Last night's at-large Boston City Council candidates forum, which I moderated, seemed to go very well. Of the 15 candidates on the ballot, 13 participated. (Robert Fortes and Jean-Claude Sanon were missing -- perhaps travelling with Mark Sanford?) The Ward 5 Democratic Committee met afterward and endorsed incumbent John Connolly and challenger Ayanna Pressley.
The field is a tremendous disappointment to those of us who enjoy the entertainingly off-beat candidates who usually hop into the race. I can listen to thoughtful, professional pols any time I want; in the preliminary city-wide election, please give me at least a couple of people who make you cringe in anticipation when it's their turn to speak -- a conspiracy theorist; a Bible-thumper blaming every city woe on abortion and absentee fathers; a raving communist; a zealous single-issue obsessive; an off-kilter enthusiast with no apparent knowledge of the city.
I blame Stephen Murphy and his 1500-signature requirement for providing us a field of perfectly decent, reasonable, serious candidates.
They all received the same questions (chosen by me from a prepared list of questions from the Ward 5 committee), which I deliberately kept pretty broad. That may have been something of a disservice to the audience, who deserve to hear the candidates address issues specific to their neighborhhood; however, I felt that in the first forum of the race -- and in which each candidate got a total of about five minutes to speak -- the focus should be more on letting them introduce themselves more broadly.
Plus, they could (and probably should) have used the broad topics to make points or give examples specific to the neighborhoods represented. I asked: what makes you stand out as a candidate; how would you approach the
budget problem (with an option, which none took, to say whether they
would vote yea or nay on the Mayor's FY2010 budget); should the city
prepare a long-term development master plan (with an option,
which most took, to say whether they favor splitting the BRA's
economic-development and planning functions); what would you do about
the public schools; and a closing statement.
Adam at Universal Hub has a round-up of their responses. These are my overall impressions of how each of them fared.
Felix G. Arroyo. Arroyo showed up midway through the event, due to his kickoff event scheduled the same evening. Once there, he did very well, I thought. His early start on the campaign trail may be paying dividends: he already presents himself very well as someone who combines a real knowledge of city government with a desire to represent the residents within that system. One clunker, however, as he made that point: he said that to get through the process of licensing, for example, citizens need an ally to make it happen, and he's their guy. That strikes me as an awkward claim from a guy who worked for Chuck Turner, and for Dianne Wilkerson's campaign, given the accusations against them.
Doug Bennett. Bennett alternates between coming across as a legitimate candidate with ideas worth listening to; and coming across as a wannabe way out of his depth. He unveiled his job-creation plan -- based on green retrofitting projects, which he claims would put 10,000 people to work.
John Connolly. Connolly gave a strong performance, I thought; he's always had a certain gravitas, even before he was an incumbent, which obviously helps.
Ego Ezedi. Ezedi started out poorly: he seemed uncomfortable and unsure of himself, and was laboriously working off of notes. Then half-way in, he took off his suit jacket, ditched the notepad, and turned back into the Ezedi I'm more familiar with: relaxed, engaging, and personable. He's most compelling, I think, when talking about bringing stakeholders together to solve problems. It would be good if he could give more specific examples of that.
Tomas Gonzalez. I was particularly impressed with Gonzalez -- he seemed engaging and knowledgeable, and compelling when talking about giving neighborhood residents more of a say in city processes, particularly development.
Tito Jackson. I thought Jackson was quite good, and put himself on a level with the better-known challengers. I think he needs a little more experience to get him into a comfort zone where his personality can come through more, but he was both serious and personable enough to make you want to learn more about him.
Andrew Kenneally. Along with Gonzalez, probably the top performers among the challengers last night, in my opinion. He was relaxed and confident, knew what points he wanted to make, and managed the tough task of standing out from the large crowd. Unfortunately, he talked long at one point, even through my initial attempt to shut him down, so I have to advise everyone to shun him like a leper as punishment. For 24 hours, at least.
Stephen Murphy. Best in show. Maybe it's a little unfair -- he's probably been in more of these forums than the rest of the field combined has seen -- but nevertheless he deserves credit for doing it well. He could easily come across like he thinks it's beneath him to even be on a stage with these young punk no-nothings. He might be thinking that, but he acts like he respects the challengers and the process, and honestly wants to earn your vote over them. Meanwhile, he demonstrates that his knowledge and record put him head-and-shoulders above the young punk no-nothings. One complaint: he rejected talk of splitting up the BRA, arguing that it would require a home-rule petition that no sitting mayor would sign. Well, Steve-O, the current sitting mayor never will, but we've got two guys asking for that job who say they support the idea.
Hiep Nguyen. (Pronounced 'Hip Win', FYI.) I found him very impressive last night: relaxed, smart, very appealling. Plus, he ribbed me before and after about being the "Run, Ayanna, Run" guy, and I always respect someone who'll give me the business like that. Unfortunately, he also came across to me in the forum as somewhat unschooled in the workings of Boston city government, so his desire to bring his CPA's eye to reforming the place comes across as vague and, at times, misdirected. I have no doubt he is capable of mastering the subject -- I just wish he demonstrated that he had already done so.
Ayanna Pressley. She was good -- quite good, for a first-time candidate in her first forum of this type. She may suffer from an expectation problem: political insiders are all talking about her as a political juggernaut (further evidenced by her snagging a Ward 5 endorsement), so people are going to be watching her to see what the hype is all about. She was perfectly good, but on the same level as the other main challengers, not head-and-shoulders above them, I thought.
Sean Ryan. Give him credit -- a Ron Paul libertarian pitching himself to Ward 5 Democrats, he could easily have caused serious eyeball-rolling injuries every time he opened his mouth. I doubt that many in the room were buying what he's selling, but he acquitted himself well presenting himself and his views.
Bill Trabucco. Trabucco, a Republican, [update: Trabucco is a Democrat. My apologies for the error.] was similarly in a different ideological realm as the audience. (When he announced that he is not accepting campaign donations, I expected the audience to reply: "don't worry, we weren't offering.") Trabucco probably has the most potential to be a caricature candidate -- "no nonsense" is not his slogan, it's his way of life -- but I think he was perfectly fine. He's kind of this year's (Italian) version of Marty Hogan.
Scotland Willis. Willis, to me, was good last night -- but didn't stand out in a way that would have anyone thinking about him the next day. Given his underdog status, and likely lack of funds to promote himself, I'm afraid he'll need to find some way to make himself more compelling if he hopes to make it to the final eight.