Boston's glamorous mayor suffers popularity slump

The man once called the "mayor deluxe" of America, Boston's charming Kevin H. White, may be losing his fascination even faster than he thought. Not only is his administration, 18 months into his fourth term, drenched by fiscal problems that threaten the city with bankruptcy.

In the last few days, he also has learned that:

* His powerful patronage web continues to unravel, as once-trusted appointees testify to abuses of political power in a hearing convened by the state's Labor Relations Commission.

* The city must repay the US Department of Housing and Urban Development some HUD audit, went into putting the mayor's political cronies on the public payroll.

* He is the least popular politician in Massachusetts, according to a poll reported in the Boston Globe. In the Becker Research Corporation poll of 500 Massachusetts residents, 65 percent of those polled gave Mr. White an unfavorable rating statewide and nearly 80 percent disapproved of him in Suffolk County, where Boston lies.

These may be small potholes in a city famous since the days of "The Last Hurrah" for its unstoppable political machine.

Or they may portend a major cave-in, leading to a wholesale public revulsion and a retreading of the political process.

Meanwhile, however, the mayor has not stopped fighting. His latest effort to demonstrate that he manages the city (as he says) "very well" has been the submission of a so-called "worst case" budget.

With city finances under pressure on three fronts -- heavy school overspending, a court-ordered repayment of tax overassessments, and cutbacks caused by the statewide measure (the so-called "Proposition 2 1/2") limiting property tax revenues -- he has offered a budget chopped by 44 percent over last year's. But that attempt at fiscal responsibility has been greeted with great dismay by the antagonistic city council, which may hold up its approval until a compromise is reached.

So far, say White administration officials, the mayor has trimmed his own department by 43, nearly halved his controversial public relations staff, and begun what are scheduled to be large layoffs of policemen and firefighters.

And, in a telling gesture for a mayor known for his sense of flair, he has offered to sell the city's Cadillac (sold to the city in 1976 for $1 by a Portland, Maine, dealer after the Boston City Council refused to buy one) to the highest bidder. Instead, he will meet visiting dignitaries in a station wagon.

But critics contend that his personnel cutbacks have in some cases only disguised transfers of key employees from one payroll to another. And they accuse him of being unrealistic in failing to incorporate into the budget what may be as much as $30 million in additional state aid -- although the state budget has yet to be voted by the Legislature.

One source of testimony about patronage was a former precinct captain in the White machine, Anthony Picarello, who volunteered information about blacklisting , offering raises, and threatening loss of jobs to city employees in recognition of their political support during the last election. It comes as part of an ongoing action brought before the state commission by a union, the Service Employees International, which already has compelled the mayor to admit under oath to some questionable patronage practices.

The HUD audit, focusing on about $54 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds given the city in the past two years, charges that the city has used federal money to pay salaries of White appointees in unrelated jobs. A letter from Boston-area HUD official Robert L. Paquin to Mayor White observed that "such practices are totally unacceptable and call into question the validity of your entire payroll accounting system."

The misused $1.45 million, say some observers, is only part of a substantially higher amount of federal money directed toward local political goals.

Nor has the problem reached its peak. No one expects the city to have a budget in place by July 1. And, although Boston probably has enough money on hand to function into early August, some observers foresee "payless paydays" unless the mayor and the city council can compromise on a budget.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.