The recent general election for the Boston City Council appears to be one of those rare and important moments in the city’s history when its ever changing demographics finally break through to provide access to power for formerly marginalized minority communities.
The impressive re-election victories of Ayanna Pressley and Felix Arroyo, and the near-victory of Suzanne Lee in District 2, portend a shift in Boston’s power base, a shift that represents the organic change that makes great cities like Boston thrive.
When the Irish took power in Boston, they did so gradually. Hugh O’Brien’s inauguration as mayor in 1885 was a milestone event, but the election in 1901 of Patrick Andrew Collins (his impressive memorial is on the Commonwealth Mall) marked the beginning of an era of Irish-American hegemony in city politics. Following the election of John (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald in 1905, Boston would be led, with three largely forgotten exceptions (Mayors Hibbard, Peters and Nichols), by an unbroken string of Irish-American mayors until the election of our own Thomas M. Menino.
And it seems fitting, that as an Italian-American who himself broke down ethnic barriers, one of Mayor Menino’s lasting achievements will be his gentle and persistent guidance of Boston’s transition to an era of multi-racial, multi-ethnic politics. As mayor, he has empowered and supported communities that have long been under-represented, and in so doing he has had his eyes not just on the present, but on the future.
Adding to this, the recent victories in the redistricting process in Boston and across the state provide further reasons to be sanguine about the opportunity to level the political playing field.
By this time next year, the caucus of black and Latino state legislators could increase by 100 percent, from 10 to 20 members. And for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth we will have a congressional district crafted to reflect the diversity of our metropolitan community, offering a person of color a fair shot at election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Yet, our assessment of civic life for emerging minorities in Boston requires the leavening understanding of the still difficult terrain ahead. For example, we know that in the city council election where Pressely and Arroyo met with much success, approximately 85 percent of voters in the majority-minority black and Latino city council districts in Boston did not go to the polls.
This sober reality will require new strategies that produce re-invested notions of citizenship and public engagement in the black and Latino community. Support from local foundations and businesses, the development of fresh, indigenous leadership, and building the capacity of community-based and minority-led organizations will be helpful in this regard.
One specific idea: Let’s begin a precinct-by-precinct effort to change the stubborn disinterest in voting in these communities. We think that a coordinated effort to focus on turning around voting habits literally block-by-block, perhaps with the help of established advocacy groups and volunteers from our many colleges and universities, can help create lasting change in how people embrace their civic responsibilities.
The time for talking about the problem is over; the time to roll up our sleeves and capitalize on the momentum of recent events is now.
We believe that Bostonians have steadily moved away from a parochialism that was defined by what ward and precinct you voted in, what parish you prayed in and the race to which you belonged. Our city today is a more open, collaborative place where citizens can find common ground regardless of their background or voting precinct.
The impact of the recent election may be a while in being felt, but its meaning is clear: people who traditionally have lacked access, who traditionally have not had voices speak for them in the halls of power, are now coming into their own.
What that says about Boston is something good: Boston is a city of the 21st century; a place that continues to be welcoming to the newcomer and the stranger; a place that requires you to pay your dues but that ultimately gives everyone a chance at success; a city that nurtures differences and grows and prospers as a result. It’s the kind of place we are proud to call home.
James Aloisi is a former State Transportation Secretary. Kevin C. Peterson is the founder and executive director of the New Democracy Coalition.