Sunday, September 01, 2013

Where Politics Works

The Sunday Times puff piece on Boston's Thomas Menino is a gratifying reminder of the one place where politics sometimes works: city hall.  Okay, grant we still have our clueless incompetents and our corrupt scoundrels, but a remarkable number seem to generate a lot of voter support, and with apparent good reason: they seem to be good at what they do.

The reasons aren't any mystery: mayor isn't quite a political job, in the sense that Congress or the Presidency--where there are almost by definition fundamental clashes of policy--might be.  A good deal of the time, even in "divided" cities, there will be broad agreement on what a mayor ought to do: keep the streets safe, pick up the garbage and make sure the buses run up on time.  Correspondingly, there is a lot of surveillance: if the buses don't run on time, then the voters know it and the mayor is going to hear about it.

Perhaps more remarkably, the job of mayor seems to attract people who really like being mayor as distinct from, say, liking just to run for office and take bribes.  The good mayors are the ones who can't think of anything more fun than, say, to muck around in a pond of raw sewage.  Menino conveys that attitude, but there are plenty of others.

I suppose the classic exemplar is New York's Fiorello LaGuardia, reading the comics to the kiddies, but there are plenty of others.  A classic genre can be comprised under a now-nearly-forgotten epithet: the "sewer socialists" who kept Milwaukee running from 1892 to 1960.  Jasper McLevy who served 24 years in Bridgeport deserves companion membership in the same order (I wonder if Bernie Sanders, socialist senator from Vermont and onetime mayor of Burlington,  belongs in the same category). The "socialist" thread is not quite accidental: all of these appear to be people who like politics but who like governing better, perhaps to the point of micromanagement. Seen in this light, the phenomenon seems to transcend national boundaries: it used to be said that commiunist Bologna was the best-managed city in Italy.

I suspect  more modern instance would be Louisville's Jerry Abramson, and  his career adds an  interesting fillip.  In so many other cities, the strain of old-fashioned sewer socialism seems to have foundered on the intractable issue of race.  Abramson, who is white (and Jewish) is the son of a man who ran a market in a black neighborhood.   I have to assume this background has something to do with his continued overwhelming popularity in a city that has its own share of racial strife.

 Coda:  I indulge myself with an anecdote drawn from my own encounter with urban management during my days (pre-Abramson) covering Louisville city hall for the old Louisville Times.  I'm remembering the indecent hilarity that ensued when the city works crews responded to an Ohio River flood by putting the floodgates in upside down.  No human was damaged but a lot of reputations took a hit.  It fell my job to garner a postmortem from the mayor, Bill Cowger an affable and smooth-talking mortgage broker with a knack for deflecting responsibility.   To his credit, Cowger did show up on scene .  He found that a number of people had evacuated from the flood zone.  "And when I saw what was wrong," he said, "I nearly evacuated myself."
I gave my copy to my sharp-eyed desk editor, Sam Harvey, who flashed a smile.  "Heh," he said, "I'll bet he nearly evacuated himself."   Such, I suppose, is the life of an urban mayor.

1 comment:

It is I said...

Does Erastus Corning of Albany NY belong on your list? Sincere question.