The thing about a State of the City (SOTC) or State of the Commonwealth (also SOTC, confusingly) address, not entirely unlike the better-known annual State of the Union (SOTU) national edition but far more insidious due to the limited regional draw, is that most people who pay attention to them and know that the politicians speaking are completely full of gas don’t mind the gross hyperbole since they are getting what they need out of the lecturer’s administration, while the rest of the attendees are just the innocent recruited spectators who, in exchange for a shoutout in honor of their friend or school or church or team will forever put their blinders on and hold signs, volunteer, and vote for that candidate.
As far as most reporting media is concerned, pols are basically allowed to have their say during these spectacles, fact-checking be damned. They’re just a show. Still, I’ve always found that as a journalist, it helps to stop by a state of the something every once in a while, if not simply to hold officials accountable for their subjective self-aggrandizing, then for a chance to watch creatures of Beacon Hill and City Hall commingle. Unlike meetings of the House, Senate, or City Council, where only delegates to those bodies are present, all the honchos show up for these updates, including many of the private sector players whose donations power the political world. Basically, the crowd is a collection of anybody who wants something, or who may need anything from permits to a tax break in the future.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s latest State of the City, delivered at Symphony Hall last week, rang true to traditional form. Prior to the formal program, elected figures held court beside the stage as John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development, hurried up and down the aisles greeting VIPs and colleagues. House Speaker Robert DeLeo worked the room, offering handshakes to most but enthusiastic five-finger slaps for a select few, as did former Suffolk County DA Dan Conley, now a consultant at one of the Commonwealth’s most powerful lobbying firms. Mass Gov. Charlie Baker was there too; in other states, it may seem strange to have a Republican governor holding court on a Democrat’s big night, but in this case, Walsh was about to announce that he and Baker are soon to embark on a Mass-boosting “road trip” to Washington, DC, together.
Then came marching, flags, and bagpipes, followed by student performances of a few patriotic classics and brief readings from a God squad brought to paint Walsh as some kind of “shepherd.” By the time the Boston cops who went viral last year singing “God Bless America” turned up to perform a ditty, heads were giddier than Trump supporters at a Kid Rock concert.
As for the speech itself, Walsh hit all of the expected notes: More people are working now than ever before, “we have created more affordable homes than ever before,” Boston is the best city for pushing people up into the middle class, and so on. Other than some demonstrable positives—all the money his administration has put into libraries, the outcome of last year’s strike by hotel workers, a new jazz spot coming to the Bolling Building, millions for Franklin Park and Boston Common—we were mostly offered arbitrary cherry-picked numbers and buzz phrases: “In the national crisis of police-community relations, we committed to lifting people up, not locking people up”; “The state of our city is strong, but I’m worried about the state of [our union]”; “The White House turned its back on climate change, but in Boston we believe in science.”
Trump is bad, Mass is good. Get it? “Instead of building walls,” Baker and Walsh are heading to DC to “show them how to build bridges.”
While they’re in Washington, they ought to give members of both national parties a lesson on public relations, because this bipartisan buddy bit they’re milking in Boston has everyone from lawmakers to dealmakers applauding while everyone else either smiles and nods or pays no attention at all.
CHRIS FARAONE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF