Despite gains, African-American political circles don't square with at-large candidates

Shortly after Linda Dorcena Forry's election to the House of Representatives was assured by her March 15 primary win, leading figures in the city's African-American political establishment met for a summit at the Hampton Inn on Massachusetts Avenue. Gifted with three consecutive electoral victories hailed as iconic for minority political clout - including Felix Arroyo's 2003 City Council election and Andrea Cabral's sheriff win last year - the power-brokers fretted about whether they ought to coalesce behind a promising black candidate in this year's at-large council race, or let the election cycle pass.

The cast of approximately 40 included state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, state Rep. Marie St. Fleur, Boston housing chief Charlotte Golar Richie, high-profile pastors like Rev. William Dickerson and Rev. Gregory Groover, and other elected officials, city employees, mayoral loyalists and critics, and grassroots activists, including a number of Latinos and Caribbean-Americans.

"It was interesting, because some of the people that were at the meeting had never worked together before," said one of the participants. It was a closed-door, off-the-record meeting of an ad hoc group.

At times growing contentious, according to several people who were there or were briefed later, the discussion struck at the core of a political dilemma facing the African-American political apparatus, with implications far beyond next Tuesday's preliminary or November's final vote: How to recruit and support political talent up to the task of winning elections and furthering issues of concern to communities of color.

No African-American has served in an at-large capacity on the council since Bruce Bolling relinquished his seat to run for mayor in 1993.

Ultimately, two African-American candidates did step forward. However, Althea Garrison and Roy Owens are frequent ballot visitors whom most observers dismiss as marginal candidates, though Garrison once held a House seat. Former councillor Gareth Saunders is running a low-key, write-in campaign for mayor.

And the result, not recruiting a fresh candidate from the pool of African-American political talent, melded with an array of other factors and bore fruit Monday, when one dozen people stood on the City Hall steps for the Black Political Task Force's announcements of its council endorsements. Their selections: one Latino for a district seat, a Latino and an Asian for at-large spots, and one African-American who is seeking a 12th term against a man who has run against him seven times and never received 15 percent of the vote.

An at-large field with no potent, progressive black candidate next Tuesday will go before an electorate that would have seemed predisposed to favor one, and many African-American political figures are frustrated.

"I think it's a missed opportunity not to have an African-American in the race," said veteran political consultant Joyce Ferriabough, adding that she was pleased with Arroyo and Sam Yoon, who joined Charles Yancey and Gibrán Rivera as Task Force endorsees.

"There needs to be some fresh blood in every community, so that's why I'm a little disappointed we didn't see another African-American, particularly an African-American woman," said Ferriabough, Bolling's wife, who did not attend the March meeting.

"I think there are people that are giving - blacks that are giving - thought to other races," said James Cofield, treasurer of the Task Force, "but I'm not sure what the dynamic has been that would lead to no blacks in the council race."

March's confab was designed to weigh just that issue. Several indicators hinted that the calendar could be ripe for a well-backed African-American candidate to fare well this year. Maura Hennigan's mayoral bid vacated one council seat, the field was already stacked with Irish-American hopefuls who could be counted on to cancel each other out by seeking the same votes, and - perhaps most importantly - minority and progressive clout seemed on an upward arc, the voters grown confident with swelling political muscles.

On the other hand, analysts said, a number of other conditions could have discouraged an organized effort to "prop up" a candidate. Arroyo's popularity in the African-American community - he has benefited from his membership in Team Unity, the council race coalition that includes Yancey and Chuck Turner - disinclined Arroyo partisans from getting behind another hopeful who could siphon off votes in some neighborhoods. "Bullet voting" - casting just one vote of the four available - benefited Arroyo in his strong 2003 showing, and the prospect of crowding the ballot with other progressive candidates of color has worried Arroyo supporters.

Further, when Wilkerson moved last spring to push a pair of black candidates, Emmanuel Bellegarde and Kerby Roberson, out of the 12th Suffolk House race, her tactics drew criticism, and a spokeswoman said this week that she's rethought her involvement in local races. Wilkerson sided with Forry - whose husband, Bill, is managing editor of the Reporter newspapers - angering others who called her involvement divisive.

Other potential contenders are unwilling to trade their current posts - in either the private or public sector - for the hazards of an unpredictable election.

Finally, analysts said, deep-running fissures in the African-American political community, rivaling and often surpassing those in other ethnic groups, have prevented cohesion in the past. Some black churches stand at odds with liberal politicians who hew to the left on social issues. Other political players differ over methods, evidenced by the Wilkerson controversy in March, and the fault-lines laid bare by Ego Ezedi's 2003 challenge of Yancey, a classic battle between the old and new.

Said one political player who did not attend the meeting: "I wasn't sure I wanted some of those folks playing kingmaker for me."

When the meeting's attendees that decided that these factors - combined with a shortening calendar - made gathering their sway behind a chosen one, the African-American community was left with Garrison and Owens.

"I think it's surprising that they wouldn't find it worth trying," said Chris Cagle, who writes a political blog (leftcenterleft.typepad.com). Cagle said such a candidate likely would need to draw support, as Cabral did, from white progressives who don't affiliate as much with the "constituent voters" who pour out of the city's more traditional ethnic bases.

"Frankly, I'm not at all surprised" that the powwow failed to result in a unified effort in back of one candidate," said one political strategist, who is white and did not attend the meeting. "There's an enormous amount of political potential within the African-American community, but also a lot of infighting and, maybe worse than that, disorganization that really hurts at times."

Seeding the farm team of prospective black candidates has long been a source of concern within the city, addressed extensively in the media and in discussions like the one in March. But, with perceived momentum from recent elections and an unpredictable at-large field amidst a mayoral election cycle, some observers cite this year as a bygone moment to seize one of the four citywide seats.

Black political figures have splayed their support. Top get-out-the-vote strategist Mukiya Baker-Gomez is working this year with Matt O'Malley, the first white candidate with whom she's allied herself, after the pair helped organize Cabral's campaign last year. Both Cabral and state Rep. Marie St. Fleur are also behind O'Malley. In June, Mel King spoke at the campaign kickoff for Sam Yoon, who also boasts backing from Ezedi and former candidate for district attorney and council Eddie Jenkins. Both Yancey and Turner are allied through Team Unity with Arroyo, whose roster of supporters includes Cabral and state Reps. Gloria Fox, Shirley Owens-Hicks, and Byron Rushing.

Cofield and others caution that a lack of African-American candidates doesn't necessarily translate into ignorance of African-American issues.

And black progressives have for themselves a bona fide gubernatorial candidate in Deval Patrick. Patrick has rolled up progressive support across the state, but is hamstrung in Boston, where Mayor Thomas M. Menino has effectively stiff-armed him from a natural support base by endorsing his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly.

But, many agreed, snaring an at-large seat could have positioned a black candidate well for the race that would take place in 2009 if Menino recaptures the mayoralty this year, as most political observers expect him to.

Ferriabough said her husband, Bruce Bolling, regretted not running for an at-large spot in 1983, instead opting to for re-election to the Roxbury district council seat. Bolling lost a 1991 at-large race, but was appointed to the citywide role in 1992 after council president Christopher Iannella's death.

"He rues that day because he feels that … had he gone at-large in '83 and won the at-large seat, he would've been able to keep the momentum going for an at-large candidate of color," Ferriabough said. "It took 20 years for an at-large candidate [of color to win a seat]."

2005