Suddenly, everybody wants to be a city councilor.
This September, 15 candidates will be on the ballot for the four available at-large seats. Two years ago, according to Boston’s elections department, there were only eight. Two years before that, there were only five. On top of that, another 29 candidates (including incumbents) are running for the nine district seats.
Why the sudden interest? Why aspire to work for a legislative body so many deride as “powerless, ineffective?”
Two words: Ayanna Pressley.
That’s a cynical take on the matter, although there’s probably something to it. Becoming a city councilor has often been seen as either a sinecure or perhaps a jumping-off point to something greater. Usually, “greater” meant mayor. Sometimes it meant clerk of courts or registrar of deeds which — with all due respect — is really not “greater” at all.
Yet councilors rarely made the jump to Congress (I should know; as a one-time city councilor I made a futile attempt myself). With Pressley’s unexpectedly successful campaign, however, there’s now new hope for political wannabes. Imagine: Get elected city councilor and in a few short years, you too might be a member of “the Squad,” a national figure, and the president’s foil.
But there is more than ambition at play, I think.
There was an era in American politics, beginning with John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, where government was seen as a noble calling. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said at his inauguration, “Ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy created the Peace Corps, he constantly spoke of the worthiness of working for the government (“The success of this government, and thus the success of our nation, depends in the last analysis upon the quality of our career services,” he said in 1962), and he inspired a generation to get involved.
For many complicated reasons the enthusiasm of that era died. Wars and scandals destroyed the luster of public service. Conservative politicians would often identify government — and by extension, those who worked in it — as an enemy. Business, and especially high tech, started to seem like a more effective (and financially lucrative) way to make a difference. People grew jaded, thinking there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans. Government seemed meaningless, passé.
And then along came Donald Trump to inspire us once again.
Granted, Trump isn’t inspiring in the way of Kennedy. He’s more like a Bizarro Superman version of the late president, a mirror image. Trump’s fomenting tweets, outlandish behavior, and often cruel policies are clearly not intended to get people more engaged, but that’s been their impact. Post the 2016 election, people finally figured out that politics really did matter. Protests — the Women’s March and Day Without Immigrants — led to increased activism, which led to a host of new faces running in the congressional midterms.
Still, what do national politics have to do with local? How does outrage with Trump translate into more people running for the Boston City Council?
Because, as Tip O’Neill opined, “All politics is local.” Many of the national issues that folks care about are in fact best addressed at the local level. Think about the things that most affect our everyday lives: schools, public safety, transportation, housing affordability, the built and unbuilt environment (buildings and parklands), trash and snow removal, and so on. All are fundamentally handled at the local level. Even the economy: city and regional economies all thrive or fail based on all of these issues as well as local factors such as attitudes toward business development, and rules and regulations.
Hence the spate of interest in becoming a city councilor. Sure, maybe the City Council is mostly powerless and ineffectual. But at a minimum it’s a bully platform. And my guess is that, after the November elections have ended, we’re going to see a City Council more invigorated, more engaged, and more demanding than it’s been for decades.
Thanks, Donald. You’re making public service cool once again.
Tom Keane is a Boston-based freelance writer.