BOSTON — City Councilor and mayoral candidate Mike Ross stood before a couple dozen people at a farmers market in Dorchester’s Codman Square last week, talking about education, affordable housing and jobs.
But at the heart of his speech was a call for smarter government.
“This reminds me of that quote by Wayne Gretzky, who was a hockey player,” said Ross, 41. ”Someone asked him once, ‘Well, how come you’re such a good hockey player?’ He said, ‘It’s simple, I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going.’ And I think that’s what we need to do in government.”
It is a favorite line from a candidate selling himself as the innovator.
Ross launched his campaign with a tweet. He inserts the word “innovation” into virtually every prepared public statement. And his first television advertisement has him jogging through the streets of Boston in a slim-fitting T-shirt and shoulder bag, talking to the camera and handing out copies of his plan for a “smarter, safer Boston.”
The pitch — Ross as the youthful, forward-looking leader – has obvious appeal in large swaths of this high-tech city. But Ross, one of a dozen candidates for mayor, does not have the innovation space to himself.
City Councilor Rob Consalvo, another mayoral candidate, has talked about rubber sidewalks and expanding the use of ShotSpotter, an acoustic gunshot recognition technology that immediately alerts police to shootings.
And Ross delivered his speech just across the street from the Codman Square Health Center, where mayoral candidate Bill Walczak spent a career sprouting unlikely initiatives — from a one of its kind charter-school-in-a-health-center to an “Eat Green, Save Green” outreach promoting nutrition and financial literacy.
Ross does have a leg up in sections of the city where the innovation message might resonate most — his city council district includes the well-heeled Back Bay and Beacon Hill and student-heavy Mission Hill.
But the district has a poor record of turning out for municipal elections. And it’s unclear if the candidate’s message can appeal in more traditional areas of the city — whether vote-rich, white enclaves like West Roxbury or heavily minority neighborhoods like Codman Square, where some of the assembled last week seemed unfamiliar with Gretzky’s on-ice exploits.
Still, with just a month to go until the Sept. 24 preliminary election, when voters will narrow the field to two, Ross sees an opening.
Public opinion polls show more traditional candidates holding onto slim margins in the race. And more than one-third of the electorate, at last count, was still undecided.
That, Ross says, suggests a city looking for something different.
‘For 400 Years, Boston Has Reinvented Itself’
Ross was 13 when his mother sat him down and told him she was a lesbian. It was tough stuff, he said, for a Newton kid just trying to fit in.
So were the stories of his father, who spent five years in concentration camps. Lice, starvation, a beating that broke his back. Stephan Ross lost almost his entire family to the Holocaust before American soldiers rescued him at Dachau.
Ross, who would be Boston’s first Jewish mayor, said stories of “the complete and total breakdown of community” in his father’s native Poland — tales of neighbors informing on neighbors in exchange for a pound of sugar — have stuck with him.
“As the next generation, I always felt I had the duty to learn about the Holocaust,” he said. “And I think I took it to the next level in terms of wanting to understand how I could play a role in strengthening the community that I live in.”
Ross’s first job was with the city of Boston, helping to build its maiden web site — one of the first municipal sites in the country to allow for online transactions, like paying parking tickets.
He went on to to advance work for Mayor Thomas M. Menino. And he speaks well of his old boss; Menino, he says, gave him an education in politics — and taught him what a leader truly invested in his city can do.
But Ross’s overall message reads like a gentle rebuke of the old politics.
You shouldn’t have to know a politician, he frequently says, to navigate the bureaucracy. He seems enamored, instead, of the sort of frictionless government the city’s first web site promised.
The technology piece is part of a larger up-to-the-moment pitch: when he talks about his council record, he notes his work on the regulatory framework for the food truck industry and push for dog parks in the city.
“For 400 years, Boston has reinvented itself,” he said in his car, leaving the Codman Square event. “That’s been the secret to our success.”
And the city, he said, must be poised for the next re-invention.
That means keeping public transit open later, he said. It means taking back some of the tech industry lost to Silicon Valley decades ago. And it means partnering with Cambridge and Somerville and Quincy — rather than competing with them — to attract business.
But he also talked about expanding early education in neighborhoods with struggling schools and building a more robust vocational school at Madison Park High School.
“Here’s a guy who understands the critical importance of maintaining our lead in innovation in key industries and … at the same time is keenly aware that we need to find ways of making sure that prosperity is more broadly shared,” said Ross supporter Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.
‘Lost In The Crowd’
Ross, though, is opposed to some of the most significant reforms embraced by his competitors.
He does not want the state to lift the cap on charter schools, which have shown promising results in Boston. He is against a major reorganization of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which oversees development in the city. Critics call the agency too powerful and opaque.
And for all his talk of innovation, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, Ross suffers from a problem afflicting most of the dozen candidates: he hasn’t yet distinguished himself with a break-out idea or position.
“I think he’s been a bit lost in the crowd,” said Berry.
Ross, though, insists that his message — widely broadcast — will set him apart from the field. And he says he’s in a good position to spread the word in the closing weeks of the campaign.
As of Aug. 15, he had about $440,000 in his campaign account. That ranked him fourth behind Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley ($1.1 million), City Councilor John Connolly ($665,000) and State Rep. Martin Walsh ($530,000). And it put him well ahead of the rest of field.
Ross says his fundraising prowess — and the television advertising campaign it can buy — will be particularly important in a compressed race, with limited time to meet voters face to face.
His campaign also hopes the ads — and those of other candidates — will have an ancillary benefit: generating the sort of broad interest in the race that could excite young professionals and other Ross-friendly voters who often skip municipal elections.
Berry and other political observers are skeptical about the power of television in the campaign: it’s an inefficient tool, they say, given the expense of the Boston market and the fact that so many viewers live outside the city.
Perhaps. But if it works, Ross will find himself in a funny, if welcome position: the innovation candidate thrust one step closer to the mayoralty by a decidedly old-school medium.