Conley, and Ross — genuflect to the Boston Jobs Ordinance, promising to make sure that Boston jobs are for Boston residents. Assuming businesses aren’t discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or other similar factors (something that should be aggressively addressed), they want to hire the best people for the job. A jobs set-aside for city residents is in effect a requirement that something else trumps merit — an anathema to businesses competing in national and international markets. Push that idea hard and businesses will just head for friendlier climes — Quincy, perhaps, or New Hampshire. That risk underscores a key idea that the new mayor should keep in mind: Boston is not an island. It’s just as easy to move out as it is to move in.