THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Yvonne Abraham

Electrify the electorate

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 23, 2009

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Let’s hope today marks the start of a whole new mayoral race.

Until now, the four-way fight for mayor has been by turns a snoozer and an unseemly scrap. Mostly, the campaign has consisted of Menino’s three challengers trying to beat the stuffing out of him, while the incumbent has tried desperately not to slip up.

This does not an inspiring contest make, and that certainly showed in the polls yesterday.

I know a lot of people were pleased at the relatively high turnout in the city preliminary. Even so, the chunk of the electorate that showed up at polling places was still distressingly small - about a quarter of registered voters. Much better than usual, but still abysmal, especially when you consider the huge differences between previous, barely contested Boston preliminaries and this one.

There were three people trying to knock Mayor Thomas M. Menino off his perch this time, and 15 others gunning for at-large council seats. There was all this talk about drawing out the legions who usually shun municipal elections, and attracting residents from low-voting minority neighborhoods. On top of all that, we had the Menino machine, a vast army of city workers and volunteers manning phone banks and minivans to mobilize hordes of loyal followers.

And what did we get? Fewer than 90,000 people - out of 354,000 registered voters - setting the field for a November election that affects residents’ daily lives far more directly than any presidential race.

The apathy of the wider electorate was matched by the fact that few of the voters I spoke with at several polling places seemed jazzed to be there. Some praised specific positions candidates had taken, but most of the two dozen or so voters I interviewed were pretty unenthused about the merits of their picks.

Most of the Michael Flaherty, Sam Yoon, and Kevin McCrea voters were about getting rid of Menino.

“I just decided we needed some change,’’ said Joe Johnson, a lawyer who cast his ballot for Flaherty at the Christopher Columbus housing in the North End. How would the city be different with Flaherty as mayor?

“I have no idea what he stands for, to be honest,’’ Johnson said with a chuckle. “But change sounds good, doesn’t it?’’

I asked attorney Barry Wilson whether this year’s preliminary was different, given the competition.

“It’ll be different when Menino is off the ballot,’’ he said. “I think Yoon is a little bright light at the end of the tunnel.’’

What does that bright light stand for?

“It’s all tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum,’’ Wilson said.

Among Menino voters, there was more enthusiasm, but only a few seemed over the moon about their candidate. Mostly, they thought he’d done a pretty good job. And they didn’t see any of his three opponents as viable alternatives.

“The candidates running against him have not offered any sense of whether they’d be better,’’ said Peter Greene, a retired teacher who lives in the North End. “I’d rather have experience over possible promise.’’

When I asked a woman hurrying out of the North End polling place why she liked Menino, she answered, “Nothing specific, they’re all alike.’’

You can’t blame the voters for all of this. Menino has won office so many times that a lot of people think showing up at the polls won’t make a difference. And the mayor’s three opponents clearly didn’t offer visions for change that were compelling enough to excite voters.

To inspire them over the next six weeks, Flaherty has to do more than make the case for why Menino shouldn’t be mayor: He needs to give voters a better idea of why he should. And the mayor must give us a concrete sense of what an unprecedented fifth term would add to the four he has already served.

Maybe then, voters will show up to vote with gusto.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.