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Flaherty banking on big base, small talk to unseat Menino

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Flaherty banking on big base, small talk to unseat Menino
City Councilor-at-Large Michael F. Flaherty (center) chats with Corlis Melchoir (left) and Steve Johnson on the rear deck of Melchoir’s Fort Hill condominium. Flaherty is hoping his “kitchen table conversation” approach to campaigning will help him unseat 16-year incumbent Thomas M. Menino in this year’s mayoral election. (Photo: Yawu Miller)

According to City Councilor-at-Large Michael F. Flaherty, the idea came in the wake of the municipal election of 2007, in which only 13.6 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. To reach more residents and drive up the low rate of turnout, Flaherty would hold a series of kitchen-table meetings with small groups of voters in their homes.

Now, after what his campaign estimates to be 270 such meetings, Flaherty is in the heat of the most competitive mayoral race since Mayor Thomas M. Menino was first elected in 1993.

During a conversation last week at the home of Corlis Melchoir, a former quality assurance manager recently laid off from an insurance company, Flaherty touched on what he said were the main themes he’s been hearing across the city.

Lagging performance of public schools, Menino’s proposal to move City Hall to the South Boston waterfront and worsening crime are among the issues that trigger the most complaints, according to Flaherty.

“You ask people, ‘Do you know anyone who’s been shot?’ and a lot of hands go up in some neighborhoods,” said Flaherty.

At Melchoir’s Fort Hill condominium, Flaherty spoke about the importance of working with youths to stem violence.

“You learn you’re not going to arrest your way out of this problem,” he said. “Every day, people are being let out of South Bay [House of Correction]. It’s not months or days; it’s a matter of hours before they’re back into it. We need better re-entry services.”

Flaherty’s strategy of meeting with small groups of voters is part of his effort to make city government more inclusive, according to Natasha Perez, the campaign’s communications director.

“Everything in the campaign is designed to allow people to have a real voice in the future of the city, from our Web site to our kitchen table conversations,” Perez said. “It’s all about bringing in the voice of the people of the City of Boston in a real way.”

Flaherty, Menino, fellow mayoral candidates Sam Yoon and Kevin McCrea, 15 at-large City Council hopefuls and several district council seat contenders are all vying for the attention of the 13-or-so percent of voters likely to go to the polls for the Sept. 22 preliminary contest.

Widely perceived as the front-runner, Menino is reportedly running a no-holds-barred campaign against his challengers, leveraging the power of incumbency to raise funds and muster an army of supporters, many drawn from the vast ranks of city employees.

Menino’s name is posted on every public works project, on the sides of buses and on bumper stickers of cars driven by city employees. Long a ubiquitous presence at community events, Menino has a presence that goes beyond just solid name recognition — 57 percent of respondents to a recent Boston Globe poll said they had met the mayor.

While Flaherty has consistently received the highest number of votes in the citywide at-large council races, he has traded places with Stephen J. Murphy for the lowest percentage of the black vote garnered by an incumbent councilor in the last two election cycles.

In contrast, fellow at-large councilor and mayoral hopeful Yoon was the highest vote-getter in the black community during the 2007 at-large race.

While Flaherty has often taken conservative stands on the City Council, crossing swords with the likes of Yoon, Chuck Turner and Charles C. Yancey, a more progressive Flaherty is on display in this year’s mayoral election.

On his Web site, he continues to call for neighborhood schools, but adds that the city will not be ready to make the shift away from busing until all neighborhoods have equal access to quality schools.

Early in the conversation at the Melchoir home, Flaherty brought up Menino’s chronic noncompliance with the Boston Residents Jobs Policy, which mandates that 50 percent of construction jobs in the city go to Boston residents, 25 percent to people of color and 10 percent to women.

“This administration clearly does not enforce the ordinance,” Flaherty said. “Nor do they really monitor construction sites. People say there are so many people in our neighborhoods who aren’t working and have the capability to perform well on these jobs.”

For good measure, Flaherty also cited the lack of leadership by people of color in Menino’s cabinet, noting that Menino has just one department head of color — Larry Mayes, the city’s chief of human services — and one superintendent of color — Dr. Carol R. Johnson of the Boston Public Schools.

In all sectors of city government, Flaherty said, leadership by people of color is lacking.

“In the [Boston] Police Department, the leadership doesn’t look like the face of the city,” Flaherty said. “That frustrates a lot of people. My administration, my cabinet, my commissioners will look like the face of the city.”

Flaherty has long relied on a strong base of support in the South Boston neighborhood where he grew up, as well as in West Roxbury and the predominantly white precincts in Dorchester. How he fares in the mayoral race may well hinge on his campaign’s ability to peel black and Latino voters away from Menino and Yoon.

And much of that may depend on his ability to transcend the racial politics that historically have pitted South Boston against Roxbury.

In Melchoir’s condo, Flaherty pointed to his work as a South Boston ward captain in the 1993 election of Ralph C. Martin II, the state’s first black district attorney. He also poined out that he was the first Boston city councilor to endorse Barack Obama in his historic bid for president. Menino, in contrast, backed Hillary Clinton.

Political pundits point to the Menino machine’s defeat in the presidential primary last year at the hands of a campaign run by political outsiders as evidence that his organization does not have the ironclad grip on power many have assumed. The Menino machine also lost big in the state’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign, backing former Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly against Deval Patrick’s upstart operation.

Though he’s been on the City Council since 1999, Flaherty has the benefit of appearing like an outsider when compared to a 16-year incumbent like Menino, and he seems to relish that status in this race. It’s served him well before; to win in ’99, Flaherty noted, he had to take out the veteran Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, who had been on the council since 1971.

“They said, ‘You can’t beat Dapper O’Neil,’” Flaherty told Melchoir and her guests. “‘He’s been to more wakes than you’ve been to ballgames.’ I beat Dapper and I’m going to beat Menino.”