Felix Arroyo Ascends to At-Large Council Seat

It's not like he hasn't been here before. This building, with its cavernous and bomb shelter-like halls of power, is familiar to him. The issues are familiar to him, and so is advocating for them and the people they touch. And the game, he knows that, too.

What's new is this label: first Latino city councillor in Boston history. And it's the label that he'll wear prominently, for a little while anyway. He'll always be the first, but being the first and then doing something with that, that's Felix Arroyo's aim.

His was not the now heavily-worn path to today's Boston City Council of youthful political involvement, a sharp haircut, and some upward mobility. He is, even as a rookie, among the Council elders.

"It's not really new for me," Arroyo says. "I have been always following the issues that affect people in my community and beyond, particularly quality-of-life issues."

And in the Ray Flynn administration, he held key positions that allowed him to traverse the city's power structure, hammering on his pet issue of education as a member of the school committee, and mastering the power structure as personnel director. He served as a policy advisor to Senator John Kerry.

No, it's not that he hasn't been there before, because certainly he has. It's that they haven't been there before; that's what makes Felix Arroyo the answer to the trivia question.

Out to the community

"For me, politics is a means in a democratic society that enforces principles that benefit us, regardless of the implications they may have or whether some people may not agree with them," Arroyo says, leaning back in casual clothes in his second-floor office in Jamaica Plain. "In essence, that's what called me to do this."

The eyes twinkle when he talks the philosophy of what he does, and the education that he champions so fiercely is evident in him. The University of Puerto Rico, Harvard, MIT, they've left their marks from his undergraduate and postgraduate days. In an age when politicians befoul even the most rudimentary cliches, his second-language arsenal flips out "fustigate." His police detective father and garment seamstress mother raised a son in the projects of Puerto Rico who prizes learning.

"I do believe that a society that values itself transmits knowledge, skills, and values to the next generation through education," Arroyo, a Hyde Park resident, says. "Public education is a value within itself, the ability of a society to recognize that all its members are entitled to a quality life and a good education."

In 1992, he resigned as director of personnel for the city so he could serve on the Boston School Committee, leaving a salaried post for pro bono work. By '94, he was president of the Committee. Arroyo pushed for bilingual education, special needs services, and the arts, and fought a losing battle over MCAS.

Snubbed by Mayor Tom Menino for reappointment in 1999, after butting heads with the mayor for a few years, he became Director of Advocacy at the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation (HOPE). There, he worked for housing, jobs, bilingual education, higher education access for those traditionally without, the environment.

And in 2001, he placed fifth citywide in a run for four at-large seats. When Mickey Roache left to become Suffolk County Register of Deeds, Arroyo ascended to the Council.

"He has a love for people and it fits in perfectly because of his at-large position," says Roache. "I think Felix could play a very significant role … and take his strength out to the community."

Early controversy

And then, brief moments after taking the oath of office, Arroyo is hit with the vote on this year's City Council President, a contest between Maura Hennigan and Mike Flaherty. Hennigan is the At-Large Councillor from Jamaica Plain, a 20-year Council veteran who's run statewide and is weighing plans for a mayoral bid in 2005. She's part of what some councillors termed "the crazy caucus," a municipal Gang of Three.

Flaherty is the incumbent, an At-Large Councillor from Southie, and stands with the coterie of young, white males who now comprise nearly half the roster, also jockeying for the top spot in two years.

Arroyo joined Charles Yancey and Chuck Turner to throw his support behind Hennigan, casting his lot with "the crazy caucus."

Fighting the tide on his first day? One councillor calls it "an opportunity for divisiveness." Those who backed Flaherty caution that Arroyo's vote sets a tone. One Flaherty supporter, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says, "He showed today that he kind of compromised himself and marginalized himself … Today was an important vote for Felix."

"The onus will be on him to demonstrate that he will work with all of his colleagues on the Council," Flaherty says.

Arroyo dismisses the controversy.

"I don't think in this business of being a representative of the people on the Council, that you can have a permanent grudge against anyone," he says.

He recalls Hennigan's support in buttressing the neighborhood against big business during his tenure as head of the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association.

"I don't see any actions so far that indicate any negativism because of my vote," Arroyo says, acknowledging that the result was a foregone conclusion, calling his ballot "symbolic support for her 20 years as a woman leader," and expressing support for Flaherty. "I hope that everyone here is mature enough not to judge me on one vote."

'I welcome the challenge'

His new office peers down on Faneuil Hall and the waterfront, and statues of James Michael Curley.

"There were others who went before who had to have someone lead the way," he muses.

"I think it is a very responsible position. Being the first of anything, being that, you set a standard. In this case, of course, my ethnicity is represented as I am."

While he contends that he will not be judged solely on his ethnicity, he knows he is the standard-bearer, and points to Menino as a trailblazer who punctuated a century of Irish mayors with an Italian period, or exclamation point.

"I know that people look at me and they see the whole Latino community. But people in my community have been served by people in other ethnicities and I expect to reciprocate that."

"Just having finished redistricting, I really began to understand how Latinos have just sort of moved throughout the city," says Councillor Maureen Feeney. "I think it's wonderful that, as the Council moves forward, that it's going to be more representative of the city."

"That Boston is ready for Felix is what is most exciting to me, that the body politic is ready to look to him as a leader," said Jarrett Barrios, the Latino state Senator from Cambridge.

Ralph Martin, former Suffolk County D.A. and a political heavy, said Arroyo's rise reflects the populace's increasing acceptance.

"I think, as a city, we've become more comfortable with each other," Martin told the Reporter. "It's something to be celebrated, but I don't think it's viewed as revolutionary as it would have been 10 or 15 years ago."

Arroyo points out that 60 percent of the city's Latino population is not eligible to vote yet, and predicts a rising gravity for the Latino vote.

And that gravity better come fast, for Arroyo is up for re-election come September.

"What is new in my case is that I don't have two years to make an impact but nine months," he says. "And so the sense of urgency, of moving ahead … rise to the level of time that we have. I welcome the challenge; I think it is fascinating.

"But I also know that there were people who were not Latinos who felt that it was time for a Latino to have this opportunity … Boston people are beginning to look at conditions much beyond their ethnicity. It's not that ethnicity is not valuable and a part of who a person is. It's that people are becoming more sophisticated."

The day after he was sworn in, Arroyo joined Menino and Latino City Hall employees in celebrating Three Kings' Day, a sign to him that the ethnicity he represents has won a seat at the table.

But he cautions against defining his work too narrowly, because "I also expect to bridge those differences among groups and point to those communalities. I'm looking for ways in which we begin to understand who we are, what moves each other, so that ultimately we can have one city - in purpose, development, and action."

He is the first, and will be labeled as such, but Felix Arroyo transcends that narrow role and looks to carve out one that establishes his legacy beyond merely that of a pioneer, and into that of a difference-maker.

"Regardless of where I come from and what my name is, I am always ready to deal with people as people."