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What they mean by "divisive" is not a real thing
Warning off the bat: This is a long and winding piece touching multiple themes and issues in service of a big overall point and I’d encourage you to not try and read this like an email but rather like a longform essay. It’s what we in the industry call magazine length. 6,500 words or thereabout. 13 pages printed out when I proofed it. That’s why I scheduled it for early Saturday. It’s a weekend read sort of vibe. Nothing in here is urgent or “making news” but a lot of what’s in here feels deeply important to me in thinking about the year ahead of us.
The thought I’m going to leave up at the top like an epigraph is that there’s something about trying to be invested in Worcester which grinds the spirit out of you. I had a nice long chat with someone about this the other night, the both of us feeling our spirit had been especially ground down over the last year. It’s a city that punishes you for caring. I think a lot of us are feeling pretty punished right now. I can’t imagine how our progressive councilors are feeling, as they’re rather unfairly made to take the brunt of it. It’s like there’s a Dementor in City Hall but he doesn’t suck the soul out of your mouth all at once like in the books he just takes little sips every day and you don’t really notice until you’re completely miserable and soulless. So the question this piece is really asking: Where is that Dementor coming from and how do we get rid of it? And is it actually just Ray Mariano? Is he the Dementor? Just kidding haha… unless...
The thing about building a progressive movement in a city like Worcester is that you’re not going to do it by making friends. You’re not going to change the hearts and minds of anyone in City Hall who isn’t already with you. City Hall will do everything it can to keep pretending it’s the 1980s and this whole movement relies on making new space for new people who want to be involved but have correctly discerned that they aren’t allowed to meaningfully participate in the ostensibly democratic processes of our glorious municipality. The “McGovern Crime Family” trope thrown around by our local right wing dummies is salacious and overstated but it does contain a germ of truth: There is a small class of people in our city who make the important decisions well before the public is made aware and also maintain a hold on the important levers of power. It is largely maintained within the framework of the local Democratic Party and McGovern is among the most powerful local Dems. But it’s not criminal. Maybe feudal in structure and a tad Machiavellian. But to call it a “crime family” lends it too much credit. It’s like how QAnon correctly identified that there is routine pedophilia and human trafficking happening among the corporate and political elite but they weren’t sufficiently entertained by that so they coated it in an absurdist fiction. Hilary Clinton drinks baby blood and Donald Trump is their man on the inside. Pedo hunter #1 on a mission to bring it all down.
Call them what you will—the McGovern Crime Family or the Inner Circle or Members of the Worcester Club (a real place, by the way, members only, again proving that Worcester is beyond parody)—the political class that maintains control of the city is both accustomed to and good at defending itself against attacks from the right. People like former City Councilor Mike Gaffney and current Councilor Donna Colorio and mini-Milo Aidan Kearney are annoying for a bit but easily swatted away. More “respectable” and “moderate” conservatives are folded into the machinery and given some sort of lower lord status to placate them. That’s the case with people like former superintendent Maureen Binienda and current Telegram columnist Ray Mariano, who’s been mayor and head of the Worcester Housing Authority among other posts over the years.
What this political class is not so savvy at dealing with is a significant challenge from the left. They don’t have much experience, frankly. As such a challenge is currently underway, and the idea of a progressive majority on the City Council come November becomes more realistic, we’re starting to see them grasp at counter-narratives. Lately, we’ve been seeing it most clearly in Ray Mariano’s writing over at the Telegram. He has been positively tripping over himself to find a way to turn this new progressive movement into a bogeyman. It hasn’t been going well. Frankly, it’s been embarrassing to watch it play out and I think the Telegram would do well to reconsider its relationship with the man before it gets worse.
Latest in a long line of shoddy jabs masquerading in columns was a post from last week titled “Worcester City Council is dysfunction junction.” It’s worth working through it in some detail, painful as it may be, because as we head into an election season, it gives us a glimpse at what the talking points are going to be.
Though election results over the past several years have shown us that the voting public is very receptive to progressive positions, ideas and candidates, the circles most closely surrounding the local power centers are not so keen.
After a few opening lines that amount to “back in my day city councilors and school committee members got along” Mariano gets to his thesis:
Today, there are two groups on the council — a progressive block of five councilors and a more moderate group of six councilors. Both groups see the other as the cause of council inaction. And from what I could tell, there is little trust and even less effort to find common ground.
Councilors simply put items on the council agenda and then point at the other group when nothing gets accomplished. A couple of councilors told me that they were certain that there are times when councilors vote against a motion for no other reason than the motion was made by a councilor from the opposing group.
All of that is more or less true, but it’s a baseline observation and it doesn’t get at any of the real issues or sources of division. It’s also interesting he never names the councilors he quotes in the article as sources. In the article, he only names two councilors, and he names them in order to attack them.
I never thought I’d say this, but it appears that, for a few councilors, actually just showing up for a part-time gig that pays $34,810 is too much to ask.
From Feb. 15, when the City Council began holding in-person meetings again, through Nov. 29, Councilor Sean Rose, who has announced that he is not seeking reelection, showed up in person exactly half of the time. Of the 26 meetings during that period, Rose was absent three times and participated remotely 10 times. He was in the council chamber for only 13 meetings.
Councilor Thu Nguyen didn’t do much better, only attending 14 meetings in person. They were absent twice and attended remotely 10 times.
I called Nguyen to ask why they attended so many meetings remotely. Not surprisingly, they never called back.
First of all Ray’s numbers are just flat out wrong. Something seemed a little suspect to me about them so I checked his math (feel free to check mine) and he’s just way off. How is it possible for someone to be so way off on such simple numbers? Between Feb. 15 and Nov. 29, Rose was absent four times and attended remotely nine times. Mariano reported he was absent three times and remote 10 times. Wrong on both figures. With Nguyen it’s even worse. Mariano reported Thu was absent twice and attended remote 10 times. That’s wrong. Nguyen was absent three times and attended remotely seven times. I checked and double checked my math on this because it seems like such an insane thing to mess up. He could have been generous and not counted the September 29 meeting that Nguyen missed because Mayor Petty scheduled it the week before and Nguyen said they couldn’t make it and Petty went ahead and scheduled it anyway. That would bring Nguyen’s absences down to two. But Mariano was not trying to be generous. When you look at these attendance numbers in the context of all the councilors, the question of why he decided to go with this line of attack becomes a circle to square.
I don’t think it’s fair to count the September 29 meeting as an absence for Nguyen, personally. So we’ll go with Mariano’s inaccurate figure and give Thu two absences between Feb. 15 and Nov. 29. Other councilors with two absences: Mayor Joe Petty, Khrystian King, Sarai Rivera. Why weren’t any of them called in the snarky manner in which Mariano called Nguyen? Rivera attended eight meetings remotely. More than Thu’s seven and almost as much as Mariano’s inaccurate figure. Why wasn’t Rivera called? Why was Nguyen called and not Rose? Why is this even an issue?
Mariano was trying to take a pot shot at Nguyen. It was goofy and ham fisted. It was built on inaccurate information. It shows a very clear bias but Mariano doesn’t give the reader the courtesy of explaining his bias. To read the story gives the impression that these attendance numbers are remarkable when really they’re par. All of these issues and the Telegram allowed it to be published.
Rose and Nguyen are the only two councilors named in this column about how the council is dysfunctional and needs to get along, yet opinions on that disfunction are offered by councilors with anonymity.
He does mentions one real issue for a short moment. After excoriating Rose and Nguyen for the crime of missing a reasonable number of meetings throughout a year, he points out an actually legitimate issue! He calls out the Standing Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Kate Toomey, for meeting very rarely. It’s true unlike the attendance numbers and also extremely revealing when you consider who chairs that committee and what sort of politics she has. This is what he writes.
And then there are the Standing Committees where most of the council’s work should be undertaken. Many of those committees barely meet. For example, the Public Safety Committee, which handles things like the Police Department, the Fire Department and Inspectional Services, hasn’t met in the last six months, and has only had four meetings in 2022.
Notice how there isn’t a councilor named in this passage. Unlike Rose and Nguyen’s attendance record, this is an issue in which no particular councilor is to blame, according to Mariano. Of course, there is very obviously a councilor to blame and her name is Kate Toomey. But Mariano does not choose to flame Toomey the way he did Nguyen or Rose. If you’re generous, you might say it’s merely an editorial oversight. But this is very clearly more than an oversight. Having been on the City Council before, Ray knows full well who calls and schedules standing committee meetings. It’s the chairman of the standing committee. It is solely at the chair’s discretion and the schedule is the 100 percent the chair’s responsibility. The chair is Kate Toomey. Mariano knows that. Yet he didn’t name her.
So here we have Mariano identifying a real problem—really the only time he does so in the entire article—and, unlike his bad faith and inaccurate reporting on meeting attendance, he does not see fit to identify a responsible party. It is just a problem but not one with an obvious cause or solution. With Nguyen, he goes so far as to do one of the cattiest things a columnist can do: includes a line about how they didn’t return his call.
I called Nguyen to ask why they attended so many meetings remotely. Not surprisingly, they never called back.
This is not a move you pull on someone unless you believe them to be the antagonist. I know because I’ve done it before. But Mariano doesn’t have the courage to say as much directly. Just cheap insinuation. So we see here between the lines that Mariano allows Toomey a certain courtesy that he does not afford Nguyen. Toomey and Mariano happen to be, if not friends, then members of the same circles that comprise the city’s entrenched political class. They’re on the same side.
This is the sort of stuff you resort to when you’ve already lost the moral argument. It’s tired and pathetic and sad. It’s just as tired and pathetic and sad when Mariano does what he did to Nguyen here to new Superintendent Rachel Monarrez, on whom he’s launched several equally thin and contrived attacks.
But let’s circle back to the problem with the Standing Committee on Public Safety that Mariano quickly mentioned. I’m gonna do Mariano’s job for him real quick. Toomey’s failure to even pretend to use the power she has with the public safety chairman position is indicative of a Thin Blue Line flag-waving brand of know-nothing politics, of course. But worse, it’s indicative of a council which does not see itself as a governing body. And that dynamic becomes all the more clear and damning when you consider that self-styled “progressive” Joe Petty has given this Toomey this assignment every time a new council has been inaugurated going back at least a decade. In his assignment is a tacit endorsement of the way Toomey uses the position. Keep not using it, he’s saying. He doesn’t want to mess with the cops either. Keep her there, keep them happy.
There is a culture among the people on the council which is fundamentally at odds with the board’s design. What should be the mechanism for adjudicating the public will in a democratic system is in reality more of a buffer against it. More of a sponge than the conduit it is supposed to be. This critique may be familiar to the point of being tired to longtime readers, but it’s a dead horse worth beating. Until this culture changes nothing changes. Changing the structure of a system does not change how people within that system relate to it and perceive it. We cannot Charter Change (TM) our way out of this, as some have suggested. Going to a “strong mayor” system, where the city manager is replaced by an elected executive, will only provide this culture a new set of rules and power dynamics to bastardize the way they did our current Plan E system. They’ll figure out how pretty quickly, I imagine. The only way you reform this culture is by removing its adherents from positions of power and replacing them with people who see things differently.
That’s where we’re at right now.
We’re a year into having an actual progressive bloc on the city council which subscribes to a different culture and wants to use the body toward different ends. They’re not automatons. They have different priorities and act individually (more than I’d like sometimes) and do not agree on everything. But they’re all operating on a general belief that city government should prioritize the well being of its residents over any other concern and actively try and solve systemic problems which contribute to people having poor quality of life. I don’t think any of the three would disagree with me on this basic point. Way I see, it’s a simple and fundamental pillar of any political project worth pursuing.
However, this new progressive bloc’s understanding of city politics is directly and fundamentally in conflict with the prevailing culture of City Hall and the political class in control of it. To this culture, the primary objective of city government is not livelihood but growth. This is not to say that no one in this prevailing culture cares about the livelihood of city residents (though it does sometimes feel that way tbh) or that there’s not people within the system who do good work to improve said livelihoods, it’s that resident’s livelihood is a secondary concern to growth. Should a proposal to improve the livelihood of residents come into conflict with growth—to threaten even the prospect—this culture reliably chooses growth over well being.
This isn’t just Worcester by the way it’s basically the entire world at this point and certainly every single City Hall in America and I would love to be proven wrong on that but I’m pretty sure I’m right. Nixon may have been the last president to negotiate against growth in any significant way and it made him terrified of getting the Kennedy treatment (Source: the extremely good Oliver Stone movie Nixon. “Sounds like you’re talking about a wild animal.”). Really since Reagan growth has been untouchable in the overton window of American politics whereas livelihood has been very much touchable and frequently touched.
In the small and surreal theater of Worcester city politics, we see the inherent conflict between growth and well-being play out in debate over several proposals since this new progressive bloc came into being in January. There was the eviction moratorium, the ban on new gas station construction and balking on a pilot program to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure etc. etc. They all failed as the majority, the “normative six,” wriggled and squirmed to come up with pallatable ways to say no without being the bad guy. The clearest example of this dynamic however was the proposal in September for a new zoning policy which would require developers to set aside a certain percentage of units for renters who don’t make a lot of money. Units that are “affordable” as mandated by the income restrictions of a new “inclusionary zoning” policy.
Both sides—growth and livelihood—were in stated agreement that inclusionary zoning a good idea! Necessary, even. There’s a crisis after all. But meanwhile a quiet battle between the two conflicting ideologies was waged in the fine print. It’s still being waged to this day in fact and will probably continue for months. Team Livelihood wanted the rent-controlled apartments set at a figure which would actually make a difference for the people who are really struggling in the ongoing and worsening housing crisis. But the proposal, which was admittedly modest and lacking by the housing activist’s standards—a concession before it was even offered—still crossed a non-negotiable line for Team Growth. It presented possible scenarios in which developer’s bottom lines might be affected. As such, it was off the table. Yes, the logic goes, we understand the homeless population is soaring and people are forced into increasingly shoddily rental units with a deadly tendency to catch fire and landlords don’t have any material incentive to invest money in upkeep because they know someone will rent it as is and local businesses are collapsing in on themselves because all their least paid but most necessary workers can’t find a place they can afford within a reasonable commuting distance. True. But... growth!!
The growth camp’s counter proposal axed the restrictions which would have made the policy useful for the livelihoods of low income residents because those are the elements which posed a potential threat to maximum return on investment for developers. Right there, buried in the confusing and wonky specifics of policy language, the City Manager’s Office showed that they are not willing to consider anything that threatens growth. Sure, they’re quick to say we need more affordable housing but that is just one of many negotiable concerns. Growth, on the other hand, is non-negotiable. This battle is just an especially clear example of a contradiction which underpins a lot of what Mariano calls “division.” Everything about the absurd and seemingly pointless way the City Manager and Council interact can be tied back to this essential principle.
None of these issues were referenced in Mariano’s column, by the way. They weren’t as important to him as decorum apparently. And decorum is the ultimate goal after all not doing anything useful for Worcester residents.
Worcester’s entrenched political culture, to which Mariano adheres, is a good lens through which to look at the societal stranglehold of growth because the people who understand the assignment are not subtle about it and those who don’t are content to blindly defer. It’s acceptable here to say things like “the developers like him” as a sole justification to support a city manager candidate. Enough said! While other municipalities might employ more rhetorical subtlety, we don’t try to hide it here.
“Growth at all costs” is the prevailing logic in most City Halls across the country and has been for a long, long time. Political cultures around this mindset have been calcifying since at least Reagan. City Halls like Worcester are manifestations of that icky word “Neoliberalism” which has been rendered meaningless by Twitter save to demonstrate the person saying it is obnoxious. City governments in the neoliberal order are made to pursue growth at all costs in competition with each other. As an example, it was very scary for City Hall to consider that the WooSox might instead choose New Bedford for their Massachusetts bedfellow and that led to a sweeter deal for our new home team. But for us as a city? We’re $160 million in the hole on the most expensive project of its kind and we’ve effectively killed the adjacent Canal District which was the only area in Worcester approximating a real city neighborhood that people move to cities for but by Jove we beat New Bedford! We are ~on the map~ and New Bedford is not. What map, you ask? A map you have to own a hedge fund to look at.
When you pursue growth at all costs, secondary concerns like resident livelihood and having naturally cool and dense urban neighborhoods as seen in real cities are expendable should the need arise. Important, maybe, but not as important. Same goes for the quality of schools and roads and the availability of infrastructure for pedestrians and public transit. All of these things continue to suffer while the political class looks at all the new growth and claims victory. Worcester is back! Do not look at the tax finance agreements we signed to get back on the map though! We had to do that or else there’d be no growth! You gotta spend money to make money! Sorry you have textbooks from the 1950s btw but what can you do. Study hard kids and one day you might beat the deeply entrenched and systemic odds and break out of poverty and get an apartment at The Grid.
For longtime readers this is retreading some points and if it’s boring I apologize but I think it’s worth it for any new readers out there or maybe for someone who’s feeling a new connection up there in the noggin to take my time with a deep critique of how people like Ray Mariano and Kate Toomey think. Worcester is a museum of bad municipal ideas and the political culture is why. We have an opportunity this year to do something about it. I love Worcester forever but it does suck and it would be nice to finally understand why and rectify the problem. That’s ultimately the goal here. Pls subscribe so I can keep trying to make it happen.
Wouldn’t be writing this post which I’ve spent several harried days on without direct subscriptions from a bunch of you and thank you!
I’m about to do something you would never see done in a traditional local news outlet and that’s consult the academic literature and apply the critiques and theory therein to the present situation. None of the talk of “growth” and “well being” presented above is a new idea from my brain. It’s an application of a way of looking at cities that a very smart person came up with back in the 70s that makes a lot more sense to me than what I hear from City Hall. Before I get into it it’s worth noting that there’s a reason you don’t read stuff like this in local journalism. At a traditional local publication, there’s no forum for assessing what happens in a city against a piece of scholarship on cities. That’s “subjective” or else not newsworthy or just too weird. The result of that is the underlying philosophy of city hall is never examined and a hugely fundamental concept like growth is never criticallty evaluated. Maybe by a grad student in some journal. But never for a general audience. So really you’re taking the richest and most interesting discussions off the table. The lines of debate you’re allowed to cover or express in an op-ed are squarely within an underlying philosophy you’re not allowed to publicly explore! So the academics get to think about it and talk about it among themselves, but the writers whose job it is to simply and clearly explain things do not, by the conventions of our “free press” get many opportunities to touch something so big and fundamental and important as growth.
So what do I mean when I say “growth” really? What am I driving at here? I’m talking about growth as defined in Harvey Molotch’s 1976 paper “The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place.” (I’ve hosted it on my Google Drive and I’d encourage anyone curious to give it a full read. Only 25 pages.)
I think this passage might ring a certain bell for careful observers of our little city.
I speculate that the political and economic essence of virtually any given locality, in the present American context, is growth. I further argue that the desire for growth provides the key operative motivation toward consensus for members of politically mobilized local elites, however split they might be on other issues, and that a common interest in growth is the overriding commonality among important people in a given locale-at least insofar as they have any important local goals at all. Further, this growth imperative is the most important constraint upon available options for local initiative in social and economic reform. It is thus that I argue that the very essence of a locality is its operation as a growth machine.
Basically, the landed elite use cities as real estate cartels for personal gain.
I aim to make the extreme statement that this organized effort to affect the outcome of growth distribution is the essence of local government as a dynamic political force. It is not the only function of government, but it is the key one and, ironically, the one most ignored. Growth is not, in the present analysis, merely one among a number of equally important concerns of political process.
And then, an optimistic note on what’s possible when growth is not priority #1.
When growth ceases to be an issue, some of the investments made in the political system to influence and enhance growth will no longer make sense, thus changing the basis upon which people get involved in government. We can expect that the local business elites-led by land developers and other growth-coalition forces-will tend to withdraw from local politics. This vacuum may then be filled by a more representative and, likely, less reactionary activist constituency.
One can dream! But even back in 1976 Molotch was seeing why local press would continue to let the idea of growth go unexamined, tacitly deferential to its logic.
A (city newspaper’s) financial status (and that of other media to a lesser extent) tends to be wed to the size of the locality. As the metropolis expands, a larger number of ad lines can be sold on the basis of the increasing circulation base. The local newspaper thus tends to occupy a rather unique position: like many other local businesses, it has an interest in growth, but unlike most, its critical interest is not in the specific geographical pattern of that growth. That is, the crucial matter to a newspaper is not whether the additional population comes to reside on the north side or south side, or whether the money is made through a new convention center or a new olive factory. The newspaper has no axe to grind, except the one axe which holds the community elite together: growth. It is for this reason that the newspaper tends to achieve a statesman-like attitude in the community and is deferred to as something other than a special interest by the special interests.
That makes a whole lot more sense than the local news definition of “objective” reporting I’ll tell ya that. This might be why our local media bit so hard for the “Worcester Renaissance” narrative or flag waived for Polar Park instead of digging into the recklessness of the financials.
(Shout out to Professor Jack Delehenty over at Clark’s Sociology Department for recommending this article! And for inviting me to speak at your classes. Always a good time!)
Basically, Molotch’s Growth Machine is a way of understanding city government as being the provenance of local elites with vested interest in the city’s real estate. They might work together, but they don’t have to work together. There need be no conscious conspiracy. So long as their material interests align, they operate as a cartel pursuing growth at all costs and for personal benefit. City Hall is their primary tool. The Machine in the Growth Machine.
So instead of an examination of growth you get the kind of stuff produced by Ray Mariano, a tired old politico with a long track record of railing against welfare. Stuff like using the bully pulpit of the “free press” to defend his personal friends against scary youths and their “divisiveness” and how they don’t play by the rules of pretending to like everyone and doing nothing of use. Embarrassingly hollow and petty writing which should have never been published. I’m sure if there was money for a real columnist they wouldn’t have. I’d wager Mariano’s columns go up because they’re cheap-to-free and they come on time. It’s content and you got it up there and you got one step closer to filling the insane corporate-mandated publishing quota on your increasingly small and overworked editorial staff. I spent most of my career as a writer in newsrooms Gannett was wringing profit out of and it is an environment where there’s no time to seriously consider the quality of the product. Not when you have four people’s jobs to do.
But my god, Mariano routinely lowers the bar. Every time his work goes up it’s just a sad reminder that the Telegram used to have real columnists who cared about the craft. A real local newspaper columnist can give a publication a sense of personality and authenticity and moral authority in the way most other newspaper jobs can’t. The sort of stuff that makes journalism worth pursuing and important to people. Past Telegram columnists lended the institution respect because they knew what people were talking about and they knew how to write something interesting to advance the conversation. It’s hard to be really good at but it’s not hard to do a baseline job. Now you have someone who really can’t even hit that baseline. Ray Mariano used the column to take a cheap pot shot at a young person in politics then bent over backwards to make it look like a passage in a real column. He quite transparently uses Thu as a place-holder for a mush of vague grievances he can only express through innuendo and allusion because if he said what he meant out loud he’d get in trouble. The choice to attack Thu in the manner he did is not subtle or clever, let alone intellectually honest, and I think that it’s probably apparent to people with even casual news literacy. And on top of that he couldn’t even get his facts right. Easy facts. Publicly available facts. What a joke.
If the editorial leadership at the Telegram is making any judgements on whether Mariano is fit for a regular column, it probably has more to do with his standing as a longtime local political figure than his writing or politics. He’s a former mayor and former head of the Worcester Housing Authority among other posts. He’s got a Wikipedia page and all the connections of a local petty lord. Given that Worcester’s political culture is built on people using institutions designed for high-minded democratic debate to hash out petty personal grievances in a way that’s surreal and beyond satire, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Mariano, a product of his environment, would use a newspaper column toward the same end (this thinly veiled squabbling was demonstrated quite clearly in the recent spat over a little league field between Phil Palmieri and Candy Mero-Carlson).
I know I’m making a bigger deal of Ray’s column than it deserves. It really is just a stupid piece of junk that maybe 100 people at the Senior Center read with interest. But reading it evoked a deep and lasting feeling of frustration and despair. It honestly threw me into a days long depression. I was seriously considering that the time and energy I’ve spent understand and writing about this city was a mistake. Wasted time. I was in a real hole, all cuz of freakin Cape Cod Ray (he doesn’t even live here lol). But after sulking for a while I said to myself like it or not this is my job and so set out to write about the column as a first glimpse of the stupid and contrived attack lines coming our way this election season from the old guard and how to best counter them. My column was supposed to be about how this tactic of blaming progressives for “diviseveness” stems from an inherent insecurity—they can feel intuitively that they’ve lost the moral argument and to avoid that terrain they’ll resort to framing this election as a referendum on “divisiveness.” The progressives are the meanies and we just wanna get along.
I was gonna write an analysis about how that’s a dangerous if obvious trap. It sucks you onto a playing field of petty grievance airing if you fall for it and that’s their home turf. Policy? Not strong. Incoherent and inherently dishonest-sounding. But oh boy. Thinly veiled personal attacks in a rough approximation of how real politicians talk? Very strong. Candy Mero-Carlson is a master of this niche skill. When she’s on a tear and it’s complete nonsense but she’s talking like she really means it, she’s talking to someone directly, and that person knows it, and that’s all that matters. She’s just beefin’ and she doesn’t care how bad the rhetorical disguise is. If we try to play on that turf we’re not gunna win. We’re the first round of humvees they sent to Iraq. Warm butter. We need to say “If trying to do better for the city is divisive than yeah sure I’m divisive. Next question.” It’s playground logic with these guys and “who cares” is the most powerful sentiment in the toolbox. Yes. I’m divisive. Who cares.
But thinking about how if I’m right (and I would put money on it) and all we’ll hear for the next year is “divisive” while we’re still engaging in the ritual trashing of homeless encampments to inflict suffering for suffering’s sake and no one’s talking about it, I will be flying dangerously close to the sun at all times.
Currently however it inspires a sort of muted spiritual exhaustion. That Dementor I mentioned up top. Especially after watching the council progressives get ground into misery as they tried and failed to do something useful with the power of the council all last year. It’s just not cute anymore. Not after a couple goes around this ride. The petty and unserious-yet-so-deadly-serious nature of these fundamentally weird and vain people who’ve spent decades competing for who gets to complain about the recycle bin lids and rats with the most authority while doting on the City Manager in search of little political treats and press conference photo placements... I’m tired.
It was definitely fun at first, back in my early Worcester Magazine days around 2016-2017. Easy ‘he said she said’ stories and meanwhile I have all these fascinatingly complex character studies. I may not have learned anything about how to run a city but I certainly learned a lot about how vanity is expressed by people who never had an outlet for healthy expression of it. People who never got to learn through excitement and embarassment how there’s good ways and bad ways to express yourself. Little life lessons that allow you to be normal after a while. Maybe even funny or good at telling stories or charming or some sort of artist if you’ve figured out how to read people’s respones to your little expressions of vanity and realize you’ve got a little thing going where it feels good to let that emotion out and feel it resonate in some way.
But what if there are people who never got to learn those lessons because they weren’t ever in an environment where they felt comfortable being weird or annoying, never felt the high of singing a nice song that made someone cry a good cry or the awful low of telling a joke that didn’t go over. The little moments that give you a subconscious sense of when an audience is receptive and when they aren’t. What if there was a person who never learned those intuitive lessons about how to let your vanity out but they still had a lot of it. And then what if, late in that person’s life, they were handed a microphone and the legal authority to say how they feel for five minutes at a time, and that fear they’ve never had to face about how the audience is going to receive the expression of vanity is not something they have to consider anymore because it doesn’t matter. You have authority now and it entitles you to your audience. You dont need to earn them or worry you‘ll fail to do so. They’re legally captive. And now this person has five minute chunks of time where they can do all the self expressing they want so long as it’s loosely related to a certain subject. And it feels good inside to finally be able to get it out and they sit down after speaking for their entire five minutes and they have no idea what they said and it doesnt matter because that’s not the point. Just the talking is what feels good and because you have authority now, no more performance anxiety. No more risk of failure to confront. A stage and a captive audience. No other goals. No larger political project. Every vote and position taken is oriented around whether that person thinks it will get them re-elected and ensure their vanity a continued access to its newfound outlet.
Just a hunch there might be some of that going on. And if some of that was going on with some of our councilors, the people who really understand the assignment of protecting growth at all costs realize they’re no threat at all. Let em talk! Sure!
Initially, the way Worcester city councilors behaved was illuminating and jarring and quite unique compared to other municipalities I’d covered. The first time around the election cycle was just a constant puzzle. Why do they want this job? What are they doing with it? It was just funny the second election cycle I covered. A big absurd play. Still pretty funny the third time. Now, my fourth time, we stand a real chance of getting rid of these jokers for the first time in recent memory and that should be exciting but I don’t feel excited. More nervous. The outcome I am deathly afraid of is they do a good enough job scapegoating progressives that it motivates reactionaries who just want someone to hate. We don’t make any gains or even lose some of our three seats. The opposite is much more likely. The wind’s at our backs. But I really do fear the stupid thing working regardless of how obviously stupid it is. Divisiveness is the marquee issue and the blame is laid squarely on the new guys and the council reverts back to a culture of cozy complacency while growth dictates the direction unabated.
I don’t want that. The city doesn’t deserve that. This progressive movement can easily beat that. It’s high time we all acknowledge this Dementor lurking in City Hall and understand that the effect is real but it can be countered and this time next year when we’ve taken control of the place we can kick him out once and for all.
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Here’s a good tweet re Mariano
On the proposed charter school front (read: post #1 and post #2 on that issue) there’s been an interesting development. A coalition of local activists called Free Worcester put out a statement the other day alleging the local Roman Catholic Diocese would violate its own policy if it let the Worcester Cultural Academy lease the building, as it is a secular institution. Weird. Interesting to see how that plays out if and when the Worcester Cultural Academy gets that far. Here’s to hoping they don’t however. Transparent cash grab.
Aaand on the election front it looks like Jenny Pacillo, friend of the Worcestery Council Theater 3000 Stream and general woman about town, has announced a bid to run for District 1 city council. That’s the latest of a few interesting developments and rumors which I’m going to compile in the next couple days. We’ve still got a couple more months of speculation and rumors and official announcements and bluffs. Candidates can’t officially pull papers until April this year, which is pretty late.
And lastly, any Dire Straits fans in the chat? I just actively listened to Sultans of Swing the other day after passively listening to it my entire life and it blew my mind. Amazing song. It’s got its own whole interior world.