Friday, June 26, 2009

Long version of why I'm running

1. Why are you running? What is your motivation to run now?

I come to this candidacy not as a politician, not as an academic, not even as a business owner (which I am). I’m running as a citizen, an ordinary member of the community, and representing what I’ve heard community people talk about all over the city. I’m running, first and foremost, to restore honest, open government, and to show what can be accomplished for our community if we made truly fair and efficient use of our public powers and resources. And I’m running now, and for the highest office in the city, because we are facing a particularly dangerous time for the economy and for the environment, and informed and courageous leadership will make the difference in how we deal with these challenges. We can’t get by on “business as usual.”

We all know, really, that the city’s government is not working as it should. I’ve been struck, when I tell people I’m running for office, how many just turn away, saying, “All politicians are crooks.” The periodic articles revealing shameless abuses of the public trust and negligent incompetence just confirm what many of us have experienced: it’s not working well. It’s not working well, unless you happen to be one the connected.

And – this is very important -- it’s not because of a shortage of money. We have lots of money; for example we have the largest school district in the State and we are in the top 10 percent in terms of dollars spent per student. Our taxes and expenditures have increased at twice the cost of living under Menino. The Mayor and City Council simply burn up the excess through “soft” graft and corruption – what I refer to as “waste, fraud and abuse.”

I’ve been demanding information from City Hall, breaking open back-door meetings, and talking to people inside and outside government for years, and I’ve learned about the specific ways that our laws and our money are being taken away from us by the very people we elect to protect us. I’ve been an activist for a while, blogging, speaking up at community meetings, even successfully suing the City Council for violating the Open Meeting Law through a series of secret closed-door meetings. I’m going to bring information to people so they can elect better officials, demand more of them, and hold them accountable.

But in the end, even if we know all the facts, how can those officials be held accountable if there are just no alternatives to replace them? We can’t vote for “none of the above.” We need candidates who will force a public conversation, bring out information, and give people choices. Entrenched incumbents do their best to prevent this threat to their seats, and shamelessly manipulate the electoral process to avoid accountability at the voting booth. We have to reform a fundamentally broken process, and this is just not going to be done by people who have been part of it and whose career path depends on it. We have to make politics a hopeful public activity again, and public office an honorable profession. Really, if we want to improve things, we have no choice: democracy is messy, but, to paraphrase Churchill, it sure beats the alternatives.

So my purpose is to provide that alternative for a discouraged and, in fact, essentially disenfranchised electorate. Like most people, “I’m mad as hell, and I won’t take it any more.” And we don’t have to. I have specific ideas to make it better, as outlined in my literature and my website

2. What are the three biggest issues facing the city, and what will you do about them?

The biggest issue is public education, or more broadly, youth development in Boston. I link this with the issue of public safety, the most troubling part of which is youth violence. Education is the City’s most basic and important public obligation, and we are failing miserably. We’ve spent 16 years under a mayor who asked to be judged harshly on his record on education. Now he’s told the press, “You want me to defend my record. I’m not going to do that.” Well, he’s not the one that gets to decide that. The people do. And we have wasted a whole generation of youngsters in a system where the vast majority languish in shamefully poor schools while just enough escape through safety valves, like METCO, charters, pilots, exams schools, etc., to provide a semblance of competence for the system and prevent open revolt. The drop-out rates and the college-completion rates will not sustain our society. Only 1 in 8 gets a college degree, almost half don’t graduate. This really has to be addressed now, and in an honest way. My goal is a network of neighborhood schools, where families will actually want to use their local school, and where it will serve them in a comprehensive way, as a community support center for adults and children. I will do this, by the way, as a standard publicly funded service; no communities will be sent off to negotiate with tower developers or corporate donors for their education.

The second is our financial system, including both our income and our expenditures. This system is dysfunctional in many ways, and I’ve been studying these problems intensively. Our budget is manipulated; far from being impoverished, the government actually brings in plenty of money for what we need to provide, and spends too much on the wrong things, from superfluous personnel to politicians names on signs. In addition, our taxation system is extremely unfair. We don’t need more taxes in Boston. We need reform so that taxes and other payments are collected from those who should be providing them – huge commercial towers, non-profit institutions, tax-privileged developers, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (which pays no property taxes on billions of dollars worth of land, much of it taken from the City, free of charge, courtesy of Tom Menino) , state and federal agencies, perennial tax delinquents, etc. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars a year, a big fraction of the tax levy. I was astounded in the recent WBUR radio forum to hear Sam Yoon, who is styling himself as the “progressive” banner-bearer, suggest that we need a regressive sales tax increase and/or a Prop. 2 1/2 override! Now, he’s been in City Hall for three years, and he knows very well how much of our tax money and public land are wasted in the current system. He himself was part of a back-room deal last year to divert tens of millions of dollars’ worth of City-owned land, the Winthrop Square garage and soon-to-be site of Menino’s 1,000-foot tower, to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, instead of demanding that it be part of the public budget appropriation process. And he and councilor Flaherty were party to a pension-abuse scheme arranged for a City Council employee. In my opinion, progressives must be committed, above all, to honest government. We shouldn’t be reflexive tax-raisers; we should demand reform first, and then more revenue, fairly raised, if it’s really needed. Public officials have no right to expect the public to support our programs with their money if they can’t trust us. I’m going to rationalize the city’s financials, with zero-based budgeting, so that every expenditure has to be proposed and justified every year, and with fairer taxation. I will also push for charter reform that will better balance the powers of the mayor and the city council in budget and taxation matters. In addition, I believe that transparency goes hand in hand with accountability, and I want to make our Boston City government the most transparent in the country. All documents, all income, all expense, all contracts, available online for all to see.

The third is city planning and development regulation. Boston is the only city in America that is run by an urban renewal agency; the Boston Redevelopment Authority, like all authorities, is accountable to no one but its own board. Since the BRA usurped the Boston Planning Board in a 1960 legislative maneuver, city planning is merely place-setting for development proposals. And through the BRA’s powers, we have a “zoning code for sale,” where all that is illegal zoning wise can be made legal – for a price. This is as bad for business as it is for communities; both need predictability and fairness. I will eliminate the obsolete BRA, re-establish a genuine planning and zoning department accountable to the City Council, our legislative branch, as this function operates in every other municipality in the state and the country, and restore the rule of law in permitting development projects. This will actually save developers money and time, and protect their investments from damage by the next developer. Similarly, it will protect the neighborhood fabric, and will avoid further damage, to historic buildings , public open spaces, and the environment. Further, this will help to create much needed jobs, especially her in the city. We need to restore the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branch, make planning and land use regulation properly accountable to the public.

3. Name three things you will do to boost the Boston economy, via shopping, nightlife, etc.?

In Boston, as in the state and the nation, we have to get a more intelligent strategy for economic vitality. As we’ve finally had to admit, we have been living the illusion of permanent growth, based on the illusion of unlimited credit. These are illusions because the wages that all of this “growth” depends on have not been growing for regular people. We have to focus, in the city and at every level, on supporting the big bottom of the pyramid, instead of congratulating ourselves at the handful of billionaires we’re making. Lifting up the ordinary community folks is not very glamorous, and produces fewer VIP photo-ops and shiny tower on the skyline, so it’s not where Mayor Menino, obsessed with his legacy, has been focused. So I will look at three paths for prosperity – in addition to the improvement of public education, which, of course, is the basic foundation for them all.

First, I’ll take us out of the “race to the bottom,” where Menino and the Boston Redevelopment Authority have been leading us over a cliff. I will stop the give-away of hundreds of millions of dollars in public land, tax breaks, and regulatory protections ostensibly doled out to “lure” business and “create jobs.” It’s been well documented, and acknowledged even by many public officials (NB Governor Deval Patrick) who engage in these give-aways, that these subsidies are not really “incentives,” because they don’t sway business decisions – not of viable businesses, anyway. They are simply political ploys, to let politicians take credit for “job creation” (i.e., employees the companies would have hired anyway) while ginning up campaign contributions. I’m not interested in just “creating jobs” whose purpose is make-work; that doesn’t help the city, and often hurts us (there are things that shouldn’t be built, no matter how many people can get apid to build them). There’s plenty of work to do that produces things we really need. And as economists have also documented, the “business-friendly” climate that corporations look for is actually what the rest of us look for: a city that works, that has efficient transportation and other public services, that produces an educated work force, that offers desirable public schools and a choice of housing that people can afford, that has a good quality of life for employers and employees, that has fair and consistently applied regulations, and that supports a diversity of businesses so there are various suppliers and markets near-by, so that there are many options around when economic trends shift.

Second, I’ll be fostering home-grown enterprise. We shouldn’t build an economy dependent on big out-of-town white-collar corporations and on institutional expansion, of whose employees only 20% to 30% are Boston residents, and often far fewer, and which are narrowing our economic base. We should put our economic development assistance into local business, which will not only hire the most local people but also produce more locally needed products, and assure more diversity of industry in the city. This is in keeping with the relocalization movement, which emphasizes local products, manufacture and markets to reduce transportation impacts and increase local independence. We need to take advantage of our residents’ skills and talents, and nurture them. For example, Menino has received $40 million in HUD loan money, and, just as he did with that same amount of money a few years ago, he’s going to distribute it to a few well-connected real estate developers – one of which has already built his project and another of which already had financing at a normal market rate and wants a better deal – from the taxpayers. Meanwhile, he is planning to spend only $350,000 for a micro-loan program for small businesses in the Empowerment Zone. My priorities will be the reverse. If I had $40 million to lend to businesses, you’d see a real impact in the city.

Third, I’ll use the city budget, a huge portion of which is now wasted on patronage featherbedding, dubious no-bid contracts, salary and pension abuses, and inefficiencies in city work that are too numerous to list here, to employ people to actually do what needs to be done for the city. There is, for example, so much environmental work to be done, from energy efficiency and more efficient vehicles to recycling and resource recovery from trash. I’d also work with the state to set up more local production for public goods we need, such as public transit and affordable housing. The government is a big employer, and it needs to be far more productive.

As to shopping and night life…by providing the city with a base so that all areas of the City can thrive, I believe that we will have new products, new stores, new restaurants and new forms of entertainment that will flourish due to the diversity of our population bringing their influences, histories and cultures from around the globe into our great local melting pot. My wife and I traveled around the world on our motorcycles for our honeymoon and we were struck by how many cities are returning to green, pedestrian friendly areas. I would look to bring that to Boston as well. I was especially impressed with Edinburgh, Scotland which had areas which were open to traffic during some times so that stores could ship and receive goods, but during other times they were closed off to traffic. Areas such as Downtown Crossing and Newbury Street might thrive under such a system.

4. Can you state a few innovative ways to lower crime?

I feel the same way about lowering crime as I do about improving public education. We’ve been using experiments and “innovative ways” to deal with these problems as an excuse to avoid dealing with them in the right way, the mundane, basic way, which is to give all young people equal access to a productive future and a decent quality of life. Young people have to see a successful path within their grasp. If they don’t, if they feel they have nothing to lose, they will turn to crime. That happens with white kids as well as those of color; drugs, for example, are a huge problem in white low-income neighborhoods as well as in African American and Hispanic and Asian immigrant neighborhoods. We seem to be willing to pay, as a society, far more to keep these people in the criminal justice system than we’d have paid for to educate them. There’s no glamorous program, no silver bullet, no miracles or policing or gun-shot-detectors or other after-the-damage-is-done solution to our crime problem. We have to support disadvantaged communities, help them get the resources they need to succeed, and let them compete on an equal footing with the rest of us. That may not seem glamorous, but in the long run, all of us will be be better off. I will do for these neighborhoods the more transformational things that neither Menino nor his predecessors would do: provide good schools, clean streets, libraries, real jobs for youth doing work improving their own communities, and funding an adequate security team for our citizens. We need to invest in the schools, the parks and the libraries to give kids interesting, engaging things to do. I don’t believe we need to be innovative, just to take an active role in valuing all of our citizens.

5. President Obama wants to reform education. What can be done to get the ball rolling in Boston?

Well, when we talk about education reform, we’re talking about education of disadvantaged kids; no one is worried about reforming education in the wealthy suburbs or in private schools. So we have to beware of treating our poor kids as experiment fodder. I am philosophically opposed to programs that push us in the direction of privatization, like charters and vouchers. Again, there’s no magic to this; we need to figure out what these kids need, and give it to them. Charters were brought in to try different things as an experimental approach to find out what works. In my research it seems that having good teachers, longer school days, accountability, high expectations, discipline and rewarding achievement are the keys. We need to implement these things in all of our public schools and make sure that our teachers are part of the solution, not vilified as part of the problem.

Many of our children have extraordinary problems in their lives; some can be addressed in the framework of education, but some need other kinds of attention. The most important thing is to start very early, when they are first forming their impressions of what they can hope to be and encourage them to not be limited in thinking about what they can accomplish.

I intend to make the schools good enough that no one will talk about charters and busing zones and vouchers and other gimmicks. I want to get the ball rolling by meeting with the staff, parents and students of every school in Boston, and finding out what’s wrong and what’s right, and doing what needs to be done. And I want to plan a network of neighborhood schools, as I said, to stop losing time, money, and air quality driving kids around town when they should have all they need near home. I know we have the money. We just need leadership from someone who really cares about it.

One other thing I want to implement is something I talked about in the 2005 election: a financial literacy class for all of our high school students. I’m amazed how many adults have no idea about getting a lease, buying a house or even a car, the value of compounding interest, how to get a loan for school or for a business, and how to manage credit.

6. Can you win this election?
Yes. People are really fed up with the political system we have, and the results it has gotten us – unfair taxation, inadequate public services and corruption that makes us want to tune out the politicians and the media. I think if people only knew what’s going on behind those closed doors, if they knew where their hard-earned money is going, how favors get done and how decisions are made, they’d turn out in vast numbers to vote. That’s what happened at the federal and state levels in the recent elections; new and unlikely candidates drew ahead and won in upsets because people realized that elections have consequences. Bostonians are being abused and exploited by their mayor and their city council, but they don’t know exactly how it’s happening. There is a big responsibility on the media to inform them, a responsibility that has not been properly met for a long time. It’s almost impossible to get them to publish this kind of information – even if it’s handed to them. I’m not sure why; they often say that people are bored with these details, but I don’t believe that, and if it’s true, the media are clearly not presenting it properly. No one is bored to learn how they are being cheated.

I understand only too well the mighty advantages of incumbents, who rake in money from special interests and their own employees and who manipulate the public information process. But I am stepping up to what I see as my responsibility and taking on this race, in the hope that the citizens of Boston will vote to support a better government and a different kind of city. Boston has so much to offer; we just need the right vision, and the leadership to act on it.

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