Sunday, March 15, 2009

A place at the table

A Place at the Table

Two recent incidents, one inadvertent, one intentional, highlighted for me the gap between Boston’s entrenched mainstream politicians and the citizens they serve.

The phrase “a seat at the table” has come to symbolize for the disenfranchised the chance for equal opportunity, the chance for equal say, the chance to be heard. It is a non-threatening phrase which doesn’t seek to gain control, but just to participate in the decisions that affect everyone’s lives.

About a month ago I was at the first City of Boston budget hearing where the Mayor’s finance team was presenting its numbers to the City Council. The large oval table in the Curley room at Boston City Hall filled up with an all white crowd of city councilors and the Mayor’s people. But Councilors Chuck Turner and Sam Yoon sat a few feet behind the table, not part of the camaraderie. Of course, Councilors Turner and Yoon could have sat at the table if they so choose, but the symbolism of the scene was unmistakable.

More recently I became aware that the Boston City Council just tripled the signature requirements to 1500 for persons trying to get on the ballot for Boston City Council at large. As someone who ran a serious campaign for that seat and who struggled to get 500 signatures, I know how daunting that task can be. In New York City, by contrast, five and a half times fewer signatures (by population) are required to run for Mayor. If New York City had the same ratios as Boston, you would need 41,000 signatures to get on the ballot. In New Orleans, you can collect signatures or just pay a modest fee. Councilor Steven Murphy who sponsored the legislation to increase the number of signatures required explained in a recent letter to an editor that elections are expensive and that only serious candidates should be allowed in.

This type of exclusionary maneuver by insiders is what turns people away from politics. It can keep serious candidates with fresh ideas and energy, white or minority, from getting involved. It is part of the reason why Foreign Policy magazine in its 2008 Global Cities Index of the top 80 cities in the world ranked Boston 50th in Political Engagement behind such hotbeds of democracy as Cairo and Caracas.

Interestingly, only white City Councilors voted for this petition, and all the minority City Councilors voted against it. I was disappointed to find that the Mayor, the legislature and especially Governor Deval Patrick approved it. The Bostonians that I meet and talk with every day want more openness, more ideas, and more people involved, not fewer.

Another exclusionary tactic is that citizens can only sign for one Mayoral or District Council candidate, and only four of the many at large City Council candidates. In other words, even if a citizen has not made a decision on their final vote but simply supports a candidate’s right to be on the ballot, their signature can only be counted for a single candidate per contest. This turns the signature process into a race between candidates trying to get their signatures in ahead of others. Needless to say, such a system strongly favors the Mayor and incumbents. As reporters and former Mayoral candidate Maura Hennigan have told me, City Hall becomes a ghost town on the first day of signature gathering as city employees who work for these elected politicians “choose” to take the day off and collect signatures.

We need to expand our field of candidates and to encourage people to run for office and to get involved in the political process. We need to reduce the barriers to candidate participation. If saving money on elections is the goal, we should change our election cycle to be in line with State and Federal elections. The Mayor’s race should coincide with the Presidential elections, which would more than double the amount of voters involved in the election and halve the cost of elections in Boston. We also need to reduce the number of signatures needed to gain access to the ballot. That is progressive legislation that I will introduce, that everyone who cares about democracy can get behind. Let’s work to make sure that not only everyone has a seat at the table, but that they feel welcome as well.

1 comment:

Adam Gaffin said...

The story about the number of signatures is even worse than you wrote: It was originally 1,500 signatures, but the council lowered it to 500 years ago to help out Dapper O'Neil, who apparently made Dianne Wilkerson seem organized when it came to collecting signatures.