Jan. 31, 2012
BOSTON — The wake for former Boston Mayor Kevin White took place Tuesday afternoon at the Parkman House on Beacon Hill. It's a fitting location, one that White loved, but also just steps away from where White faced a torturous political battle to save the city.
It was a political standoff that pitted every conceivable stakeholder against one another. There was money, politics, gamesmanship and personalities.
… The City of Boston against the state.
… Teachers versus firefighters, police, and public works employees.
… The mayor against the City Council and the Boston delegation on Beacon Hill.
… And most of all, White against Gov. Ed King.
“It was a political battle that just would never end. It went on and on. The name Tregor still kind of gets me a shiver down my back,” said journalist Frank Phillips, who covered the story for the Boston Globe. "This was the end of White’s term. There was some arrogance."
The need for a bailout
Boston was in dire financial straits: Firefighters and police were being laid off and the schools almost closed. White came to the State House for help. He needed the legislature to approve a bailout package, nicknamed the Tregor Plan, which he had spent months working out with the City Council.
But the Legislature refused, largely because White all but ignored the Boston delegation at the State House. "He was willing not to deal with individual legislators, coming here to the leadership," Phillips said. "I think that was part of the problem: they undercut him and there were all kinds of battles after that.”
A clash of characters
One of White's many battles was with Governor Ed King, a fellow Democrat who froze property taxes and was facing a rematch against Michael Dukakis.
"Ed King had been executive director of Massport at the time when they were trying to get an extra runway. And White was mayor of the city and there was always a lot of tension that came out of that," Phillips said. Furthermore, "White came from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, King came from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, and I don’t think they trusted each other at all."
King refused to sign the Boston bailout, partly because it included a 15 percent parking tax.
White changes his plan
Then a pivotal moment occurred in April 1982. Coverage from WGBH's "Ten O'Clock News" shows a more humble White as he appeared before a State House committee and presented an amended fiscal plan for the members' approval.
In addition to changing the city's "financial request," the mayor conceded power to the school board and City Council, which won significant budgetary oversight, scrutiny and review over the mayor's budget plans.
"These changes were made by way of compromise," White said. "Last year was a chastening experience … for my staff, for me and I think for all of us, and I hope in the long run has strengthened our relationships and enhanced the prospects of the passage of the bill."
With White conceding to many political forces, the Legislature passed the bill, which also led to the expansion of the Hynes Convention Center.
A compromise ... or a victory for the governor?
When King signed the bill in June 1982, political barbs flew, at first unnamed, and laughter rang out.
"That same high-ranking official who shall remain unnamed called me a political amateur. His political soulmate who shall also remain nameless is calling me a 'bleep' in paid advertising," he said.
Then, in what would seem unimaginable today by politicians who forged a compromise, King made it clear who won and who lost:
"When we began, the mayor wanted a 30 percent parking tax. There is no parking tax. The mayor wanted a new meals tax. There is no meal tax. The mayor wanted a new hotel tax. There is no hotel tax. The mayor wanted to borrow $90 million. We cut that in half," he said. "This bill is not the Tregor bill as mayor proposed it. It's not even a distant cousin … this is not a bailout."
King then took another swipe at White's next move: "Finally, before the ink is even dry on this bill, I'm told Mayor White is saying that he'll be back next year more state aid. … Since I plan on being here, he will need a lot of votes that he does not have."
After the dust settled, a 1983 Boston Globe editorial said this period included some of the "pettiest, meanest politicking the city has seen in some time."
That same year, White decided he had enough — and chose not to seek re-election to the office he held for 16 years.
Additional reporting by Sarah Birnbaum.