Wednesday, September 26, 2007

About Last Night

A few more thoughts on yesterday:

I'm pretty sure no one saw this coming. Anyone out there honestly believe Lisa Wong was going to roll up 3,000 votes? Hell, most people thought that would be the total turnout. I'll admit my prediction (see Monday's post) was total garbage. In my weak defense, I didn't talk to one person who said, "Hey, Wong is going to kill these guys." Some folks thought she might have been first, and probably just as many thought she'd be third. No one saw this coming.

If I'm an at-large councilor, I'm a little more nervous this morning. Traditionally, when the electorate chooses to make a big change in one office (like, oh, the Mayor's Office), it tends to leave the rest alone. But considering the giant mandate for change tomorrow, at-large councilors might want to be looking over their shoulders a little bit.

And if I'm an at-large councilor, I'm trying to figure out how to answer questions about the city's finances. Tom Donnelly's "It's not our fault" answer isn't flying.

Give Wong all the credit in the world, she has run a smart and effective campaign. She has the makings of a very good mayor. But she's not a great candidate. She's not an electric speaker, she can get caught up in the minutae of an issue, and she isn't overly engaging. She's not Deval Patrick, who used his sheer force of charisma to get into the Governor's Office. My point? She didn't win all those votes last night because people are in starry-eyed wonder. She won all those votes because the electorate is fed up with the city's financial situation. They were looking for someone they think can bring not just change, but effective change. She gave the best answer to the biggest question in the campaign.

And that was one of Ted DeSalvatore's biggest campaign problems. He was stumping on the wrong issue. Crime is one of the city's top issues, no question. But it's not Number One. Not this year. In some neighborhoods, in some corners, it is. But universally, finances are the key this year. Throw in some questions about his background and previous statements, and his turned out to be an uphill climb. He turned into cannon fodder for the city's bloggers (you know what I mean), that hammered away at his weak spots and dug up information that when read was very damaging. For some reason, Ted and the campaign didn't fight the bloggers' charges. Maybe they were true. Maybe they didn't want to bring additional attention and perhaps some credibility to blogs that are read by dozens, maybe just a few hundred, people. But that stuff sat out there, unchallenged. In the closing days of the campaign, a mass e-mail made the rounds (including to a large number of teachers) that detailed all of that stuff. The attacks were there, but how many votes did that change? 500? That's how many more he needed. What he needed even more was a better focus on finances.

Now Donnelly stands alone against Wong. I figured that sentence would be the other way around before yesterday. He said last night he really is for change, big change. It sounded very close to the Italian Stallion's speech at the end of "Rocky IV." It's going to be a tall, tall order for Donnelly to make himself the change candidate. He spent the last month hammering away at his long-time creditials in the city. At times he came across as borderline insulted that DeSalvatore and Wong -- two people who didn't live in the city less than a decade ago -- had the sheer gall to run against him. He hasn't sounded like a change candidate.

More importantly in yesterday's aftermath, he didn't answer the financial question very well. He's not alone. Other councilors bristle when they hear they hold responsibility for the city's financial situation. But they do. It is a 50-50 split with the mayor? Probably not. But what is it? 60-40? 66-33? 75-25? I'd say that 2-1 area is about right. But Donnelly wanted none of it. In fact, he said outright he accepts none of it. Other councilors feel the same way, and if you watch their comments at meetings, they are pushing as much as possible on the mayor. But voters don't want to hear that. Dan Mylott might not be forthcoming with timely information, but voters don't want to hear that. They want to hear from Donnelly why, after eight years on the council, he hasn't done more. It didn't help when he would take no blame, and then DeSalvatore would follow right behind at debates and acknowledge that more should have been done. The financial issue is fully Wong's property right now. How Donnelly gets some of that real estate back might be an unanswerable question.

So, what next? Honestly, who knows. Conventional wisdom says Wong has a huge advantage. Or more accurately, Donnelly is at a huge disadvantage. He was 2,200 votes back last night. Where does he pick those up? Turnout was way high yesterday at about 25 percent. That would be good for a November municipal election. So, will turnout be higher in November, or did everyone who's coming out come out yesterday? If there's more, how many? Certainly, Wong's performance yesterday only won her more votes. People love a winner, and she's a clear winner. Even if she doesn't pick up one more vote, Donnelly needs to find 2,200 more people to vote for him. Yikes. Wong will get a second inspection now, Donnelly needs to put the heat on early and often, and try to raise questions. And then hope for a mini-miracle.

But the thing is, after yesterday, it might be time to rip up the traditional assumptions. A neophyte not only won, but she destroyed a guy who has run five citywide elections in the last 10 years. In the type of election where long-time base and organization is usually the path to victory, a newcomer managed to pull together a campaign in five months and obliterate the competition. One thing is for sure: The next 41 days won't be a cakewalk for Wong. She'll be under the campaign microscope, and she'll be getting it from all sides -- including, likely, DeSalvatore backers, who are convinced Wong was targeting their guy throughout. She certainly has a big advantage going into Nov. 6, but as the voters showed yesterday, nothing should be taken for granted now.

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