You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours has always been one of the rules of the political road in Boston. Behaviors can be very subtle but still powerful, their meaning clear. As alderman, state rep and state senator, Martin Lomasney used to say, “Don’t write when you can talk; don’t talk when you can nod; don’t nod when you can wink.” The West End political boss knew the art of accumulating and wielding power. He knew how to play political hardball with a soft touch. But you can be sure every quid had a quo.
Decades later, not every Boston official was as practiced in the subtleties of the art. When I was a little girl, my father and uncle owned a commercial building on Canal Street, next to what is now Government Center. I remember one night when my father, as straight an arrow as ever existed, came home to tell of a visit from a city inspector who made it very clear that, unless my father paid him off, this hack would stand in the way of the building’s elevator getting a certificate of inspection. My journalism gene hadn’t yet kicked in, and I never followed up to find out how my father, a model of probity, had dealt with the situation.
Sometimes the wheeling and dealing worked in one’s favor. When Government Center was being designed, our family’s building was threatened by eminent domain. Right across the street, however, was a small grassy triangle often used by the nearby Langone Funeral Home to park its hearses when they were not carrying dead bodies. The Langone family was huge in Boston politics for at least three generations. When the plans for renewal of the area were being developed, Fred Langone happened to be City Councillor . That grassy parking triangle was not going away, nor did my father’s building. Need I say more?
We all recognize when decisions, however positive, are made not on the merits but because someone knows someone on the inside or is wielding threats directly or implicitly. There seems to have been a lot of that in the case against City Hall employees Timothy Sullivan and Kenneth Brissette, found guilty this past week of extorting union jobs from Boston Calling music festival producers in 2014, that hiring in exchange for smoothing the permitting process. The jury’s guilty verdict may have surprised some people because Sullivan and Brissette received nothing of value to them personally. But couldn’t the more subtle payoff for them have been pleasing their boss, Mayor Marty Walsh, who had previously led the Building Trades Council and won office the first time with plenty of union support, including that International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees?
There are certainly gray areas in the deals cut to do business in this city. What about developers who get city approval for a large project in exchange for providing certain public amenities or affordable housing units? Some might argue that hiring union labor is a comparable public good. But at what point does strong-arming a person or company to do something become illegal? It’s still possible that the verdict will be set aside by the judge, but the jury made a statement: the public is better served by clear rules of the road for conducting city business with transparent criteria for municipal decision-making and administration, and a playbook that levels the field for all comers. No arm twisting; not even any winks or nods, with all due respect to the Lomasneys, Langones and James Michael Curleys who set the standards back in the day.
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