News Analysis: Flaherty reclaims his niche

Michael FlahertyMichael Flaherty

Michael Flaherty walked into the Boston Elections Department alone. Without fanfare, television cameras or an entourage, he put pen to paper and joined the list of candidates vying for the City Council’s four at-large seats.

His Monday morning trip into City Hall sets up a ballot royale in an off-year election, with low turnout expected in most of the city’s neighborhoods. All four incumbents -- Stephen Murphy, John Connolly, Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley -- are running for re-election and a number of potential candidates, like Flaherty, have pulled nomination papers.

“We’ll take all 15 candidates in the same fashion,” was all Murphy would say Tuesday on his way out of the building.

The total number of people who have applied for nomination papers, at last count, is actually fourteen, and the list includes plenty of familiar faces, incumbents aside. But Flaherty’s is the most prominent, and the one that has been the focus of the chatter inside the building Flaherty spent nearly a decade in as a councillor at-large. Five of those years were spent as City Council president.

Many of his former (and possibly future) colleagues remain reluctant to talk about Flaherty’s candidacy publicly and some in City Hall still thought as late as last week that Flaherty wouldn’t pull the trigger on another at-large run.

But there he was on WGBH’s Greater Boston on Monday night, telling host Emily Rooney that the City Council spends too much time on “small ball” issues; and on FOX25 on Tuesday morning, telling Gene Lavanchy he didn’t have any regrets about unsuccessfully running for mayor in 2009. And, on BNN-TV’s Neighborhood Network News, telling anchor Chris Lovett that there’s a need for “an alternative point of view on the council” to check the power and policies of the Menino administration.

In interviews and in the four-page release he emailed out to reporters on Sunday announcing his attempt to reclaim an at-large seat, Flaherty, a former prosecutor, has reprised some of the talking points and criticisms he leveled during his mayoral run: parts of the city have become “shooting galleries,” the school assignment policy needs to be revamped, and development is stalled in Downtown Crossing, with the “huge crater” where Filene’s basement once sat a symbol of that.

“We live in a democracy and he has every right to run again,” said City Councillor Charles Yancey, who represents parts of Dorchester and Mattapan and frequently clashed with Flaherty during their time together on the council.

“If all the incumbents work very hard, they should be okay. But Flaherty is a threat,” said Yancey.

Some political observers may be tempted to look at 2007 for comparison purposes. That year, nine candidates ran and the city cancelled the preliminary election. Many thought John Connolly, who at the time was challenging four incumbents and four other challengers, would take out Murphy. (That thinking — that Murphy is a soft target among the incumbents— is in currency among some Flaherty supporters this year.) But it was Felix Arroyo the elder who lost, with just 13.6 percent of registered voters turning out. Connolly, who topped the ticket in the 2009 at-large race, came in fourth in 2007, receiving 21,997 votes to the elder Arroyo’s 18,579 votes. In 2007, Flaherty was the ticket-topper.

There are, of course, several flaws with that analogy. The dynamic of the City Council is different these days, with a younger feel to it. The incumbents are growing into their jobs and building stronger city-wide bases, observers say.

“None of the four incumbents are going to mail it in,” said one City Hall insider.

Arroyo’s son, Felix G., who was elected in 2009, has more money in his bank account now than his father did at roughly the same point in time and recently wrapped up a tour of civic associations in Dorchester that touted his various accomplishments. The younger Arroyo, who once worked as a union organizer for the powerhouse SEIU local based in Dorchester, has built a particularly strong pitch to organized labor groups.

Pressley, also elected in 2009, wasted little time gearing up her campaign operation, holding fundraisers, volunteer meetings, and hitting civic associations with a stump speech about her own accomplishments.

Both Arroyo and Pressley were among the councillors who bucked the mayor last year and pushed back against a plan to close four libraries, while Connolly has hammered away on issues like expired frozen food found in school cafeterias.

“Anybody can win, anybody can lose,” said state Rep. Marty Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat and top union leader who is backing Pressley and has backed Arroyo. “It’s hard to say what the voting electorate will do.”

The swirl of the broader at-large field — and what impact each candidate could have on the race— remains an open question. Previously unsuccessful candidates for City Council At-Large, like Kevin McCrea and Sean Ryan, have applied for nomination papers. Potential newcomers include Will Dorcena of Hyde Park and Kenneth Jervis of South Boston. If enough of them (at least nine) make the ballot, it will necessitate a preliminary election in September and longtime observers say that will aid the incumbents, acting as a sort of early-warning system for anyone “on the bubble.” That’s exactly what happened in 2003, after the elder Felix Arroyo finished fifth in the preliminary and then surged into the top four on the wave of a progressive rally to his cause. And of course, while their boss may not be on the ballot this year, Mayor Thomas Menino’s campaign team is unlikely to sit on the sidelines as their chief rival — Flaherty— aims his fire at Menino as much as he does the present City Council.

Whatever tack Flaherty takes strategically will also be a factor. He could look to former City Councillor At-Large Mickey Roache as an example. For Roache, a former police commissioner who ran for mayor in 1993 and frequently had high vote totals for at-large, it was all about name recognition, a small organization and the loyalty of an ironclad South Boston-Dorchester base.

The difference is, according to the City Hall insider, Roache was an amiable councillor who wasn’t aggressive in his criticisms of the council and the mayor. “He’s been tossing bombs from left and right,” the insider said of Flaherty.

Seeking to head off questions about whether he is running to get back on the council in order to slingshot into another mayoral run in the future, Flaherty maintains he is focused on his council run while not ruling out future runs for higher office.

At the front desk of the Election Department’s basement offices on Monday, Flaherty stood next to Jessica Taubner, the campaign manager for Pressley who also has Flaherty’s name on her resume. (She hopped on board his mayoral campaign in 2009 after her original boss, Sam Yoon, lost the mayoral preliminary and joined Flaherty on a ticket as “deputy mayor.”)

Taubner was there to deliver over 1,100 signatures – potential candidates need 1,500 certified signatures in order to make the ballot – gathered on behalf of the Pressley campaign as Flaherty was applying for nomination papers and start his signature-gathering process.

Flaherty reached out and shook her hand. “Good luck,” he said.