Kitchen Tables, Borrowed Suits

John Ruch

City Councilor John Tobin figured the city could negotiate a contract with the firefighters union. He just didn’t expect the deal to involve wearing another guy’s clothes.

Alternately crowing and cackling, Tobin recently recounted to the Gazette the strange behind-the-scenes saga that put him and other Jamaica Plain-area councilors at the heart of a historic union deal.

Paying out millions more dollars in tight financial times, partly in exchange for firefighter drug testing that most elected officials say should be mandatory anyway, may seem like an odd cause for celebration. The excitement, Tobin agreed, is really about the City Council’s newfound deal-making power.

Boston’s form of government gives lots of power to the mayor, and little to the City Council. But in the case of the firefighters contract, Mayor Thomas Menino and union president Edward Kelly were locked in a bitter stalemate for nearly half a decade. A controversial arbitration decision issued last month was favorable to the firefighters and enormously expensive to the city.

The City Council’s official role was to say “yes” or “no” to the arbitration deal in a June 9 vote. But City Council President Mike Ross, who represents part of JP’s Hyde Square, made it clear that the council would not be a rubber stamp. That’s when things got interesting.

On the night of June 1, Kelly called Tobin, asking for an immediate, private meeting with him; citywide Councilor Felix Arroyo, a JP resident; and South Boston Councilor Bill Linehan. All three councilors are supporters of the firefighters union, and Kelly wanted them to come to a union hall and talk.

But Tobin’s wife was out of town, leaving him in charge of their young children. So the meeting moved to Tobin’s West Roxbury house, where a deal was cut in old-school Boston political fashion.

“[Kelly] said, ‘We’ll be at your house by 9,’” Tobin recalled. “We sat around my kitchen table for around three hours. That’s when Eddie decided he was going to make concessions.”

The room was reportedly not smoke-filled. But the deal was real. Kelly called Ross on the spot and said the union was willing to wait on a significant part of the pay raise in exchange for approval of the overall deal.

Any movement in firefighter contract negotiations is big news after the years of deadlock. It took another week for Menino administration officials to compromise as well. The council-brokered breakthrough agreement came together late on the night of June 8, the day before the council’s vote.

Ross called an unusual 10:30 p.m. City Council meeting at City Hall to announce the breakthrough. Arroyo called Tobin and told him to get to City Hall within 30 minutes.

But there was one problem. Tobin plays in a comedy club softball league and had a game that night on an Esplanade field. That’s when….

Wait a minute. There’s a comedy club softball league?

“Yeah,” said Tobin, who owns one downtown comedy club and manages another. There are enough comedy clubs in town to field a league, and enough competition that Tobin’s team dropped to a pitiful 0-4 that night. But Tobin had bigger worries than his record.

“I had my comedy club [softball] uniform on,” and no time to go home and change clothes, Tobin said. So he left the diamond and arrived at City Hall ready to play ball—literally.

Tobin was confronted at the doors to the council chamber by Ross, who is well-known, and much teased, as a natty dresser. Invoking his presidential and sartorial authority, Ross told Tobin, “You can’t go in like that.”

Tobin said there was nothing he could do. A comedy club softball uniform is what he was wearing, and the show must go on.

“Naturally—it’s Mike Ross—he’s got a suit in his [car] trunk,” Tobin said, laughing. Ross gave Tobin the car keys, and he indeed found a spare suit next to the spare tire. After borrowing a pair of cleat-free shoes as well, Tobin attended the council meeting in proper dress.

“I’m wearing Mike Ross’s suit,” Tobin recalled, laughing harder. “It’s every guy’s dream to be Mike Ross for a day.”

“I did give the suit back,” he added. “It’s probably worth more than my car.”

The new collegiality and solidarity on the council goes beyond such public events, Tobin said. His kitchen table in West Roxbury is being used regularly for its intended purpose, with Arroyo and Ross joining him for dinners. At one of those boys’ nights, Ross further boosted his eligible-bachelor status by taking over the kitchen, hunting out gourmet ingredients Tobin said he never heard of before, and preparing excellent New York strip steaks.

“I thought I was in the Capital Grille,” Tobin said.

The friendliness comes from a new sense of confidence and shared power, Tobin said.

“I attribute it to the newer members,” he said, citing Arroyo and Councilor Ayanna Pressley. “Felix Arroyo has stepped up, and stepped up bigtime,” Tobin added, praising a colleague who is politically more left-wing than Tobin, and not an obvious natural ally. Tobin said he would not have believed it “if someone had told me four years ago I’d be talking to Felix Arroyo on the phone three times a day.”

Arroyo and Pressley have helped embolden the City Council to challenge the administration on such issues as Boston Public Library branch closures, Tobin said.

“That [sense of confidence] can only help the council and help our constituents, I think,” Tobin said.

That’s not to say the council agrees on everything. The firefighter contract was approved in a 12-1 vote. The dissenter was Councilor Chuck Turner, who represents JP’s Egleston Square area. Turner has said he thinks the firefighter contract is fair, but that the city can’t afford it, and needs to treat other city unions well, too.

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