Friday, December 18, 2009

The Swearing-in of Jane Murray

Portsmouth Mayor-elect Jane Murray

Thursday morning, December 17, at a historic ceremony in the rotunda of the County Courthouse, Jane Murray was sworn in as Portsmouth’s first female mayor. The South Webster High School choir sang Christmas carols after the ceremony, and the words of one carol echoed in my head as I left the Courthouse: “The hopes and fears of all the years . . .”

I: The Hopes

For Mayor-elect Murray, our hopes are high. The city now has as mayor someone with the education, experience, diligence, and intelligence commensurate with the responsibilities and challenges of the highest office in city government. As she had promised throughout the campaign, she has assembled an advisory team, or what was called back in the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a kitchen cabinet, which includes none of the usual suspects. Rather, it includes accomplished and respected individuals, both male and female, both black and white, of various ages, from our community.

The Mayor-elect emphasized in her remarks to the several hundred well-wishers who attended the swearing in that she was just beginning what would be a team effort in which transparency and responsiveness would prevail. To underscore that point, she introduced her team of advisors, who were seated in the front row, providing a thumbnail biography of each. She went on to explain how she had become involved in the political life of Portsmouth after she became one of the flooded homeowners in the Grandview Avenue neighborhood. She had become one more victim of the incompetence and corruption of the Kalb administration. She promised a government that will help raise the city from the political and financial shambles that it is now in. Judging from the substantial margin she won the primary by and the margin of victory she achieved in the general election over two male rivals, the incumbent Kalb and the write-in candidate Skiver, she obviously has considerable support among the electorate. Hers was not a narrow victory: she has a clear mandate from the voters to make significant changes in the way city business is conducted.
Unfortunately the city charter may not give her the constitutional authority she needs to make those significant changes, but judging by the way she campaigned, there is reason to think she will be as effective and determined in running the office of mayor as she was in the way she ran for it.

Instead of putting in lots of time raising money to advertise in the Portsmouth Daily Times and on local radio stations, she chose to focus on the more economical path of creating a website, communicating with supporters face to face and through email, and ringing door bells, all of which cost her very little. The old way of running for office, through the traditional media (the newspapers, radio stations, and billboards) no longer pays off. In spite of the big bucks they spent on traditional advertising, Kalb and First Ward councilman Mike Mearan—the one the embodiment of incompetence, the other of corruption—were defeated decisively, removing the two biggest obstacles to progress in city government. Murray is a mayor for the digital, not the
analogical age. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” somebody said to me as Murray took the oath of office. Let’s hope she will prove worth the wait, and there is good reason to think she will.

Murray on May 1, 2009, campaigning for primary, which she won by wide margin

II: The Fears

But if the hopes are high, the fears are deep. Murray is boarding a listing if not a sinking ship, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited a nation in the throes of the Great Depression, in 1932, and just as Barack Obama did at the beginning of 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession. It took a decade before Roosevelt helped the country out of the economic doldrums. Whether Obama is going to succeed at turning things around is far from certain, especially with the Republicans saying no to anything that might redound to the credit of Democrats and the president, even if it would be good for the country.

Murray has an even steeper hill to climb than Roosevelt or Obama because Portsmouth has been going downhill not just for a couple of years, not just for a decade, but for about a half century; and it has been going downhill not just economically but also socially and morally, becoming a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, and lawyers and developers who have gotten rich on government pork and preferential treatment. Competition, supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, has all but disappeared in Portsmouth, where collusion and incestuous politics prevail. In America during the Depression, it was the New Deal; in Portsmouth for the last half century, it's been, except for the privileged few, the Raw Deal.

There are those who want to see Jane Murray fail; there are those who will do everything they can to see that she doesn’t succeed. I’m not going to say Police Chief Horner is one of those who will conspire against her, but the last two mayors wanted to remove him from office, yet he is still sitting in his corner, with his thumb in everything, while Bauer and Kalb are history. Horner will be involved in politics; you can count on that, and Murray should watch her back when the going gets tough. as it no doubt will. As somebody said to me after the swearing-in, if Murray really goes after the drug dealers, she’s going to stir up a “Horner’s nest.” Horner as a drug-buster has been a bust. That the notorious Journeys were able to chop up automobiles and sell Oxycontin for as long as they did at their garage, only a half mile from the police station, is one for the books. And she should watch out for the Portsmouth Daily Times, which will wait for its chance to pounce. Don't expect that shrinking but still slinking leopard to change its spots

As previously mentioned, the Portsmouth city charter does not give the mayor much executive authority. Since so much needs to be done, and she is so determined to do it, the limitations of her office could prove a serious impediment to progress. When I interviewed him for my video documentary, Recall of Mayor Bauer (1994), Frank Gerlach told me how frustrating it was as mayor to have so little authority under the charter. And as long as four years remains the term for city council members, the crooks will remain in control of that body by seeing to it that new lapdogs are appointed to replace those old ones who don’t complete their full terms for one reason or another. Howard Baughman's resignation to escape recall is the latest example of the way in which the council continues to be stacked with lapdogs; in this instance John Haas was
appointed Baughman's replacement. Albrecht, Mearan, and Haas are just the latest examples of lapdogs who were first appointed, not elected, to city council. A charter change to two-year terms will help stop the appointment shenanigans and make frequent recalls unnecessary, since citizens would be able to vote out the rascals on council every two years instead of being stuck with them for four. But it takes time and a lot of effort to get the charter amended, and meanwhile Murray will have to work with a council that has historically been a rubber stamp for the SOGP.

Marting Building

The Marting building we will always have with us. Or so it seems. It would be unfortunate if any of the new members of city council become a stalking horse for the SOGP-Marting Foundation. My suspicion is that the renewal of the campaign to tear down the Municipal Building is only the opening gambit in a political game that has as its ultimate goal the renovation of Marting’s and the turning over of the land where the Municipal Building is located to developers with visions of gambling dollars dancing in their head.

In the last eight years the Municipal Building has become a graveyard for the political corpses of those public officials, like Kalb, who made the stupid argument that the 75-year-old Municipal Building was decrepit and should not be renovated but the 125-year-old, leaky, moldy, cavernous, empty Marting building would be ideal for city offices. The truth is that renovating the Marting Building would represent not a step forward but a step backward. The voters didn’t decisively reject the Marting building several times and send Kalb packing in the last election only to have someone new try to promote Marting’s and Kalb’s other foolish policies, which have brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy, both financial and moral. If the county is in the toilet, financially, can the city be far behind? The election of Murray is an opportunity to put all the Marting malarkey behind us and to move forward.

Let’s have faith, during this holiday season, that the well-organized, stirring, and historic
swearing-in ceremony at the County Courthouse was a harbinger of better things to come, a sign of joy triumphing over tears, hopes over fears. “Fast away the old year passes,say the words of another carol, Hail the new, ye lads and lasses.”