This year’s fight over the City Council presidency seems both more and less significant than previous such scrums. It’s less so because the council, in its 12-0 vote to affirm a police contract that even most councilors believed was too expensive, just demonstrated its unwillingness to assume a leadership role on policy matters. Lacking much statutory power, councilors clearly feel too fragile to break with powerful city interests even when they have the opportunity to do so. Offending public-safety unions, who wield unusual clout in the off-year council elections, was simply too great a leap into the abyss.
All this gives credibility to incoming at-large Councilor Michelle Wu’s claim, in the face of a furor over her support for South Boston Councilor Bill Linehan’s bid for the presidency, that the council president is merely a “a procedural role.” Indeed, if the council won’t exert itself on matters of policy, what does it matter who sets the agenda for meetings and appoints the subcommittees, the two main functions of the president? The more meaningful work of the council is done by individual councilors, such as the attention brought by Ayanna Pressley to the plight of Boston high school students with children, or neighborhood restaurant owners who can’t get liquor licenses except at exorbitant prices.
And yet the council presidency still carries some symbolic and actual importance; the president is the city’s second-highest officeholder and, in the event of a mayoral vacancy, can rise to the top position. Linehan is a less appealing candidate than fellow district councilors Matt O’Malley of Jamaica Plain and Tito Jackson of Roxbury, who’ve telegraphed their interest in the job, or others like Pressley who are waiting on the sidelines.
Linehan has had a topsy-turvy record in his six years on the council. He deserves credit for tamping down the angry-neighbor disputes that once slowed down the development of the Seaport District. He’s also expressed a desire for the council to play a larger role under the incoming mayor, Marty Walsh. But elevating Linehan to the presidency now would reward some of the worst acts of his career, which occurred in his most recent term. After winning reelection by a tiny margin in 2011, Linehan maneuvered to take over the council’s redistricting committee, through which he sought to remove from his district some of the precincts that voted against him.
He later aroused controversy by picking a racially freighted fight with state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry over who would host the annual St. Patrick’s Day political breakfast. He further inflamed liberal passions by comparing the gay Bostonians who sought to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade to the Ku Klux Klan forcing its way through a black neighborhood.
Wu is perceived as the deciding vote. A 28-year-old protege of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wu was elected with strong progressive support, which makes her endorsement of Linehan a head-scratcher, at the very least. Her explanations — essentially, that her support of Linehan was an act of bridge-building and, besides, the presidency isn’t that big a deal — were honest enough but politically naive. She should reconsider her vote, and the council should keeping looking for a new leader.