Maura In The News

Flaherty challenges claims of racism as council debates

By Corey Dade, Globe Staff, 10/29/2003

In the last major debate before Tuesday's election, City Council President Michael F. Flaherty lashed out yesterday at colleagues who had accused him of running the council in a manner that amounts to ''institutional racism.''

''There were aspersions cast towards my character that were baseless, totally false, and cowardly,'' Flaherty said, referring to accusations last month that he used his presidential authority to table issues brought by minority members more often than white colleagues.

Flaherty's defense highlighted an hourlong debate on a special edition of ''Greater Boston'' on WGHB-TV (Channel 2), the most widely broadcast encounter among the eight candidates for the City Council's four at-large seats.

For much of the debate, there were few fireworks as candidates sedately answered questions on affordable housing, Boston's budget crunch, and rent control.

But Flaherty's defense of his record underscored the racial politics that have crept into this year's City Council races. On Monday, Flaherty announced his support for Councilor At-large Felix Arroyo, the only Latino member.

Last month, another councilor, Chuck Turner, who represents Roxbury, blasted Flaherty, saying the council president used his power to gavel down debate against minority colleagues more often than whites. Flaherty vehemently denied the accusation.

And in last night's debate, Flaherty reiterated his support for Arroyo and made an appeal to minority voters.

''Given the demographic shift in the city, it's very important that Councilor Arroyo remain on the council,'' Flaherty said, referring to Boston's growing minority population.

Flaherty's endorsement surprised many observers because Arroyo -- who finished fifth in the Sept. 23 preliminary election -- has often sided with Turner, Councilors Maura Hennigan, and Charles C. Yancey against Flaherty.

''I am grateful for the endorsement,'' Arroyo said last night.

Hennigan, also a frequent adversary of Flaherty, took the opening to criticize Flaherty for creating a power base for himself among younger councilors that she said has alienated veteran councilors like herself. The 51-year-old Hennigan is among a small group of councilors who frequently clash with the 34-year-old Flaherty and his voting majority.

''On the issue of institutional racism, I think it's more of a function of a generational divide,'' Hennigan said. ''There are people on the council who are 40-something and beyond who probably feel a little left out.''

Flaherty countered that ''as council president, I'm inclusive. . . . I'm a human being and there are times when I might on further reflection realize there was a mistake. But keeping them on course on that issue is absolutely the right thing to be doing.''

Councilor Stephen J. Murphy, who finished second to Flaherty in September and has rivaled him in fund-raising, was very talkative, often interjecting remarks immediately after Flaherty's comments. Murphy said the racially charged criticism of Flaherty has been a ''distraction'' on the council.

Weighing in on the city's tense contract negotiations with employees' unions, Murphy said the 2 percent raises, totaling $17 million, that Mayor Thomas M. Menino has set aside is inadequate.

Holding to the theme of curing budget woes, Murphy suggested the city could generate more revenue by ''holding colleges and universities' feet to the fire'' and ordering them to make higher payments -- $100 per student -- to the city in lieu of taxes.

The candidates were asked whether they would support dismantling busing, the controversial public school desegregation program, in favor of children attending their neighborhood schools.

''I think this discussion of neighborhood schools is very important and could increase parental involvement,'' candidate Patricia H. White of Beacon Hill said. But, she added, diversity must be upheld.''

Candidate Roy Owens, a minister from Roxbury, said that ''racial balance in the Boston Public Schools -- the city can't deal with the issue until it looks at faith-based institutions.'' He added that the aim of empowering minority parents and schoolchildren was hurt by the dissolution of the elected school committee.

Each candidate sounded off on the housing shortage and suggested ways to increase the supply of affordable housing.

Althea Garrison, a former state representative from Dorchester, said the city should restore a form of rent control -- a measure that failed in the council earlier last year -- and must adequately replenish the housing supply.

''The city is tearing down too many houses,'' Garrison said. ''The city should be held accountable for tearing down those buildings and instead find people to redevelop those buildings. Tearing down those buildings is making the neighborhoods unstable.''

Hennigan pointed to her call for 10 percent of new revenue to be set aside for affordable housing.

Responding to whether the state should help finance the Democratic National Convention, Arroyo said the state should contribute because the event, to be held here next summer, will be a financial windfall for the state as well as the city.

''But to make sure there is a benefit for the residents of the city,'' Arroyo added, ''I have a resolution that 70 percent of the [convention-related] jobs must go to residents of this city.''

First-time candidate Matt O'Malley, of Roslindale, advocated eliminating the requirement that city employees live in Boston.

''It's inherently unfair, I believe, because of the high cost of living in the city,'' O'Malley said. ''The [employees'] unions have been willing to compromise by proposing to live within maybe a 10-mile radius of the city, and it's time for the city to compromise.''

Corey Dade can be reached at [email protected]

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/29/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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