Next week Boston hosts its first national political convention -- and the first-ever hometown convention for a major-party nominee. For at least one week, all eyes will be on Massachusetts.
Many Americans would say they already have a good read on the Bay State: home of the Red Sox, Harvard and the Kennedys. Add to that high taxes, pointy-headed liberal politics, a polluted harbor and a history of racial tensions. Sound about right? Well, not exactly.
"Taxachusetts" was a moniker we heard often the last time a Bush ran against a Massachusetts Democrat, but it can't be pinned on us this time. In fact, our state ranks 36th among the 50 states in terms of the combined burden of state and local taxes, according to the Tax Foundation, a national think tank. This is a sharp decrease from 1980, when the Bay State ranked second in the country. It is true that Massachusetts residents pay relatively high taxes in absolute dollar terms, but this is because we have higher incomes. Median household income in 2002 was $55,226, the fifth-highest in the country, so taxes come from a higher base.
Nonetheless, middle-class families here have their own challenges. Home prices are soaring, making our state the third-costliest market in the country even after adjusting for our high incomes. Family income in real dollar terms, after having shot up a robust 20 percent in the 1980s, fell slightly in the 1990s. Add to that a relatively low homeownership rate of 64 percent, the seventh-lowest in the nation, and the picture for average families could be much brighter. Bottom line: Massachusetts is an expensive place to live, but housing costs rather than taxes are the chief culprit.
As for left-wing politics, Cambridge and Amherst maintain their well-earned reputations as bastions of liberalism, but the state as a whole voted twice for Ronald Reagan and hasn't given a victory to a Democrat for governor since 1986. A whopping 45 percent of the electorate voted in 2002 to repeal the state income tax. Our state's high court may have legalized gay marriage, but dozens of state legislators crossed party lines in both directions in maneuvers over a constitutional amendment banning it. In fact, the blurring of party lines is nothing new here. Although the Bay State has the most Democrat-dominated state legislative body in the country, the current House speaker was elected in 1996, when a minority of his own party banded together with Republicans. As a result, an antiabortion fiscal conservative holds one of the two most powerful jobs in the state legislature.
Images from Boston's busing crisis may be forever seared in the nation's consciousness, but on race, as well as other matters, the Massachusetts capital is a vastly different place than it was 30 years ago. Boston is now a majority minority city, with whites making up 49.5 percent of the population, down from 59 percent in 1990. Neighborhoods teem with a rich mix of colors and cultures, including thousands from Caribbean, Latin American and African nations.
Since 1980 Boston's Hispanic population has increased by nearly 50,000 and its Asian population by 29,000. These are major changes for a city proper of fewer than 600,000 people. The state is also becoming more diverse. From 1990 to 2000, the percentage of nonwhite residents shot up by half (from 12 percent to 18 percent). And Massachusetts has become increasingly reliant on its immigrant population for workers. Were it not for immigration, the state's labor force would have shrunk by more than 200,000 in the past decade.
So when America tunes in to the Democratic National Convention, it will see a Massachusetts that belies the stereotypes. In fact, it will see a Massachusetts that looks a lot like America.
Of course, we still have our quirks. "Only Bostonians can understand Bostonians," wrote Henry Adams almost a century ago, and the same may be true today. Our loyalty to the Red Sox, though they break our hearts each fall, is constant. Oh, yes, and that polluted harbor? It's clean now, and you can fish there when you get here.
The writer is president of the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, a nonpartisan think tank based in Boston, and publisher of CommonWealth, an independent magazine of politics, ideas and civic life in Massachusetts.