The city council is staring down the last month of its legislative term, the election behind them and a diverse slate of councillors stepping up to the plate in anticipation of the new year. This year’s race reaffirmed their focus on at least one sentiment, councillors say: The city is feeling a crunch and Boston now needs to grapple with its growth, and the quagmire of equity and infrastructure issues that come with it.
“The people of Boston are generally very excited about the city,” said returning Councillor At-Large Annissa Essaibi-George. “It is an exciting time, there is a lot happening, there is a lot on the horizon. But, I’d say, as we’re enjoying this sort of bountiful time, everyone is hyper-aware of those that are being left behind in Boston’s success. It’s not even the undertone. It is very loud and clear to us that in too many places across the city, there is this feeling: ‘I am not able to participate in the city’s success.’”
Affordable housing, transit woes, scattershot development and density, and unequal distribution of resources are not new concerns, the legislators concede. But Boston is expected to have more than 700,000 residents by 2030, exacerbating longstanding structural limitations. The mere mention of traffic and density is enough to set many residents’ teeth on edge.
“The biggest thing we have heard is folks want to know what is the bigger plan is,” said District 4 Councillor Andrea Campbell.
If elections are anything to go by, the city is generally moving in the right direction. Boston voters – the 27.8 percent who turned out to cast ballots, at any rate – came down solidly in the incumbency camp. All current office holders running for re-election were successful and three new faces will join the council in its next term: Lydia Edwards in District 1, Ed Flynn in District 2, and Kim Janey in District 7. Since Ayanna Pressley's election in 2009, woman have rapidly gained ground on the council, now a sisterhood of six.
And the new council has a leadership decision to ponder in the near future, though some are getting a jump on it now.
Councillor Michelle Wu upended the normal order of deferring to more senior members of the council for the presidency in 2016. She ran a quietly effective campaign after her freshman term and was elected president unanimously, becoming the first Asian-American and the third woman to lead the council.
Under the rules, the president serves two-year terms, aligning with the two-year election cycle. After serving a term as president, the member can run and serve again after two years. So, although Wu finished atop the at-large ticket this year, locking down about 65,000 votes, her term leading the council is up. Calls around City Hall are already fueling speculation about her replacement.
“Michelle’s done a phenomenal job, and I think the council’s done a lot of great things under her leadership,” said at-large Councillor Michael Flaherty. First elected in 2001 and serving off-and on since then, Flaherty was council president from 2002 to 2006. “Having served as council president for five consecutive years, it’s having a spirit of cooperation with your colleagues, it’s taking the time to get to know each and every colleague and to listen to their issues and their concerns, as well as playing to their strengths,” he said.
It is early to begin this conversation now, several council members said, as presidential finagling usually doesn’t kick off before Thanksgiving.
Multiple City Hall sources confirm there are at least four councillors, district and at-large alike, actively making outreach about the prospect of the presidency, though the only person openly mulling a run so far is Essaibi-George.
“I’m exploring the role for myself,” she said. “I think what I’ve been able to demonstrate in my first term, I and my office staff have been really productive and able to set some really aggressive goals, both how we operate as an office, how we cover the city as an office.”
Politics surrounding selecting a president can be tangled. Councillors weigh the relative advantages to elevating an at-large versus a district councillor to that higher post, look for beneficial office and committee assignments, and consider the political priorities of the new president, even if at the end they decide to put a united face on the decision.