Saturday, August 24, 2013

Charlie (or Mike) on the MTA

When Walter A. O'Brien, Jr. (December 19, 1914 - July 1998) ran for mayor of Boston in 1949, he could not have foreseen that his campaign song would, a decade later, reach #15 on the Billboard chart, in a recording by the Kingston Trio.

I've long thought it would be swell if the tradition of campaign songs were to be resurrected. Many politicians today have a "theme" song associated with the campaign -- think of how the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign employed, to good effect, the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop." In the 2012 presidential race Messrs. Obama and Romney each had a "play-list" of popular songs to set the mood at campaign rallies and sell the candidate. What Clinton's, Obama's, and Romney's uses of music as a motivational tool have in common is that they all turned to hit songs, not a campaign song, written by a local person and with local references relevant to the race. The lyrics, "Charlie on the MTA," were written by O'Brien supporters Jackie Steiner and Bess Hawes, and have become so emblematic of the MTA (now MBTA) that our fare cards are, even officially, called "CharlieCards." The music dates back the 1865 song "The Ship that Never Returned," by Henry Clay Work.

As an MBTA rider (I haven't owned a car since I moved to Boston nearly a quarter century ago, a move prompted, in part, by Boston's good subway, trolley, and bus system) I am pleased to see that mayoral candidate Mike Ross has pledged to be "A Strong Voice for Improving the MBTA"

I'm still undecided in the mayoral race, and I don't want this to became an endorsement of Mr. Ross, so I'll just quote three bullet points from his website:

  • Fight for full funding of the MBTA through regional partnerships

  • Bring back late-night MBTA service

  • Modernize zoning of transit-oriented development to promote T ridership

The MBTA is vital to Boston's successful future. In a recent conversation with another candidate, John Connolly, I learned that the majority of Bostonians are not originally from Boston. That is a good sign for our city and region. We are attracting and retaining bright, innovating people from all over the world to live and work in the Hub. One selling point Boston has over Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or just about any American city is that here it is no necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time in your car driving to and from work. And if you balk at spending more money on the MBTA, just think what we are paying to maintain all those roads, plus the cost of maintaining a private automobiles.

Late night service? No brainer! The bars close at 2:00 a.m. and the MBTA shuts down an hour-and-a-half before that. That is ridiculous.

Modernization? Yes! In my time in Boston I've seen the MTBA decay. We deserve better.

Will Mike Ross resurrect Walter A. O'Brien's 1949 campaign song? Perhaps not. Perhaps he might think it "jinxed." O'Brien came in dead last in a five-man race, with 1.2 percent of the vote.

Now, citizens of Boston, don't you think it is a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay?
Join Walter A. O'Brien and fight the fare increase
Get poor Charlie off that MTA!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Mayoral Candidate from the North End?

So many candidates for mayor -- I don't know whom to vote for. I don't even know all the names! A few weeks ago I took a phone call from someone polling regarding the mayoral race. The voice on the end of the wire had some sort of accent, and it certainly was not Bostonian! The woman read out the name of each candidate and asked if I had heard of the candidate and if I have an opinion. Well, as I said, there are several women and men running and some names I had barely heard before. But when she got to the name "John Cannoli" I said, "Now you're just making up names!" So she spelled it out for me. "C-O-N-N-O-L-L-Y." The joke in our home now is that John Connolly must be the candidate from the North End, and we're singing "When Irish Eyes Are Italian."

No offense to Mr. Connolly intended. He appears to be qualified for the office and has some good ideas for the city. But this out-of-state pollster's mispronunciation got me thinking about one of the problems with electoral politics as now practiced in Boston. Aside from the question of how anyone could get a simple name like Connolly wrong, it shows what happens when politics is practiced "wholesale" rather than "retail." By retail we mean the candidate meeting voters face to face. "Wholesale" politics is the use of TV, radio, internet, telephone, and other means of manipulating public opinion, rather than persuading individual voters.

Surely there are local polling companies, employing local people who would know how to pronounce an Irish name. I don't know who commissioned this poll -- presumably not Mr. Connolly, as one would hope that the people working for you can at least pronounce your name! But, whoever it was, some candidate went with a company from out-of-state, or, which "farms out" its call center to some other, lower-cost region. All candidates make grand pronouncements about good jobs at good wages for Bostonians, but at least one chose to economize by using lower-paid out-of-state workers to make polling calls.

Between now and the election the voters of Boston will be deluged with phone calls on behalf of the candidates. I know, from having, in the 1990s, run for office myself, in Cambridge, that you have to have a "phone bank" to be a competitive candidate. Still, it's so impersonal. Paid out-of-state callers, or even worse, recorded announcements, have, to too much a degree, taken the place of individual Bostonians calling to recommend a candidate or remind a friend to vote.