A generation gap at City Hall
Boston’s little sister is Charleston, S.C. Both have an affinity for old things: historic churches, cobblestone streets, mayors who cling to office like barnacles in their salty old harbors.
Between them, Thomas Menino and Joseph Riley have spent 57 years in office. Charleston voters elected Riley to his 10th term in 2011. He’s a spry 68. Menino, if he runs again, will seek a sixth term at 70, even as he battles Type 2 diabetes. Not that it matters — FDR taught us that physical indignities need not impair the ability to govern.
The larger question is fossilization. Are Charleston and Boston better cities for the accumulated wisdom of calcified men? That’s what voters who keep reelecting them seem to believe. But age matters only for fine wine and cheese, as Governing magazine reminds us this month.
In its January edition, the magazine for policy wonks hails a shining green crop of “millennial mayors,” two of whom are from Massachusetts. Lisa Wong in Fitchburg was first elected at age 28; Alex Morse in Holyoke, at 22. Both look like they should be preparing baccalaureate addresses, not figuring out how to fund pensions of people who were halfway to retirement before they were conceived.
But there they are with their similarly smooth-faced counterparts in cities like Ithaca, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; and Duluth, Minn. Humming with energy and youth, they problem-solve by day, pub-crawl by night, and meet with constituents on Facebook and on a bench in the world’s smallest public park, constructed with turf and potted plants in the former parking space reserved for the mayor. (Yes, the 24-year-old in Ithaca did that.)
Quirky, yes, but the kids are all right. Wong, for example, has built up Fitchburg’s reserves from $10,000 to $3 million. A small thing, but still important: They’re making governance seem fun — not so stuffy, bow-tied, and bloated. Nor are they prone to miserable excess and actuarial migraines, like some of their predecessors, who shall not be named but are possibly still with us.
And why not Generation Y mayors? What they lack in sagacity, they make up with verve. Anyway, our once-nimble cities — now creaky with aging infrastructure, entrenched cronyism, and the terrifying apparition of unfunded pensions yet to come — can’t do worse for their enthusiastic intervention. Nobody wants them near the nation’s nuclear football, but with the mundanity of municipal governance, the child-mayors will be fine. Maybe we’ll get some good bike paths in their wake.
If only more of them can elbow their way onto the stage.
Riley and Menino aren’t aberrations, but harbingers of more fossil mayors headed our way. The baby boomers have already notified the nation that they’re not going gently into the dark night of retirement. To step aside from the national stage would indicate a mortality they’re not ready to acknowledge, and most of them can’t afford to retire anyway. When they become mayors, they’re staying forever — just like Leonard Scarcella, who was elected mayor of Stafford, Texas, in 1969, and still remains in the post.
Absent a pleasant-smelling, organic spray called Mayor-Be-Gone, the only antidote appears to be term limits, plus the widespread availability of attractive candidates like Morse and Wong, young Turks who can smash fossils with brains and compassion. Unfortunately, term limits are hard to come by on the municipal level. Fewer than 10 percent of cities surveyed by the International City/County Management Association impose term limits on their mayors, an irony in a nation so devoted to its 22nd Amendment. Generation Y’ers who can’t nudge the squatters out by fiat must follow the advice of the comedian Steve Martin, who says, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
A catchy motto helps, too. Stafford, Texas, according to its website, is the “city with no property taxes!” Which may explain, in part, why Scarcella continues to serve. Ye kids who would be mayor, pay attention. Old age and treachery has long overcome youth and skill, but nothing trumps the age-old allure of something for nothing.
Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.