Yoon, Chang-Diaz harp on Boston's incumbency problem

By 
Mike Deehan, Special to the Reporter
Mar. 19, 2009

The need to raise giant campaign funds and the power of incumbency can stifle democracy City Councillor Sam Yoon said in a panel discussion last Thursday. The forum explored the possible reasons why the Commonwealth ranks among the lowest percentages in the nation for contested local elections.

Yoon said the highest hurdle for a challenger is raising the money to compete. The Dorchester Democrat said that he has to spend a tremendous amount of time on the phone raising money, to stay competitive in the coming mayoral race.

Yoon is preparing to challenge Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who is expected to run for a fifth term as Boston's chief executive. City Councillor Michael Flaherty and South End contractor Kevin Mcrea are also in the race.

If I become mayor, I don't want a challenger to have to go through what I'm going through now in order to challenge me, said Yoon at the panel, held at the Umass Club on Franklin street and hosted by MassINC, a public policy think tank.

The group discussed an article by moderator Alison Lobron published in the most recent issue of MassINC's Commonwealth Magazine. The article takes an in-depth look at how the democratic process in the Bay State suffers due to the dearth of opposed races. A full house of around 100 people convened to hear the panelists relate their own experiences as candidates and to comment on what can be done to promote more vigorous elections in the state.

According to a report released by the Boston Foundation, only 17.5% of the Massachusetts state legislature seats were contested in the 2008 election.

In order to level the playing field, Yoon proposed limiting the amounts of donations from people who do business with the city. Donations should be capped if an individual has a business relationship with the city of Boston, he said. Yoon cited the City of New York's donation cap of $250 for those financially involved with city government, as opposed to the general maximum campaign donation of $2500.

A Yoon statement released after the event asserted that no one doing business with the city should be allowed to donate to city candidates. He also proposed an ordinance in the City Council that would require city contracts to be published online to avoid any potential impropriety in the bidding process.

"I don't have the kind of the institutional fund raisers out there. What challenger does? What challenger has, you know, a bevy of vendors and contractors that do business with the city of Boston?"

Yoon has drawn some criticism for fund-raising outside of Boston, most notably in San Francisco, where he admitted that the Asian-American community there is a strong source of support for his bid to become the first Asian-American mayor of a major American city outside of Hawaii. He said that his campaign has raised about 1900 separate donations from within Boston, another 1800 to 1900 donations from the rest of Massachusetts and about 900 donations from other states.

Another challenge for city councillors is the difficulty of forwarding policy and working for constituents without the support of the mayor's office, Yoon said.

"A lot of city councillors recognize that they way they'll keep getting reelected is through delivering constituent services. And of course, city councilors don't have the staff to deliver the services, it's the mayor who delivers the services. So what we have is a kind of interesting dynamic where a councillor's worst fear is that he will not get his calls returned by the mayor," Yoon said.

Jamaica Plain state senator Sonia Chang-Diaz said how difficult it was for her to leave her job and campaign full time for public office.

"You're raising [funds] from your personal network and if you do not come from a high-net-worth personal network, chances are you don't have many friends who can write you $500 checks," she said.

Chang-Diaz unsuccessfully challenged former state senator Diane Wilkerson in 2006 before defeating her for the Democratic party nomination last year. Wilkerson ran in the November general election as an independent sticker candidate, but dropped out of the race after she was arrested on charges of public corruption. Chang-Diaz assumed the Second Suffolk county district senate seat in January of this year. She is the first Hispanic woman elected to the Massachusetts Senate.

Chang-Diaz encouraged candidates to run more than once if they lose, like she did, saying that tenacity is a necessary quality for successful candidates.

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care president and CEO Charlie Baker later endorsed the sound strategy of running after a defeat to build name recognition. Baker has expressed interest in seeking the Republican nomination for governor and challenging Governor Deval Patrick in 2010. Prior to his work in private health care, Baker served as Secretary of Administration and Finance and Secretary of Health and Human Services under Governors Weld and Cellucci.

Baker said that the most important factor in finding candidates to run for office is whether they feel that their candidacy will have an impact.

"The big question you have to answer when you consider something like this is do you think you can make a difference?" Baker said. "Is it going to matter?"