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Sam Yoon: 'Power Of Ideas' Over Power Of Politics03:51
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In seeking a fifth term in 2009, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is facing the most crowded field of challengers since he first won the job in 1993. Three other candidates are vying for the post: City Councilors Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon, and South End businessman Kevin McCrea.

Early in the race, WBUR invited each of the candidates into our studios to discuss their campaigns and the issues they care about.

Sam Yoon is 39-years-old, serving his second term on the council. He is the first Asian American on the council, and the first Asian-American mayoral candidate in Boston.

Explain your vision for the city of Boston.

BOSTON CITY COUNCILOR SAM YOON: I envision a city where we have a new kind of politics. It's a politics that isn't so much focused on power as it is on ideas and the power of ideas.

You know, we've been a city where the name of the game is kind of divide and conquer. But I think we can be a city where it's more about bringing people together.

What's the most pressing issue facing Boston right now and how would you deal with it, or how would you unlock the talent the city has to deal with it?

YOON: Well, you know, the schools I think — and I'm speaking as a Boston public school parent — I think are going to be the major challenge of our city going forward. And I think what we need to do is take a transformational approach from governance at the school committee — whether it should be elected versus appointed — I think we should look at charter schools and whether we should lift the cap on charter schools for those charter schools that have a proven record of success.

I think we should look at combat pay versus merit pay, which simply means rewarding teachers for being in tougher situations and encouraging more recruitment of teachers in math and science where-- and I was a math teach in inner-city schools, so I kind of know the importance of this. But again that takes a change in the mindset of the leadership of this city, which is something that I'm trying to do.

Well you laid out a couple of things there that you said we should take a look at it. Let me get you to offer your opinion on some of those issues. Should there be performance pay for better teachers?

YOON: No, I don't think performance pay is what matters. I think what matters is the expectation that teachers have when they go into the classroom and that they're rewarded for taking on tougher challenges.

What would you do about the dismal high-school graduation rate?

YOON: We have to, again, look at every aspect of how our schools are being run and just not take, you know, no for an answer to any challenge that we make. We need to challenge our teachers' union, we need to challenge those who are worried about charter schools and their influence — and bring all those pressures to bear.

We need to challenge the way we fund our schools, by state formulas, and say, 'Is that a formula that will continue to work for our future?' But I continue to believe — oh, and also busing. You know, we know that the transportation budget is growing and it's untenable, but we need to take all those pressures and then create solutions based on a collaborative approach and not just a political one.

We recently spoke with one of the challengers in this race, Boston businessman Kevin McCrea — also candidate for mayor — who said that bringing transparency into city government is a main priority. You've said this as well, and another mayoral challenger — your City Council colleague Michael Flaherty -- has pretty much said the same thing. What does a lack of transparency mean to you, and what should be done about it?

YOON: Transparency has to link, you know, what we are spending our money on and how we achieve those results. And what I would want our city to move to is performance-based budgeting. So using the potholes as an example, you know, we ought to know how much it costs to fill a pothole.

And we would know that if we knew how many potholes we actually filled, and what it costs to run that program. And then year to year we would say, 'Is it getting more expensive, is it getting less? How many do we want to do?'

You know, performance —  going back to schools and to learning, to tell whether we are spending our money in the right place, whether we have effective program and policies — it's a data-driven approach that, you know,  because we're such a politically-driven city, we're not in the habit of.

State lawmakers are grappling with what's called the worst financial crisis in the state history. More local aid cuts are predicted ahead for Massachusetts cities and towns, including Boston. As a city councilor, as a mayoral candidate, how should the city prepare for that?

YOON: The city can do so much more in just being efficient. Certainly, we need a new relationship between state government and city government -- in that city government doesn't have the authority and tools that it needs to govern its own future. But, you know, let's be clear, we need to clean our own house.

You know, the Boston Finance Commission has identified $74 million worth of savings that we could do simply by reforming, you know, some of the ways that we do business as a city. And these are issues that we're not talking about.

Instead, we're talking about unions saying this and mayor saying that and it's about a wage freeze and there's back and forth around that issue.

But, you know, we ought to be talking about how we saved money through, you know, saving on overtime — excessive spending of overtime. By modernizing the fire department.  By getting rid of some high-paid positions in our city that are just no longer needed. Or by doing something with surplus property that's just sitting there, that is not being sold and not being used, or not being leased for revenues.

Given the city's budget challenges,  should there be — will there be -- layoffs of teachers, firefighters, police officers?

YOON: Should there be layoffs? No, there shouldn't be.

Will there be?

YOON: Will there be, that's a crystal-ball question, and I think that's something that, you know,  is a continuing story.

But you're a city councilor, you're going to have to deal with this in the coming weeks.

YOON: Yes, I will.

You've looked at the budget figures — do the ranks of police officers, firefighters and teachers need to be thinned in order for the city to deal with this budget mess?

YOON: No. I don't believe so. I think there is plenty of savings that we could be doing that we're not talking about. Because, you know what, that's harder. That's harder to reform the way we've been doing things as a city for decades, rather than to ask unions to — out of contract -- to either take a wage freeze or face layoffs.

On the subject of money and, in this case, campaign money, you've been criticized for raising much of your money out of state. Why is it that a good chunk of your campaign money has come from donors outside of Massachusetts?

YOON: Well, I am doing more out of state fundraising, certainly, than the other candidates in this race. The fact is, Asian Americans across this country are very interested in what I am doing.

We are, as a minority, a community that is probably the least engaged in politics than other minority groups. And I'm very proud, frankly, for any donation that comes from someone from out of state who has no business with the city, who has no contracts or no way to benefit directly, you know, by supporting me.

They really just are giving me money because they are inspired by what I do and want to see me do well as mayor of Boston.

This program aired on May 11, 2009.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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