"It's quiet out here," is the standard Dot-onian comment on the at-large City Council race this cycle. With expectations of a low-turnout, little to no press coverage and only five candidates with operations proven to pull significant votes citywide, incumbents seem to be dusting off the old campaign gear only now, three weeks before the final election.
On the other hand, skilled political observers willing to bet a trifecta in the race are exceedingly rare.
"The only thing I can tell you for sure is Michael Flaherty will come out number one on the ballot," observed state Rep. Martin Walsh, chair of the Ward 13 Democratic Committee. "This election will absolutely come down to election day and who has the best organization to pull out their vote."
Outside of Flaherty, whose machine is kept well-tuned for future opportunities, the man pounding the Dorchester pavement the hardest seems to be John Connolly from West Roxbury, son of former Secretary of State Michael Connolly.
In the high turnout Neponset and Savin Hill territories where the 33-year-old lawyer has found support before, a growing number of key supporters are calling his name. This time around, Connolly said he is expanding his reach inside Dorchester and in other neighborhoods like East Boston and Back Bay, where he garnered an endorsement from the Ward 5 Democratic Committee. Ed Crowley from Fields Corner joined the bandwagon when Matt O'Malley, a 2005 candidate, endorsed Connolly.
"As far as I can tell in Dorchester, a lot of us who were working for Matt are working for John now," said Crowley. "He's a bright young guy. Without a primary, I think John has a good chance of unseating somebody."
The question might then be: Who? Incumbents Felix Arroyo, Sam Yoon, and Stephen Murphy all are subject to theories of why they might stumble. Arroyo because there was no chance to alarm his bullet-voting faithful with a close primary, Yoon - he 's the rookie on the council, and Murphy because his campaigns for offices since gaining the council seat in 1997 and a job offer from Gov. Deval Patrick earlier this year all allegedly show he is not invested.
For all three, someone, somewhere, has also alluded to a poor attendance record on the council. But an election where that rumor is not floated about a candidate is rare indeed. Things may be quiet on the streets, but the incumbents are not taking the election lying down.
Arroyo is shaking hands at random spots each morning, he said. He isn't going door-to-door because his supporters are "usually issue oriented people," and spread out all over the city. He prefers the strategy of calling voters, e-mailing and gathering crowds in central locations. Next week he'll attend an event with Barney Frank at the Club Café, a women's gathering at Hampton Inn on Massachusetts Avenue, and a Latino event in Jamaica Plain.
Yoon - who said he also tries to pull votes citywide rather than targeting high turnout areas - is also focusing on phone calls and using his 45,000-subscriber e-mail newsletter to keep his name on the mind. A Fields Corner resident, he likes to keep Dot on his side. His maroon and white signs pepper lawns from Franklin Park to the Neponset River, perhaps third in number to Connolly's blue and white and Flaherty's red, white and blue. He can also be expected to benefit from some bullet voting from Dorchester's Asian communities.
"This fellow Yoon has been so responsive to everything we have going on," said Ralph Cooper, vice-chair for Franklin Field area's Ward 14 and director of the Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse. "He's also called to see what's going on. It's like a breath of fresh air, this interest in Ward 14 - not the norm."
Murphy lacks a campaign website, but he's on the job as well, identifying voters and re-confirming their support, even door-knocking in some select areas. On Wednesday morning, he was headed out to a senior event in vote-rich West Roxbury. His visibility campaign is just kicking off, he said, and he's starting to produce a new round of campaign literature. Anyone who thinks that the rumors about his job offer from Patrick or his extra-curricular campaigns will be his ruin need only recall the race of 2005, where the very same theme floated on the ether. He held on to the number four spot.
"It's almost like report card time is how I look at it," said Murphy Wednesday. "I just wish people would base it on attendance and performance. I do the job full time. I'm not sure about the challengers who have businesses. That's my shtick: showing up. That's what I do."
Yet, of all the candidates, Connolly seems to be the most active on the ground in Dorchester. He's running phone banks, a solid corps of volunteers garnered through over a dozen house parties and a line on Boston College students, and he's hitting numerous community and civic meetings.
On Sunday, Connolly hopped house parties from the North End to Dorchester to Mattapan.
"The changes in demographics mean you have to run competitively across the city," said Connolly, hot dog in hand at a backyard barbeque on St. Brendan Road. "Last time we did well in Savin Hill, Neponset and Cedar Grove. This time we're reaching out in Ashmont Hill, Adams Village, Melville Park, Franklin Field Wards 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17."
From the Cullinane's place on St. Brendan's hill, where an outsider could mistake Connolly as part of the family and one woman said she would always vote for a good Irish name, to the Norfolk Street three-decker of Candace Burns and Paul Johnson, where Connolly and wife Meg mingle just as comfortably among an African-American crowd, Connolly's message is roughly the same.
Focused on his stated goal of finding ways to help young families stay in the city by addressing property taxes, schools and public safety, the message can tug on rich and poor, progressives and conservatives, people with high school diplomas and people with PhDs. For those that remember their history, it recalls the flight to the suburbs that destroyed urban areas across the country post World War II. But the same concern is flexible enough to take on different characteristics in every neighborhood.
"My property taxes have been tripled, I don't know if we can stay," he says from the deck of the Cullinane's single-family house. "I don't know if we can afford the $20,000 to $30,000 per year for private school, if we don't go the public school route. And I don't know about the safety of our streets."
In Burns and Johnson's living room, his talk rings around rising property taxes, the quality of public schools, and "the moral crisis in our neighborhoods: kids shooting kids."
In both, Connolly finishes by lambasting the image of two Bostons that he says are trumpeted by other candidates and the press, old Boston and new Boston.
"I can't stand those titles. They don't capture what Boston is all about. My wife is not from Boston originally, I am, but we're committed to staying in this city. That's all that matters."
All that will matter in this race for Council seats, according to many observers, will be retaining the attention spans of those committed Bostonians, and getting them out to the polls.