At-large race features lots of names, but little drama

From left, Martin Keough, Annissa Essaibi-George, William King, Priscilla Flint-Banks, Herb Lozano (with microphone), Erin Murphy, Jeff Ross, Alejandra St. Guillen, Michael Flaherty, Domingos DaRosa, Julia Mejia, Michelle Wu, David Halbert, and Michel Denis. Not pictured: Althea Garrison. Chris Lovett photo

When Ayanna Pressley declared her upset victory in last September’s Democratic primary over Congressman Mike Capuano, she was cheered by a jubilant crowd at IBEW Hall in Dorchester that was sprinkled with both colleagues from the Boston City Council – and some aspiring successors.

If the election was a triumph of generational and demographic change, it was also a boost for the council itself. The weaker partner of Boston’s strong mayors, the council is better known as an off-ramp to the political twilight of county administration. But for Pressley, the council turned out to be a springboard, catapulting its first member in 25 years—since Tom Menino became mayor in 1993 —to an office squarely in the public eye. And she was the first councillor from Boston in 46 years to win a seat in Congress.

Heightening the interest in last September’s election were other campaigns, including the open race to succeed Dan Conley as Suffolk County District Attorney. There were also primary challenges to Democrats in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, two of which unseated members of the party’s leadership team.

But the ferment of 2018 was a far cry from the doldrums of 2017, despite a challenge to Mayor Marty Walsh by Councillor Tito Jackson. In the same election, there were only eight candidates running for the council at-large, one of them—the late Kevin McCrea—making some of his campaign appearances dressed as a clown.

Because the at-large field in ’17 was too small to require a preliminary election, the four incumbents were expected to win handily. That proved to be the case, with the fifth-place candidate, Althea Garrison, trailing fourth-place Annissa Essaibi-George by more than 27,000 votes. But that was good enough for Garrison to inherit the seat vacated by Pressley after her win over Capuano. It was Garrison’s first time in office since she was a one-term state representative in the early 1990s.

2019: More Candidates, But Less Drama

This year, as candidates at-large try to maximize support, the only overlapping races will be the competition for seats being left open in three districts: Allston-Brighton’s District 9; Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Roslindale’s District 5; and District 8, comprising the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the West End, and parts of the Fenway and Mission Hill.

Larry DiCara, a former at-large councillor and longtime observer of city elections, said the question in 2019 is whether campaigns for the open seats, and in other districts, “will result in an electorate which is less white and contains fewer homeowners, city employees, and other traditional voters. Turnout in those districts with real races/open seats,” DiCara added, “may determine who is elected city wide.”  

Of those areas with seats up for grabs, the one with the highest recent turnouts, as well as with clear signs of population change, is District Five, where a racially diverse group of candidates is trying to succeed Tim McCarthy. The district is also home to State Rep. Angelo Scaccia, who managed to win last year’s primary over four challengers while receiving less than 40 percent of the vote.

This year’s at-large race for the council is the first since 2003 without a concurrent election for mayor to have a preliminary vote, which is scheduled for September 24. The director of Pressley’s campaign last year, Wilnelia Rivera, predicts a citywide turnout this year at 18 percent, or some 64,900 voters. That’s almost double the number of preliminary voters in 2003 when the city’s population was smaller and the percentage of registered voters casting ballots was only 13.58 percent.

Despite multiple Latino candidates on the council ballot, Rivera says this year’s 15 at-large competitors will still have to mainly look for support from “traditional voters.” Currently advising at-large candidate Alejandra St. Guillen and District 7 incumbent Kim Janey, Rivera says those voters will also face some “hard decisions.”

“For the last 10 years voters have chosen to diversify their local leadership and this election is no different,” she said. “But this time, with speculation that the mayor may not run again, it’s an opportunity for some to elevate their own leadership, e.g. Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell.”

This year’s at-large challengers include candidates who have worked for councillors and other elected officials—such as David Halbert and Alejandra St. Guillen, who previously worked with the incubator of Latino political leadership, ¿Oíste? Other candidates, such as Priscilla Flint-Banks and Julia Mejia, have worked as advocates for local job opportunities and better schools.

Another first-time candidate, Erin Murphy, offers a background as a teacher and advancing access to recovery and treatment for mental illness.

Herb Lozano combines work in a trade union with youth development efforts for the Boston NAACP, as well as political campaign experience.

A business owner active with efforts to protect neighborhoods from discarded needles for drug injection, Domingos DaRosa is making his second consecutive run. Also making a second try is William King, a former teacher with experience in youth development.

Martin Keough, an attorney from West Roxbury specializing in contracts and land use and zoning, is following up on previous campaigns for the council and county office. Another attorney with similar past campaigns, Jeff Ross, touts experience as an advocate “for immigrants and LGBTQ+ families.”

First-time candidate Michel Denis, who attended Bunker Hill Community College, said he was concerned about education and the need for affordable housing.

At a forum Saturday in Mattapan, at Morning Star Baptist Church, several candidates called for increasing the number of housing units affordable to people in their surrounding neighborhoods.

The positions ranged from that of Councillor Michael Flaherty—favoring a “balance of affordability”—to Michel’s call for units going to people making $40,000 a year.

Calls for Change vs. Edge for Incumbents

During the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, there was broad support for giving local residents more control over city decisions on development and community benefits. Candidates called for everything from scheduling meetings at different times to having “community assemblies.” Councillor Michelle Wu called for something even more radical.

“The system isn’t broken,” she said. “It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. We just need to blow it up and put a community one in its place.”

Despite the calls for change and the spike in candidates, there remains a huge gap in resources. The latest reporting with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance shows only two candidates with current funding in six figures, Flaherty and Wu. Even Essaibi-George, with $92,550.49, had more than double the amount for the candidate with the next highest figure. For campaign receipts, Garrison reported a column of zeroes going back to 2013.

Another split emerged at Saturday’s forum when candidate were asked to name any rival who would have their support. Most candidates declined to specify, but some of the non-incumbents traded names—mostly with each other.

Garrison also stood out by criticizing some of her rivals for staying at City Hall while she was spending more time at neighborhood meetings. None of the rivals were specified, but one of the moderators, the chair of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, Fatima Ali-Salaam, chastised Garrison for violating a forum guideline that barred criticism of other candidates. In response, Garrison stood up, strapped on her handbag, and walked out.