Politics as Unusual: Boston liberals could use Norquist’s playbook

April 26, 2013
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Two days before the biggest mayoral race in Boston’s history was appropriately sidelined so the Hub could manage tragedy, our city got a visit from conservative stalwart and Harvard alum Grover Norquist. The small-government crusader was in town entertaining Tea Partiers on Boston Common, where a gaggle of conservatives—who presumably utilize no public resources, other than the park that they were gathered in—demonstrated in protest of Tax Day, liberalism, political correctness and other things they don’t understand.

In a monotone snoozer that sputtered on for 20 minutes, Norquist cracked a tree-related Sonny Bono joke, advocated home-schooling, insulted the tobacco tax, dissed compact cars, trashed recycling and, predictably, lambasted the income tax.

“We want the government to leave us alone,” said Norquist, having no way of realizing how ironic his statement would ring just days later, when state and City workers led the charge in rescuing more than 200 victims of the marathon bombings.

Crude as Norquist’s ideas are—relative or not to taxpayer-subsidized emergency responders—they make waves and ruffle feathers. For his reluctance to concede the need for services rendered via public dollars—take education, for example, or road repairs—lefty blog impresario Arianna Huffington calls Norquist “the dark wizard of the Right’s anti-tax cult,” while other foes have branded him “the most powerful man in America.” The latter is deliberate hyperbole-mongering, sure—but he does wield major influence on candidates and outcomes.

Depending on your political stance, Norquist is either most famous or notorious for his Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Since 1986, his libertarian declaration has set out to punish Republicans who vote for tax increases, and it’s worked, to varying degrees, as have other conservative pledges. Right-wingers have countless oaths, including several that are styled just to interfere with spousal choice and reproductive rights, like the “Marriage Vow,” a promise sponsored by a Christian conservative to save people from gays and pornography.

For liberals, there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this ridiculous pledging. The current mayoral race is a good place to start, as the growing number of candidates could serve as real leverage to force consensus. I’m not suggesting some ridiculous agreement, like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge requiring that pols oppose debt-limit increases. Rather, the idea would be to ask those running for mayor to agree on principles that could help advance this city, and put people ahead of politics.

Imagine for a moment if all mayoral candidates were pressured into promising that, if elected, they would divest all municipal dollars from banks that have fraudulently foreclosed on Boston families. Imagine if that pledge also demanded that a new mayor set up a legitimate, citizen-selected review board to monitor police brutality, and that the City continues Mayor Thomas Menino’s summer jobs program for youths. The pledge could additionally call for minorities to get preference on job sites in communities of color, or anything else. The possibilities are infinite.

On the Common, Norquist shouted that “the first trick of the other side is to divide us into groups.” By “us” he means taxpayers, but the same could be said of do-gooders and progressive activists who work in silos. That’s particularly true in Boston, though it doesn’t have to be. With a group-sponsored pledge, everybody from affordable housing crusaders to environmentalists could ensure that their concerns are heeded in a new administration. With a whole mess of liberals already in the race, neighborhood advocates could easily corner the front-runners.

There’s sure to be lots of rhetorical and patriotic grandstanding up ahead in this mayoral race. That’s both understandable and inevitable considering the pain we’ve all endured, and it’s hard to blame the candidates for wanting to parade their Boston pride around. But there are still grave issues at stake. One way to ensure that this election doesn’t come down to a competition for who has the shiniest flag lapel pin, and that the debate addresses real municipal concerns, is to take a page out of Norquist’s playbook, no matter how deplorable the guy may be.

Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain.

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