Boston Mayoral Candidate Campaigns as Outsider

Long-shot Christopher Lydon offers radical ideas for schools, safety. INTERVIEW

UNORTHODOX is too mild a word for the mayoral campaign of Christopher Lydon. Among other proposals, Mr. Lydon would dismantle Boston's centralized School Department and launch a quasi-military operation to rid the city of guns.

These ideas aren't coming from a figure on the radical fringe. Lydon is known to thousands of television viewers in the greater Boston area as a thoughtful, probing commentator whose interviewing style is determinedly unslick. He has been a fixture on Boston's Public Broadcasting Service station, Channel 2, for 16 years.

Proclaiming himself a "citizen candidate" among the six other well-known contenders here, Lydon likens his political efforts to those of Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, Edward Rendell in Philadelphia, and Stephen Goldsmith in Indianapolis. All three ran successful, reformist mayoral campaigns from outside their cities' old-line political structure, and all won. Lydon's unrelenting criticism of politics as usual also partakes a bit of Ross Perot's citizens' movement.

Lydon says his motives for entering the race are deeply rooted in his experience as a resident of Boston, not in any broader political movement. The would-be mayor quickly points out that as the father of three grown daughters, he has had more experience with the city's troubled public schools than the rest of the crowded mayoral field combined.

But can a "citizen candidate" win in a city known for politics that rely heavily on ethnic connections?

Lydon's criticisms of Boston government are "right on target," according to Lawrence DiCara, an attorney and former mayoral candidate.

But Mr. DiCara adds that Lydon's "clientele," the people who watch him on TV, are largely from the suburbs. The typical Boston voter, he says, is a woman in her late 50s who lives in an outlying part of the city like Roslindale, and who doesn't watch Channel 2.

Lydon isn't too worried. "I feel reasonably well-positioned," he asserts. "People know I love the city.... They know I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but they know I know a lot of smart people. They know my humble roots - up to a kind of intimate position in the information world of Boston. If that doesn't qualify me, I don't know what does."

Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, says that someone who candidly points out the "rot and corruption" in the city's political system might catch on, though it's a long shot.

Lydon tells of a recent meeting with a voter outside the Twelfth Baptist Church in the Roxbury section of Boston. The woman asked him what he would do about the School Department. Lydon says he hesitated, wondering whether she was a tenured teacher drawing a large salary, or perhaps someone just laid off. But he decided against caution and said: "Blow it away!" The woman, he says, thanked him and assured him of her vote.

Disgust with patronage-laden, union-controlled institutions is widespread, he says. "We're paying top dollar to fail," Lydon proclaims. "We've lost 60,000 jobs in five years, and they're not coming back." He is the only candidate, he claims, who recognizes that better schools, public safety, and economic development are "three names for the same thing."

Lydon's education plan would decentralize the administration of the schools, allow principals authority to shape their schools as they see fit, and create "choice" by inviting every organization that thinks it can run a better school - including churches as well as universities and groups like the Edison Project - to make a proposal. He'd like to junk the teacher-union tenure rules that, in his view, elevate job security above performance and merit.

On public safety, Lydon proposes to draw on the experience of the United States armed forces in launching successful peacemaking operations with well-trained troops drawn from various ethnic backgrounds. He brushes off concerns that drug-or gun-clearance plans would violate the civil rights of people in affected poor and minority neighborhoods.

"It's not a matter of coming down on minority communities, but letting them breathe," says Lydon, arguing that the fear of street violence is effectively holding parts of the city under siege.

On the local economy, the critical need, Lydon says, is to do everything possible to capitalize on the city's intellectual resources and move into the economy of the 1990s.

"We've got to break the habit of thinking that MBTA jobs [with Boston's transit authority] are the best thing the political system can do for young workers," he says.

At present, pundits put Lydon way down the list of candidates likely to do well in the Sept. 21 primary. Some think his main impact could be to split the vote for reform-minded candidates and ensure that one of the more established politicians goes on to victory.

Lydon himself rejects the orthodox labels - right, left, and center. His tag of choice? "I'm a bleeding-heart realist," he proclaims, before dashing off to the next campaign stop.

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