Politics as Unusual: Is there an echo in here, or is that a stump speech?

August 2, 2013
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About 10 years ago, I visited my old college friend Sam in New Hampshire, where he was tailing presidential candidate Wesley Clark to union halls and cafeterias, diners and barbershops. Sam was working for Democratic contender Joe Lieberman, whose team had stuck my friend with the sickly boring task of memorizing Clark’s cookie-cutter monologues, and reporting back to campaign headquarters about any variations that Lieberman could pounce on. I watched as Sam mouthed the words to the candidate’s drivel, his eyes rolling toward the ceiling. It was the moment I realized that politicians—even lackluster, inexperienced ones like Wes Clark—are essentially skilled actors playing in the biggest role of their lives.

A whole decade later, I’ve myself committed more than a few spiels to memory. From Sarah Palin’s tired shtick against community organizers to Ed Markey’s recent environmental routine, I hear the sweet sounds of stump speeches in my sleep. Covering the Boston mayoral race since March, I’ve grown especially familiar with the candidates; there may still be nearly two months to go before the preliminary showdown, but already I can mouth the lyrics to John Connolly’s BPS soliloquy, and to Bill Walczak’s benevolent chief executive pitch about how he “won’t have to learn on the job” and is the lone contender who has overseen a multi-million dollar budget.

I understand that I’m the rare observer who will ultimately sit through more than a dozen forums and debates. I get that candidates need to tell their story over and over, and that most voters will only get a chance to see them perform once, if even that many times. Nevertheless, one can only hear the same claim repeated so many times before it starts to sound funny—like when you say a word out loud, over and over. Virtually all of the candidates are equally guilty of repeating trademark anecdotes ad nauseam. I have no doubt that every last one of them will keep their old rhetorical standbys on hand; I just thought I’d call them out in hopes that they’ll also write some new material for the final stretch.

Without a doubt, District 5 Councilor Rob Consalvo is one of the most personable, extroverted candidates. As such, his speech about having two children in Boston Public—and another who will be in BPS next year—is the first bit that comes to mind, his comic timing worthy of a run at the Wilbur. “If there’s ever been a system of checks and balances on education,” Consalvo says, then pauses for a moment before delivering the punchline, “it’s having a wife with three kids in the schools.”

More than any other hopeful, people are probably familiar with Councilor-At-Large John Connolly, who popped out of my refrigerator yesterday while I was reaching for a beer. As I complimented him on his exhaustive campaigning, Connolly told me that “great schools equal great neighborhoods,” and that he knows “urban schools can work because I taught in an urban school that worked.” Although I didn’t ask, as I cracked open my Budweiser, the councilor added, “Mayor Menino is a good man. I worked with him, and I respect him immensely.”

If ever there was an orator who gives Connolly a run for his donations, it’s fellow Councilor-At-Large Felix G. Arroyo, “a son of Boston, born right here in the city, but to parents who moved here as adults looking for a better opportunity.” Arroyo’s family background is incredibly compelling, as are his calls to “invest in banks that invest in Boston.” At this point, though, I know more about his wife and mom’s work as teachers than I do about my own experience with inadequate public schools.

On a similar note, I encourage people to ask me all about how City Councilor Mike Ross wants to demolish the border fence between Boston and Cambridge. Same goes for those interested in how much state Rep. Marty Walsh loves this city, Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative Executive Director John Barros is “pro-growth,” and long-shot Republican David James Wyatt is “100 percent pro-life.” I’m also well-versed in former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie’s plan to “mend divisions that prevent us from realizing our full potential.”

Finally, we’re left with the two outliers—City Councilor Charles Yancey and District Attorney Dan Conley—neither of whose talking points have stuck with me, and for different reasons. While Yancey re-tells many of the same tales of his accomplishments at City Hall, his 20-year track record gives the councilor impressive range, and afford him more improvisational wiggle room than his rivals. As for Conley, I can’t remember much of what he says for the same reason that I don’t recall shallow, vapid song lyrics. In all fairness, though, his ditty about how “our schools can be the greatest in America” would make for a terrific campaign jingle if Lee Greenwood is available to sing it.

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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