City Council candidates talk turkey

David Taber

Special election is November 16

Matters of substance separate Matt O’Malley and Jim Hennigan III—the two candidates vying for the District 6 City Council seat in a special election Nov. 16—but matters of style were the focus the few times the candidates critiqued each other in recent weeks.

“Ask [O’Malley], has he given out any turkeys?” Hennigan suggested at an interview last week at the Gazette office, referring to his own annual holiday season volunteer work.

“We need a district city councilor who is going to be truly involved in the community. Matt is a political person. There is nothing wrong with that…He is a political consultant, a political insider, a political strategist. This is what he does. Community involvement has not been a great part of what he has done,” Hennigan said, pointing to a number of his own volunteer efforts over the years, including chairing the board of directors of the West Roxbury/Roslindale YMCA, and coordinating Salvation Army holiday donation drives at the West Roxbury grocery store Roche Brothers, in addition to handing out holiday meals.

“Being called an insider by a Hennigan is like me trying to criticize someone for having red hair,” O’Malley told the Gazette in a phone interview, referring to his opponent’s family’s deep history in politics and his own carrot-top. “It is disturbing that Jim is running this negative campaign. It smacks of old-school politics.”

O’Malley has run for city council twice before, and has spent most of his professional life in politics, including stints in high school and college working for Boston and Washington DC city councilors, serving as campaign manager for Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral and working on other campaigns, and serving as political director for Cabral and for the gay-marriage rights advocacy organization Mass. Equality.

Hennigan’s professional life has mostly been devoted to running his family’s insurance business in West Roxbury. His father, James Hennigan Jr., was once an influential state senator. His grandfather, James Hennigan, is the namesake for the local Hennigan Elementary School. And his sister, JP resident Maura Hennigan, is the current clerk of Suffolk County criminal courts and a former holder of the District 6 seat. Jim Hennigan III ran unsuccessfully for a state rep. seat in the 1990s.

O’Malley did not directly respond to Hennigan’s turkey question—but did point out that he has served on the board of Project Right, a Roxbury-based non-profit, since 2005.

He also described himself as “uniquely qualified” for the job because of his previous political work. In particular, during his high school years working for then City Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen, his portfolio included “getting potholes filled, graffiti removed, streetlights fixed…I got to see what a profound effect a City Councilor could have on people’s lives,” he said.

Both said they have run the Boston marathon in support of Children’s Hospital, Boston, but O’Malley said they did not run against each other and have not compared times.

Neither Hennigan, who grew up in Jamaica Plain and now lives in West Roxbury, nor O’Malley, who grew up in Roslindale and now owns a home in JP, discussed any JP-specific volunteer activities in interviews with the Gazette, but each said that, as JP’s city councilor, he would have a strong commitment to the community.

Hennigan said that his experience at the West Roxbury/Roslindale YMCA means he would be a particularly effective advocate for the Egleston Square YMCA. He helped oversee a capital campaign committee for the West Roxbury/Roslindale Y that recently raised $16 million to renovate that community center.

The YMCA of Greater Boston last summer threatened to pull out of the small space it rents at 3134 Washington St., due to financial concerns. Community advocacy efforts convinced the Y to keep the space open until at least January, but its future is still unclear.

“It took seven years. I was there every step of the way,” Hennigan said of the West Roxbury/Roslindale YMCA capital campaign effort, “We have to do the same thing in Egleston. As the district city councilor, I would be right at the forefront.”

O’Malley also expressed support for the local Y, noting it had been the site of a community vigil following the fatal shooting of local resident Luis “Tito” Torres in a nearby neighborhood Oct. 25.

“I think it’s a great resource. It is important to share a great community space in the heart of Egleston,” he said, saying he would fight to keep it open.

Both candidates also agreed that, with the recent conviction of District 7 City Councilor, Chuck Turner, for accepting a bribe and lying to federal agents, the new District 6 Councilor will likely have to focus extra attention on Egleston—where districts 6 and 7 meet. [See related article.]

“I will do everything I can to support the overlap district. I will be a forceful advocate,” O’Malley said.

The area “needs attention,” Hennigan said, “Community leaders and church leaders will need to step forward.”

Prior to Turner’s conviction last week, Hennigan praised the District 7 city councilor. “He is a great person, a neighborhood person. I look at Chuck Turner the way I look at myself. He is the type of person who, if it has to do with his community, he is there,” Hennigan said.

Following Turner’s conviction, both Hennigan and O’Malley called on him to resign.

“I think he should…If you seek public office, you really have to hold yourself up and be accountable to the highest ethical standards,” O’Malley said.

Following Turner’s conviction, Hennigan said, “He is hardworking and people love him. He cares about his district, his community and the City of Boston…I feel that, because he cares so much for his community and his district, he should resign.”

Hennigan also said he fears the councilor’s conviction will cause people to “lose confidence with the system…I honestly feel that 98 percent of public officeholders are completely honest and hardworking…Matt and I are honest and hardworking,” he said.

And, in addition to traditional candidate promises to be accessible and be diligent in delivering constituent services, both also said they are committed to improving themselves, in at least one way, if they are elected. Both said that, in addition to hiring at least Spanish-speaking staffer to cover JP, they would learn at least some Spanish.

“It is very important to have someone who is bilingual and from JP,” Hennigan said, adding that he had studied Spanish in high school and college and that “as your city councilor I am going to learn to speak Spanish again.”

“The colleagues I work with would reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the district,” O’Malley said. He said he has been practicing his “basic language skills” while driving around with campaign volunteer Fernando Mercedes, head of the Hyde/Jackson Business Association.

They also both said they would be hands-on local leaders.

O’Malley said he was heartened to see that the MBTA and the community recently agreed to a plan for the redevelopment of the Arborway Bus Yard near Forest Hills. [See related article.] But, he said, the 12 years of negotiation was excessive, and it is disappointing that the project does not have any funding.

“A city councilor’s role is to make sure that people are in the same room, and that they set realistic goals that are within the confines of the economic reality,” he said.

He said that he is hopeful another planning project—for the redesign of Centre and South streets, including a controversial redesign of Monument Square—will not take as long. “Taking a year, and not 12 years, is a good direction,” he said.

Hennigan said that, as city councilor, he would see his main role in the Arborway Yard project as that of an advocate for funding with the state-run MBTA. “A city councilor’s role is to keep the issue at the forefront,” he said.

He said he supports “many more meetings” on the Monument Square redesign. “We really need to take a close look at it…Once a park is built, it’s built,” he said.

Both said that, across the board, they oppose library closings and want the city’s community centers to remain under city control.

A current city plan calls for changes at two city-run community centers in JP. The community center run out of the Agassiz Elementary School is slated to close and the community center at English High School to be handed over to non-profit partners when renovation work at the temporarily closed Curtis Hall Community Center is completed next year.

Hennigan said he promotes volunteerism as a strategy for keeping public community institutions running. Questioned about keeping community centers open at a recent meeting with a ward committee, he said, “I looked at them and said, ‘I am looking at 15 solutions right here.’ People who care about their community should be able to offer two or three hours a week…In tough [economic] times, [responsibility] is back down to neighborhoods, communities and individual people.”

O’Malley also said he is interested in promoting volunteerism, particularly because it is an important way to enrich youths’ lives.

“I grew up in a triple-decker. We didn’t have much, but I thought I had everything because I had my parents, my extended family and my neighbors supporting me,” he said, reciting a familiar line from his stump speech.

O’Malley said that he is interested in seeing city-wide adoption of a Boston Latin school program he participated in during his youth. That Saturday morning program featured community-led arts programs and other classes that taught material “outside of the core curriculum” as well as one-on-one tutoring for students, he said.

Both candidates said they would like to see rules concerning payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for large non-profit institutions in the city strengthened so that local universities would have more of an incentive to support school-based youth programming for public school students.

The two candidates’ perspectives on city politics were, perhaps, their biggest point of divergence.

Both said their only political goal, currently, is to become District 6 city councilor. But, while O’Malley said he “does not support and will not commit to term limits,” Hennigan preemptively limited himself to “not serving more than three full terms.” The new city councilor will be elected to complete former City Councilor John Tobin’s remaining term, which ends at the end of 2011. Tobin left office this summer to take a job with Northeastern University.

Hennigan also said he would support sweeping reform of the city’s charter, the collection of documents that define the city’s system of governance. Boston is currently run under a “strong mayor” system, where the city council’s most significant official authority is an annual up-or-down vote on the city budget.

“We have to have a stronger city council…The city council has to have some strength and some teeth,” Hennigan said. “If [the city’s system] were at the state or federal level, it would be considered a dictatorship.”

O’Malley sharply disagreed with that analysis. “I reject the notion that the Boston City Council is a weak council,” he said. A city councilor’s main job is to “return every phone call and help out as much as he or she can,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley did say he would support giving the council power to veto specific items in the city budget instead of just to take an up-or-down vote.

Both candidates said they would support charter reform that would change the Boston School Committee from a mayor-appointed body to a “hybrid” appointed and elected body.

Both candidates also said they support reforming the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—the quasi-independent agency largely responsible for overseeing planning and development in the city.

O’Malley has spoken at previous public appearances about being close to Boston’s current Mayor, Thomas Menino. Speaking to the Gazette, he noted that “I cut my teeth with [former City Councilor] Peggy Davis-Mullen, who ran against Menino” in 2001.

While he supported Menino’s reelection bid in 2009, “There are issues on which we disagree,” he said, including school committee reform and reform of the BRA. “One lesson I took from John Tobin is the importance of being independent without being obstructionist,” O’Malley said.

Hennigan also has ties to a former Menino challenger. His sister—former District 6 Maura Hennigan, ran against the mayor in 2005.

Speaking about his sister’s time as District 6 city councilor, prior to her mayoral run, Hennigan said that helping her campaign and talking shop with her gives him some “inside knowledge of how this district works.”

Both candidates said that driving home the fact that there are two separate elections happening this month has been one of their biggest struggles on the campaign trail. Their argument about turkeys may help them both on that front, by reminding people that the Nov. 16 District 6 special city election is scheduled closer to Thanksgiving than Halloween, and is distinct from the Nov. 2 state election, which has now passed.

Correction: This article was corrected from the print version to reflect that Matt O’Malley serves on the board of directors for Project Right, not the Dudley Square Neighborhood Initiative.

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