By Roy Lincoln Karp
Much needed change may soon be coming to City Council District 5. On Nov. 5, voters will have the opportunity to elect a new councillor to represent the district, which includes Hyde Park and parts of Mattapan and Roslindale. The race pits Ricardo Arroyo, a public defender whose father and brother both served as at-Large councillors, against Maria Esdale Farrell, chief of staff to outgoing District Councillor Tim McCarthy.
Results from the preliminary held in September reveal an electorate that is divided in large measure along racial lines. The “old guard” – longtime white voters who have a stronghold in Ward 18 – is lining up for Esdale Farrell. Haitian, Latino, African-American, and most progressive voters are going for Arroyo, who is of Puerto Rican descent.
Though the district is 70 percent people of color, it has never elected a non-white councilor. A big part of the problem stems from the Democratic Committee in Ward 18, which includes two-thirds of the D5 precincts. A 2016 filing with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance reveals a committee that skews heavily white and no longer reflects the ward’s racial diversity.
According to Rachel Poliner, chapter leader of Progressive West Roxbury/Roslindale, her constituents have long been concerned about the ward’s lack of transparency and democratic norms. The committee doesn’t hold any public meetings or host candidates’ forums, has no web or social media presence, and does not make its by-laws available so voters can learn how to get more engaged.
Ward 18 is a throw-back to an era of backroom deals that turned people off of politics and, let’s be frank, kept people of color out of power. Esdale Farrell is a member of the ward committee and I have seen no evidence of her taking on the local political establishment or making waves. She is smart, thoughtful, and enthusiastic, but I don’t think she will challenge the status quo or open up the doors of local government to those who have long been shut out.
When I asked her how she would address issues of equity, she told me she just “treats everyone equally.” That is the kind of tone-deaf response that ended the Congressional career of Michael Capuano and that just won’t fly in 2019. During a televised debate, Capuano asked to be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. I like Mike Capuano, and I agreed with all his major votes in Congress, but he lost my support that night. Ayanna Pressley made the case that the job is about more than your voting record. Since then, she has proven her case, becoming a real presence in the community just by showing up and engaging communities long neglected by her predecessor.
Arroyo is similarly making the case that a city councillor’s job is not simply about delivering constituent services. He rejects the alleged divide between leaders who are visionary and those who focus on the nuts and bolts of government. “That is a false choice,” he says. “There is a justice aspect to constituent services. That is the entire reason I am running.”
As a public defender, Arroyo has seen the devastating impact of poor public policy on communities of color, from criminal justice and public education to housing and transportation. He is the better candidate for District 5 not because he is Puerto Rican, but because he understands the complex intersection of race, economics, and public policy far better than his opponent. As a city councillor, he would bring new ideas and perspectives to a district that for too long has been stuck in the past.
Roy Karp is a Roslindale resident who lives in District 5. His column appears monthly in the Reporter.