Advocates of an elected Boston School Committee should be careful about what they wish for

Boston school hallway in 1973. Photo (cc) from the Mayor Kevin White photographs.

Previously published at GBH News.

For the first time in a quarter century, serious efforts are under way to make fundamental changes to the Boston School Committee, whose members have been chosen by the mayor since 1992.

City Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia have filed a home-rule petition with the state Legislature that would replace the current seven-member appointed body with a 13-member panel, all chosen by the voters. A nonbinding question will be on the ballot in November asking voters whether they want to return to an elected school committee. Mayoral candidate Michelle Wu has proposed a committee that would be partly elected and partly appointed by the mayor. Wu’s opponent, Annissa Essaibi George, has suggested a more modest change, with members being chosen by the mayor and city council.

With the exception of Essaibi George’s plan, the proposals are being touted as a way to restore democracy to the school system, overturning decades of having an appointed elite run public education in the city.

“The whole idea of giving up any vote for anything, [even if] it’s dog catcher, you don’t give it away,” said Jean Maguire, who lost her seat when the elected committee was abolished, in a recent interview with GBH News’ Meg Woolhouse. “That’s power!”

Yet in 1996, when voters defeated a referendum that would have dissolved the then-newly appointed committee and brought back an elected board, one of the main arguments was that putting the mayor firmly in charge of the school system was actually more democratic.

“They elect me,” then-Mayor Tom Menino told me in an interview for The Boston Phoenix at the time. “Hold me accountable for what’s going on in the schools. I’m willing to face the issue head-on.”

The idea that too much democracy can actually work against democracy was articulated in 1909 by the Progressive-era thinker Herbert Croly in his book “The Promise of American Life.” A founder of The New Republic, Croly argued that elections ought to be about big offices and big issues, and that minor elected offices should be eliminated as a way of cutting down on voter confusion and the corrupting influence of “the professional politician.”

“At present, an administration is organized chiefly upon the principle that the executive shall not be permitted to do much good for fear that he will do harm,” Croly wrote. “It ought to be organized on the principle that he shall have full power to do either well or ill, but that if he does do ill, he will have no defense against punishment.”

He added: “A democracy has no interest in making good government complicated, difficult, and costly. It has, on the contrary, every interest in so simplifying its machinery that only decisive decisions and choices are submitted to the voter.”

In 1996, there was another significant reason that voters were reluctant to return to an elected school committee: the legacy of racism. Dominated by white racists like John Kerrigan and Elvira “Pixie” Palladino, the school committee of the 1960s and ’70s resisted desegregation, forcing the intervention of the federal courts. By 1992, when then-Mayor Ray Flynn headed an effort to eliminate the elected committee, matters had improved and the board was more diverse. But memories were still fresh when the fate of the appointed committee appeared on the ballot in 1996.

“We have to remind voters that what they’re returning to is not an unknown alternative. It’s well-known. And its record is disastrous,” the Rev. Ray Hammond said at the time. Or as Ricardo Arroyo’s father, Felix Arroyo, then a member of the appointed school committee, wrote in Otherwise magazine: “Until the voting population reflects the general population of Boston, an elected school committee will not reflect the cultures and rich backgrounds of Boston’s children.” (Otherwise, by the way, was founded and edited by GBH News’ Jim Braude.)

Of course, what was true in 1996 is not necessarily true today. The appointed committee has had a rough year. A white member resigned in October after he was caught mocking the Asian names of several members of the public who were appearing before the panel. Two Latinx members stepped down after it was revealed that they had exchanged texts critical of white parents from West Roxbury. And despite the best efforts of many good people, the school system itself remains troubled.

So maybe it’s time to restore some measure of democracy to the school committee. Wu’s plan is incremental, and Arroyo himself, despite co-sponsoring the home-rule petition, has said he would not object to a hybrid committee of elected and appointed members.

But voters and officials ought to be careful about what they wish for. The next mayor will be a woman of color, which represents substantial progress. Yet all three Black candidates were eliminated in last week’s preliminary election. Boston has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.

Advocates of an elected school committee might believe that we can’t do any worse. Well, we can, and we have. That doesn’t mean the mayor should be allowed to appoint the members in perpetuity. It does mean that changes need to be made carefully lest some new version of the bad old days is unleashed once again.

Where Boston’s papers stand on death for Tsarnaev

The Boston Globe today offers some powerful arguments against executing convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Metro columnists Kevin Cullen and Yvonne Abraham weigh in, as do the paper’s editorial page, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. (Columnist Jeff Jacoby has previously written in favor of death for Tsarnaev.)

Over at the Boston Herald, the message is mixed. In favor of the death penalty are columnist Adriana Cohen and editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen. The lead editorial calls for the death penalty as well. Columnist Joe Fitzgerald is against capital punishment for Tsarnaev. Former mayor Ray Flynn offers a maybe, writing that he’s against the death penalty but would respect the wishes of the victims’ families.

Neighbors reject Taunton casino plan by 2-1 margin

As you may have heard, Taunton voters overwhelmingly approved a tribal casino in a nonbinding referendum on Saturday. But that’s not even close to the whole story.

Residents who live closest to the proposed casino voted even more overwhelmingly against it. According to Cape Cod Times reporter George Brennan, the city voted  7,693 in favor and 4,571 opposed — but “in the two East Taunton precincts where the Mashpee Wampanoag casino is planned, voters rejected it by nearly a 2-1 margin.”

In the Taunton Gazette, reporter Christopher Nichols posts the numbers:

Ward 4 — which contains most of East Taunton — voted against the casino proposal with 755 in favor and 1,332 opposed. Voters closest to the proposed casino site in Ward 4 Precinct B voted against the proposal, 678-350.

Yet, with regard to Boston’s two daily newspapers, we’re already seeing a repeat of 2007. That’s when the big news was that Middleborough had voted in favor of a deal the selectmen had cut with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a casino in that town (big news!), and then turned around and took a decisive but nonbinding vote against the casino itself (shhhh … pay no attention).

The proposed Middleborough casino eventually fell apart, but town officials are still hoping there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Alice Elwell of the Brockton Enterprise has the latest.

So what happened with the Taunton vote? On Sunday, the Globe’s Mark Arsenault reported on Taunton’s vote in favor of the casino — but made no mention of the results in East Taunton. The Herald did better, publishing Brennan’s Cape Cod Times story (Herald publisher Pat Purcell runs several of Rupert Murdoch’s regional papers, including the Times). But today, the Herald offers a follow-up by Chris Cassidy and Laurel Sweet that omits the vote of the opposition in East Taunton.

Arsenault, in his Globe story, closes by noting that Taunton is a long way from actually hosting a tribal casino. Because of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Carcieri v. Salazar, the Mashpee won’t be able to build a tribal casino in Taunton without an act of Congress. Good luck with that.

The Taunton vote demonstrates, once again, that no one wants to live next to a casino. Nor should they have to.

A final casino note: Former Boston mayor Ray Flynn turned out on Saturday to lend his support to East Boston residents opposed to a casino that’s been proposed for Suffolk Downs.

Given that the East Boston plan is already being portrayed as a done deal, it will be pretty interesting to see how a battle between Boston’s former and current mayors (Tom Menino supports the proposal) will play out.

Photo (cc) by s_falkow and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The day Mike Wallace called me a “bastard”

Mike Wallace in 1957

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

In late 1997 I heard that Mike Wallace, the legendary “60 Minutes” reporter, had been in town to do a critical story on the Boston Globe’s reporting about Ray Flynn’s relationship with alcohol. So I called him up.

Flynn, the former Boston mayor who was by this time the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, was believed to harbor further political ambitions. And a Globe team headed by Walter Robinson, now a  Northeastern colleague, traveled to Rome and produced a front-page story claiming that Flynn was spending an inordinate amount of time in the city’s Irish pubs. Robinson also reported seeing Flynn stagger out of a North End bar in the middle of the day. (The story is not on the open Web, but you can look it up.)

The Globe article provoked a controversy, and I had written about it for the Boston Phoenix, mainly defending the Globe on the grounds that Flynn had run afoul of cultural changes about politicians’ drinking habits, and that Flynn was widely thought to harbor further political ambitions. (In fact, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.)

Wallace was having none of it.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Globe never showed the connection between his public performance and his drinking,” Wallace told me. “How were the vital interests of the United States of America damaged? Was it worth two-and-a-half pages above the fold in the Boston Globe?” He then shifted his attention to me. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“Jesus Christ, did they really have to do this to poor old Ray Flynn?” Wallace asked. “And you, you bastard … ” He proceeded to read an excerpt in which I wrote that Flynn was preparing to run for governor because “he can’t think of anything better to do.”

“Is that a fact?” Wallace demanded.

I mumbled something about its being an opinion piece. If I’d been a little quicker on my feet, I might have added that my opinion of Flynn’s motive is shared by a broad cross section of media and political insiders. Still, Wallace had a point.

And he was equally unimpressed with my contention that Flynn ran afoul of cultural changes surrounding alcohol and public drunkenness — that behavior once viewed as acceptable is now condemned, and that journalists, as a result, are less inclined to look the other way.

“You yuppies aren’t telling me that things have changed,” Wallace sneered. “Things haven’t changed at all.” He recalled the case of Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat who, in the early 1970s, was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Mills, an alcoholic, became publicly involved with a stripper; among other misadventures, he was photographed groping her drunkenly at a Boston club. Mills lost his chairmanship and ultimately left Congress.

“When Wilbur Mills got drunk on duty, so to speak, they ran him out of office. And that was a long, long time ago,” Wallace said.

At one point, he interrupted the interview to interject: “You’re writing this all down so you can make me out to be a horse’s ass.”

In fact, I think what I wrote about Wallace that day was fair and respectful, which you can judge for yourself. I was also impressed with Flynn’s reaction — he was never anything but gentlemanly in my future encounters with him, and he’s gone on to lead a useful and interesting post-political life.

As for Wallace, for many years he was the face and voice of “60 Minutes,” one of the most successful news programs in television history. You could observe that there’s no such thing as a golden age, but I really do think there was a golden age of television news, and Wallace was right in the middle of it. It’s remarkable to think that he made it to 93, and only did his last interview — with Roger Clemens — in 2008.

Like so many others we’ve lost in the last few years, Mike Wallace will be missed.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons.

The biggest Boston story in 20 years*

Amy Bishop

The strange case of Amy Bishop is rapidly morphing into the biggest Boston news story in many years — the biggest, perhaps, since 20 years ago, when Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife, Carol, and jumped to his death as authorities were closing in.

At first, the story appeared neither to be local nor all that atypical as such things go. Bishop reportedly shot three colleagues to death at a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, supposedly in response to not having received tenure.

But soon the Boston Globe broke two mind-boggling stories — that she had killed her brother with a shotgun when she was just 18 21 years old, and that she had come under suspicion in the attempted mail-bombing of one of her professors at Harvard University.

(Today we even learn there’s a Northeastern University angle. Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, are said to have met when they were undergraduates at Northeastern. From what we know so far, she apparently was not weaponized during her time as an undergrad.)

I’ve been thinking hard about whether there has been a bigger local story in the post-Stuart years. Yes, the 9/11 attacks began at Logan Airport, but that angle was quickly subsumed into the larger national story. Louise Woodward? A big one, yes, but not nearly as big as this may become.

At moments like this, it always makes sense to think about what we’ve learned from the past and how that might apply in the present situation. The Stuart case, you may recall, was a media fiasco. Nearly everyone went along for the ride when Stuart blamed the shooting on a black man who set up on him and his wife as they were driving home from a childbirth class at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

In fact, Stuart had shot his wife for insurance money so he could open a restaurant, then shot himself. That neither law-enforcement officials nor the media questioned his initial story set back race relations in a significant way, and stained the legacy of then-mayor Ray Flynn, who’d made racial harmony his top priority.

In the Bishop case, no one is questioning that she shot fellow faculty members on Friday. Still, the fact that she was never charged — never mind convicted — in the earlier incidents ought to give us pause. (The killing of her brother was ruled an accident, though the reasons are unclear. A Boston Herald story about a man who says Bishop threatened him with a gun right after the shooting certainly raises questions.)

The Globe showed a lot of enterprise in digging out those stories about Bishop’s background. But it may be a while before we know how they fit into the larger picture.

*Update: Andy Smith asks, “wasn’t that priest thing kind of a big deal?” Indeed it was, and I’m glad I threw this out there before writing a more-considered version for the Guardian tonight.