Game On

ConnollyAnnouncement

Arguably incumbent Thomas Menino’s harshest elected critic, Councilor John Connolly presents the mayor’s toughest challenger yet. (Photo credit: The Boston Globe)

Approaching a historic sixth term in office, Mayor Menino faces an ambitious city councilor determined to upend the city’s political establishment.

A lot can change in twenty years. Consider this: in 1993, the European Economic Community was not yet the European Union, and it would be months before President Clinton signed the treaty establishing NAFTA or introduced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Internet wouldn’t see Google for another five years.

Two decades later, it’s a whole new world. We face an uncertain future in a time of hardship, and two newcomers have held the Oval Office since Clinton’s time. But the same man sits in Boston City Hall, a “Mayor For Life” as his political opponents tell it. After twenty years under Thomas Menino, that may be changing.

Enter John R. Connolly, an at-large city councilor from West Roxbury first elected in 2007. A former teacher, it should come as no surprise that Connolly’s made education reform the centerpiece of his legislative agenda. His efforts have often put him at odds with the Menino administration, battling publicly with Superintendent Carol Johnson of Boston Public Schools (BPS).

Last week, Connolly elevated that battle from council chamber to ballot box. “I have a bold desire to change the status quo,” he told a throng of supporters assembled outside Brighton High School, and so “I am running for Mayor of Boston to transform our schools.”

His timing couldn’t be more favorable. Having cruised to easy victories across his five terms in office, Menino has never seemed so vulnerable. A new generation of activists have challenged his rule as strangling and dysfunctional. He spent months in and out of the hospital recovering from a number of health issues, leading some to question just who was in charge at City Hall. And now a popular young councilor has broken ranks to challenge the mayor on what is arguably his weakest and least-successful issue. Were Boston any other city, you might say the vultures were circling.

But this is Boston, where Menino has never garnered less than 57% of the vote. Three city councilors have already tried and failed to unseat him, most notably onetime City Council President Michael Flaherty in 2009. And Menino commands an electoral machine so powerful, it turned out an additional 20,000 votes for then-candidate Elizabeth Warren in her race to unseat incumbent U.S. Senator Scott Brown.

Warren, of course, went on to clinch a surprise landslide victory 54 -46%. Statistics like that have to give Connolly pause.

Still, the councilor has a following of his own. He grabbed national headlines with a 2011 investigation which revealed long-expired food served in school cafeterias. Families applaud his proposed reforms, which include regular teacher evaluations and longer school days (Boston’s is currently among the nation’s shortest). Bolder—and more controversial—are his calls for neighborhood schools, which he claims would cut transportation costs and place more students closer to home.

Busing remains a potentially devastating flashpoint, however, and Connolly should expect questions on racial diversity and equal investment. Can achievement be equalized across West Roxbury and Dorchester? Jamaica Plain and Brighton? Middle class voters will almost certainly jump on board, but minority groups may have reservations for Menino to exploit in the general election.

Assuming, of course, that he plans on running. The mayor’s made noise but hasn’t yet announced a reelection bid, saying of Connolly, “Young man. Wants to be mayor. Good luck to him.” He’s also swung at his challenger’s platform, arguing that “everyone wants to take on the schools. But look at the improvements we’ve made. More kids are going to college, we’ve lowered the drop out rate. We’re doing OK.”

The argument isn’t likely to alleviate widespread frustration with BPS, but it could blunt Connolly’s rhetorical advantage. In a race like this, drive alone won’t suffice. The councilor would be wise to expand his campaign message beyond education to other pressing issues before a newly-declared Menino brands him a single-issue lightweight.

Whether the mayor gets in the race or calls it quits, Connolly’s early announcement nets him serious credibility. Should Menino declare, he’ll earn praise for risking his career against a political juggernaut. Should he not, Connolly seems the lone brave soul in a field of opportunists.

Whatever happens, he deserves credit for daring to challenge an administration so longstanding, it’s amassed near-absolute control over the city’s institutions and agencies. After all, who doesn’t love a little healthy competition? By all means, game on.

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