City Councilor John Connolly pledged to improve everything from public schools to the arts scene, while blasting incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino’s City Hall as lacking vision and transparency, in Connolly’s first major interview about his mayoral campaign.
“While I deeply respect the mayor’s commitment to the city, we need an infusion of new energy and new ideas,” Connolly said in an exclusive interview at the Gazette office earlier this month. That includes, he said, fixing “a school committee that is effectively a rubber stamp” and a “zoning process that’s about who you know.”
Menino, who has been in office 20 years, has not announced whether he will run again, and the little-known Charles Clemons and Will Dorcena are the only other announced mayoral candidates. But Connolly, who was 19 when Menino took office, clearly sees he will be running partly against the incumbent’s legacy, if not the man himself.
A West Roxbury resident, Connolly grew up in a political family, including father Michael, who served as the Massachusetts secretary of state. In the 1990s, Connolly taught at-risk youths at Nativity Mission Center School, a Catholic middle school in New York, and also taught at Boston Renaissance Charter Public School.
Connolly also founded a law firm, which he left in October. He declined to reveal his clients, citing confidentiality, but said none of them had business with the City of Boston.
Connolly became an at-large city councilor in 2008 and in recent years has chaired its education committee, often differing with Menino on the direction of Boston Public Schools (BPS). At the same time, Connolly has frequently praised Menino, telling the Gazette in 2011, “He is the most popular politician in the history of the city. And he has done a good job overall.”
“I’m not in this to beat him up or tarnish his legacy,” Connolly said of Menino when asked about that quote. “I really believe he’s a good man who puts his heart and soul [into governing]. But even somebody who gives their heart and soul to the city can lack the bold vision to transform our schools [and other City functions].”
“You can’t have a city that’s just about one guy. This is about every person in the city and the city’s future,” he continued.
Asked whether that meant he sees the need for more public input in City government, Connolly agreed.
“I think his administration sometimes demonstrates a failure to embrace boldness and shows that time can breed a complacency that limits innovation, energy and ideas,” he said. “When you’re at 20 years [in office], it’s as much about entrenched leadership throughout every part of City Hall that will tend to stifle innovation and create a status quo.”
Connolly has highlighted BPS in his campaign as a centerpiece of that “status quo.” After meeting with hundreds of BPS parents in small meetings, he was a leader of the movement that successfully did away with busing zones in BPS’s new school choice plans. But he also criticizes the plan as “deeply flawed” for remaining a “win-lose lottery” that also killed the walk zone priority in a last-minute decision “based on a lot of back-room maneuvering.”
The school issue is personal for Connolly, who is himself a BPS parent. His 4-year-old daughter Clare attends Trotter Elementary in Dorchester, and it is likely that son Teddy, 3, and a third sibling about to born this summer will, too.
Tears springing to his eyes, Connolly became emotional when the Gazette asked about his own family’s BPS experience. He immediately contrasted his experience growing up in 1970s Boston and its school desegregation wars with his daughter’s experiences today.
“I saw how a segregated, unjust school system almost destroyed this city,” Connolly said. Now, at the Trotter, “I can look into a classroom and see kids from every walk of life, totally unaware of race.” It is obvious from watching his daughter’s experience, he said, that racism is a “learned construct” and that “all the inequity stems from stupid things that adults do.”
The complexities of the school assignment lottery are personal to Connolly, too. “Oh, God,” he said with a sigh when asked how he and wife Meg chose the Trotter.
He said they visited almost 20 schools, listed 10 and chose three. But with a bad lottery number, they got none of those schools.
“You have to live that to understand the devastation that wreaks on a family,” he said.
“I was able to find the Trotter because my family has privilege and means,” Connolly said, adding that parents with no car, no time or no English-language skills could “get swallowed alive” by the assignment system.
“If any city can close the achievement gap and draw middle-class families back into the school system…it’s BPS,” he said, noting the city’s smallish size and the mayor’s control over BPS.
But, he said, the new BPS system continues to undervalue school quality and accessibility, Connolly said.
“This just goes to the problem of a City government that doesn’t hold transparency as a key value,” Connolly said, a criticism he extends to real estate planning and business licensing as well.
He said the current system has “gray areas” that lets politically favored projects move ahead while the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) can “paralyze projects” that are unfavored. Asked to name a specific example, Connolly said, “I can, but I’m not going to,” adding that such a discussion would be a political distraction.
He said he would aim to have planning and economic planning, currently combined in the BRA, to “function in a separate manner.” He would form a citywide task force of residents and business owners to determine what that new system would look like, along with a “clear, predictable, fair” licensing and permitting system.
Connolly pledged better support for the “creative economy” of artists and the nightlife, including bringing in major music festival, building artists housing and pushing the MBTA to extend its night service by at least two hours. He also would appoint longtime Menino critic Greg Selkoe, a nightlife advocate and urban clothing entrepreneur, to an advisory position.
“Sometimes our Puritan roots get the best of us,” Connolly said. He added that the Mayor’s Office must be a vocal advocate of better T service, saying that Menino’s administration “avoids it constantly.”
Connolly also declared himself a supporter of “charter reform,” or a formal review of the structure of City government, to consider making the City Council more powerful than under the current “strong mayor” system. He said he would not take the lead, but would “definitely partner” with a city councilor to do it if he were mayor.
“We’re a better city government when we have checks and balances. I don’t want all that [mayoral] power,” he said with a smile. He noted that as education committee chair, “I have a platform, but I don’t have the power a committee ought to have.”
In other issues, Connolly called for stationing social workers in every police station; attracting more “green tech” jobs to Boston; curbside composting pick-up; recycling bins placed next to every City trash can; and better infrastructure for bicyclists.
Rebeca Oliveira and Peter Shanley contributed to this article.