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At-large slate vies for votes in South End before primary

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
At-large slate vies for votes in South End before primary
Candidates vying for an at-large seat on Boston’s City Council participate in a forum at the Harriet Tubman House in the South End on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. (From left): Felix G. Arroyo, Doug Bennett, John Connolly, Robert Fortes, Tomas Gonzalez, Tito Jackson, Andrew Kenneally, Stephen Murphy, Hiep Nguyen, Ayanna Pressley, Sean Ryan, Jean-Claude Sanon, Bill Trabucco, Scotland Willis. The 15th candidate, Ego Ezedi, appeared at the event earlier in the evening, but was not present for the forum. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Author: Sandra LarsonCandidates vying for an at-large seat on Boston’s City Council participate in a forum at the Harriet Tubman House in the South End on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. (From left): Felix G. Arroyo, Doug Bennett, John Connolly, Robert Fortes, Tomas Gonzalez, Tito Jackson, Andrew Kenneally, Stephen Murphy, Hiep Nguyen, Ayanna Pressley, Sean Ryan, Jean-Claude Sanon, Bill Trabucco, Scotland Willis. The 15th candidate, Ego Ezedi, appeared at the event earlier in the evening, but was not present for the forum.

In one of their last public debates, candidates for at-large City Council seats tried to differentiate themselves from their 14 rivals, answering questions on schools, CORI reform and city revenues at a forum held last week at the Harriet Tubman House on Columbus Avenue.

It took four long tables pushed together to seat the large group of at-large hopefuls before an audience of at least 150 people who mostly applauded politely, occasionally cheered and generally appeared intent on learning something of substance about the candidates.

The forum was moderated by Sue O’Connell, co-publisher and acting editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and the South End News. O’Connell kept a firm watch on the timer, allowing candidates just one minute to respond to questions prepared by forum organizers.

Several candidates arrived late or left early because of other commitments. Ego Ezedi, running while on leave from his job as executive director of the Roxbury YMCA, briefly worked the crowd at the “meet and greet” portion of the event, but left before the forum began. Robert Fortes, a strategic planning executive with the MBTA, and incumbent at-large councilor John Connolly were present for only for a few questions.

Candidates were asked what distinguished them from the pack.

“I happen to be the only woman running,” said Ayanna Pressley, former aide to Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass.

“But that’s not why you should vote for me — I happen to be the right woman,” she added, citing her 16 years of experience in government and her ability to collaborate.

Dorchester accountant Hiep Nguyen spoke of arriving from Vietnam with his parents and siblings, 12 people in all.

“We came with nothing but our empty hands,” he said. “Twenty years later, most of us are property owners and we all went to college.”

Nguyen attributed his family’s success to hard work, family values and the opportunities provided by the city of Boston.

“I benefited greatly from the city, and I want to give back,” he said.

Jean-Claude Sanon, a radio host, teacher and Haitian American community activist, said that as an immigrant himself, he “understands the needs of those who are really in need.”

Felix G. Arroyo, the son of former at-large councilor Felix G. Arroyo and an ex-staffer for City Councilor Chuck Turner, cited his experience as a community and labor organizer, while Fortes trumpeted his 15 years of government experience.

Tito Jackson said he is the only candidate who has actually created jobs through his work as industry director for information technology in the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development under the Patrick administration.

Bill Trabucco, an emergency medical technician from Dorchester, was also in attendance at the forum. Tomas González, former Latino community liaison for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, arrived late and missed the first question.

The other incumbent at-large councilor running for re-election, Stephen Murphy, drew laughs when he joked about his senior status in the candidate group.

“I used to go around saying, ‘Give a young guy a chance,’” he said. “‘But now I say, ‘There’s no substitute for experience.’”

On education, the candidates were asked how they would reduce the dropout rate and narrow the racial gap in academic achievement in the Boston Public Schools (BPS).

Arroyo framed the issue in stark terms: “The achievement gap means students of color are doing far worse than the white students. But when the school system is 85 percent students of color, what it really means is we are failing the majority of kids that use the school system.”

González noted that 50 percent of the city’s high school dropouts are English language learners.

“We don’t have dual-immersion programs after fifth grade,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing we need, a long-term commitment to help kids who come to this country, who want to be here.”

Andrew Kenneally, former aide to City Councilor-at-Large and mayoral hopeful Michael F. Flaherty, and ex-Nantucket Selectman Doug Bennett both said they want to bring back neighborhood schools in order to save money spent on busing.

Scotland Willis also strongly advocated neighborhood schools, but stressed the prospective social benefits — that good schools close to students’ homes would lead to increased participation in school activities and, he argued, “a sense of relationships and unity between students, schools, parents and teachers and administrators” — more than the savings.

With an eye on reducing transportation costs, BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol R. Johnson proposed changing the district’s method of assigning students earlier this year. But some critics balked, arguing that a return to neighborhood schools would eliminate the opportunity for low-income and minority students to attend higher-performing schools in more affluent areas.

Sean Ryan, a Fenway Park hot dog vendor and libertarian whose answers generally reflected a desire for smaller government, said he strongly supports allowing the charter school system to expand. Jackson said he supports charter schools and public schools, and suggested looking at public schools that work and using them as models to improve all schools.

Murphy suggested that instead of reinstituting neighborhood schools, the city could operate the busing far more efficiently.

“As a transportation manager in a prior life, I can tell you we don’t do [busing] well,” said Murphy, who served as vice president of the transit company Autobus Inc. from 1979 to 1984, according to his council biography.

“We don’t fill up the buses, we don’t route them well,” he continued. “So instead of 700 vehicles each day, we could run 350,” and the saved money should go directly into services like after-school programs and English language instruction for non-native speakers, which are important for the reducing dropout rate, he said.

On the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system, all candidates were in agreement: Yes, it needs reform.

But while none answered the second part of the CORI question — how to balance protecting employers’ rights with instituting changes that remove impediments to ex-offenders’ finding employment or housing — some offered more details than others on how they would change the system.

“The CORI system is not supposed to be one strike and you’re out,” said Murphy, who gave the most detailed answer. “I authored two pieces of legislation on the Boston City Council on how the city of Boston deals with people with criminal records.”

Murphy listed four changes included in his bills: eliminating “cross-identity” issues by instituting measures to ensure that offenses appearing on a record were actually committed by that individual, and not by someone who shares the same name; limiting CORI to open cases and convictions, not dismissals or acquittals; reducing the time it takes to seal a CORI record from 15 years to 7 for a felony and from 10 to 3 for a misdemeanor; and, he said, “to make sure there’s a nexus between what somebody did and what job they’re applying for.”

Pressley said her father was incarcerated for 16 years of her life, so she knows the struggles faced by those trying to re-enter society after paying their debts. She called for “a nuanced approach that balances safety concerns but also allows second chances.”

The candidates were evenly split on whether they supported the recent meals option tax instituted by the city to increase revenue. Those that supported it cited the real need for funds to support the continuation of services and retention of teachers, police officers and firefighters. Those opposed argued that the tax hurts small businesses and consumers at a time when the economic downturn is already causing plenty of pain.

Bennett said the tax increase “hurts you and I — it costs more for us to eat out at local restaurants.” He said Mayor Thomas M. Menino is sitting on a rainy day fund of $800 million that should be used to fill budget gaps rather than tax increases.

González promised to work for transparency in city government.

“When have you seen a city budget? You haven’t,” he said, and pledged to change that.

González also took a moment to note — to great applause — that this group of at-large challengers was the most diverse and dynamic field of candidates he has seen.

Erline Belton, 65, of Roxbury, attended with her daughter, Dawn Morse, also of Roxbury. Belton said she was familiar with the candidates “on a surface level,” and was hoping to hear specifics during the forum.

Belton and Morse both said they felt the important issues were well-covered, though Belton said she would have liked to hear more discussion of the role of the mayor and the balance of power in city government. But, most importantly, she said, “It was great to see that they showed up, that they made the time for us.”

The forum was hosted by South End News, Bay Windows, United South End Settlements, Congregation Am Tikva, the Bay State Stonewall Democrats, ¿Oíste?, El Mundo and the Log Cabin Republicans.

Coming out of the Sept. 22 preliminary, a narrowed field of eight finalists will compete for four at-large seats in the Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009, election. Voters can cast ballots for up to four at-large candidates.