Is it just me or is this fall’s Boston mayoral election showdown between John Connolly and Martin J. Walsh generating all the excitement of A Flock of Seagulls reunion concert? You would think that the first truly open mayoral contest in more than two decades would arouse record levels of interest here in Beantown as we pride ourselves on being the political Hub of the Universe. Guess again. Most Bostonians are paying closer attention to how John Farrell’s Boys of Autumn are faring in Major League Baseball’s postseason than whether Connolly or Walsh have a comprehensive plan to reform the public schools.
This is a major disappointment of course, but who can blame voters? Connolly and Walsh have done little to differentiate themselves from each other on major issues ranging from crime, public housing, unemployment, or income inequality. In fact, one could argue they have been too polite to one another.
This is a far cry from 1975 when incumbent mayor Kevin White squared off against Massachusetts State Senator Joseph F. Timilty for the top job. To say White and Timilty disliked each other is a little like saying Athens and Sparta had some unpleasant encounters in ancient times.
White, a former secretary of state and Williams College graduate, was going for his third term in office and seemed like a shoe-in. After all, he had guided the city through some of the tensest moments of the court-ordered school desegregation crisis, elevated Boston’s image as a “world class city,” and became the prime force behind what would be the revitalization of Quincy Marketplace. Yet Timilty was not without his own bona fides. He was a popular former U.S. Marine from Dorchester who had served on the Boston City Council for several years before moving on to the state legislature.
Unlike White, who was once described as a loner in love with his city, Timilty had a common touch and this quality served him well in 1975 as he seemed to connect better with voters than the more distant and aloof White. Timilty also had a thinly disguised contempt for White’s leadership abilities, especially when reports surfaced of corruption at City Hall. Given these factors, White unexpectedly found himself in the race of his political life. But White was always at his best when his back was against the wall. As the late J. Anthony Lukas recounted in his epic 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning work “Common Ground,” he could be as tough as nails. When “a guy in a windbreaker” once castigated White on the street about his supposedly dim political prospects, the West Roxbury native responded this way: “Shut up, you son of a bitch. I’m going to survive because I’m going to beat the s&%t out of you!”
White brought a similar take no prisoners approach in his fight against Timilty. “They realized they could not win with White just being Kevin White,” Timilty later told Boston journalist and author Gerard O’Neill in “Rogues and Redeemers: When Politics Was King in Irish Boston” (2012). “It became clear he was finished on that basis. His so-called charm had run its course. So they decided, Kevin, here’s what you have to do-you have to go after Timilty. As the race tightened, they had to muck me up.” And muck they did. On Halloween eve, Timilty was publicly accused by White’s police commissioner, Robert DiGrazia, of being in league with some former cops who reportedly had unsavory ties to organized crime. Timilty called the charge “complete nonsense” but the political damage was done. White was able to prevail in a squeaker on election day. He would run again against Timilty in 1979 and win. But the “nasty, negative free-for-all” with his political archenemy had taken a huge personal toll. Tired and bitter, White chose not to seek a fifth term. He spent the remainder of his professional life a professor of political communication. As for Timilty, he fared far less well. He left the state senate in 1985 and eventually had to serve jail time on a conspiracy to commit wire fraud conviction.
It seems unlikely that either Connolly or Walsh will be able to capture the same kind high emotion or invective in the three weeks remaining of this mayoral race. And maybe that’s for the better. But if you judge politics as being the ultimate form of public theater, you can’t help but look back nostalgically to a time when Boston mayoral contestants were not afraid to display their raw emotions toward one another on their sleeves.
Mutual civility is nice, but it sure makes for a dull race.
Related: Complete WBUR Coverage of the 2013 Boston Mayoral Race