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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Selectmen Candidates Debate, Sort-of

Dennis Fox

April 27 , 2006

Every spring candidates for Board of Selectmen maneuver through so-called debates. Last Wednesday evening I went to the library, where the TAB's editor questioned four of the five candidates running for two selectman seats. In the midst of all the excitement, I realized I could re-use some of my columns from past years. For example, I could say this again:

"I wonder: Given the issues, the candidates, and town decision-making structures and traditions, how much does it matter who wins? And this: Are town elections held in May instead of during November's state/federal election just to dampen voter turnout? And especially this: Does democracy have to be so boring?'

Or I could repeat this:

"Brookline's biggest issues don't divide neatly along liberal-conservative lines. One driving force is big development -- not whether to facilitate it, but what kind, where, how much. Even liberals don't spend much time imagining more far-reaching possibilities, or even how to block chain store proliferation. Similarly, as Brookline's atmospheric housing costs solidify, liberal upper-class residents are as likely as conservatives to shunt aside the concerns of the dwindling working class. A related issue is whether town officials will really pay attention to town residents, or only keep claiming to do so."

Or this:

"No doubt the issueless election stems from the political instinct to avoid controversy. And it's true that polite blandness suffices for those voters who believe political philosophy is irrelevant. But I can't be the only Brookline resident who'd like to know what differentiates the candidates. When do they disagree with one another, and why?...Or does it all really just come down to labels, personality, and ambition? Vote for me because it's my turn. Trust me."

Of course, there are always some specifics I can't just recycle:

Susan Allen would have livened things up last week, but she didn't appear. The community activist explained in a TAB letter that newspapers shouldn't endorse candidates, that favoritism and horse-trading taint endorsements by local organizations, and that League of Women Voters debates make the TAB-sponsored debate unnecessary.

All this is worth discussing, but, as in some of her public appearances, Allen's scattered delivery makes it hard to follow her often on-target instincts. If elected, her tenacious ability to stick to issues and raise uncomfortable questions would flummox her more conventional peers. That would be fun, but she won't win.

Also unelectable is 19 year-old Andrew Ghobrial, whose political and public-speaking inexperience stood in sharp contrast to the three politicos next to him. Ghobrial's earnest good intentions bring to mind Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but he has a lot to learn about town government and about how to run for office. He'd be open-minded, hard-working, honest, and unpredictable, which means he won't win.

Selectmen Chairman Bob Allen was confident. Knowing he'll be reelected probably helps. He's a nice guy, it appears, though I don't think we've ever had a real conversation. During the debate Allen said he always returns phone calls and emails, though I'm still hoping he'll answer a question I emailed him three years ago. He also noted, with seemingly genuine pain, that many of his boyhood friends can't afford to live in Brookline, but beyond a little tinkering, he insisted, there's not much the selectmen can do to make the town truly affordable.

Next week's real race is between Betsy DeWitt and Jesse Mermell. I don't know either one, but here's what I can figure out: Both are experienced, knowledgeable, fluent, motivated, well-connected. Both are more liberal than the current board. Neither appears determined to change much, or maybe they're being too cautious and vague for me to notice. Neither, for example, proposed an affordable housing plan substantially different from our current limited efforts.

DeWitt, who seems to have an encyclopedic memory for every town detail, attracts support from across the political spectrum in a good-government, nonpartisan kind of way. Mermell's energetic promise of a fresh perspective draws supporters more tilted to the left. Brookline PAX endorsed only Mermell, though DeWitt's endorsers include plenty of PAX types as well.

Those are the choices facing the few of you who vote. As far as I can tell, life here goes on much the same, whether you do or not.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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