Growing list of at-large contenders
Challengers launch campaigns for City Council seats
Standing before a mostly black and Latino crowd at the Bella Luna/Milky Way restaurant in Jamaica Plain last Wednesday, education activist Julia Mejia made the case for her candidacy for an at-large seat on the City Council.
“Running for this position is an opportunity to not only step into my own power, but to bring my people with me,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of community organizing. We can scream and hoot and holler all we want, but if there’s no one on the inside ready and prepared to do the work, then nothing’s going to change.”
Mejia, who says she’s so far raised $17,000, is getting an early start on the November 2019 election, and she’s not the only one. A chain of events that started with at-large Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s September victory over U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano may lead to as many as 12 candidates contending for the four at-large seats. Come January, when Pressley heads to Washington to represent the 7th Congressional District, veteran perennial candidate Althea Garrison — the fifth-place finisher in the 2017 election — will step in to fill the vacant seat.
Perhaps because Garrison has been running unsuccessfully for council seats since the early
1980s, political activists appear skeptical that she’ll hold onto the seat. Her impending installation on the council has attracted challengers in much the same way as seals on Cape Cod attract great white sharks.
So far, seven challengers have set up campaign accounts with the state’s Office of Campaign and Public Finance or otherwise indicated their intention to contend for one of the four at-large seats: Mejia; BPS elementary school teacher Taushawn Tinsley; political activist David Halbert; attorney Jeff Ross; business owner Domingos DaRosa; attorney Mimi Turchinetz; and Alejandra St. Guillen, who recently resigned as head of the mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement.
Mejia, Tinsley, Halbert, Ross and DaRosa are officially in the race. St. Guillen has not confirmed that she will run and Turchinetz says she has not decided. Other potential candidates that sources said are mulling runs include attorney Jose Lopez, and Ramon Soto, who works in Mayor Martin Walsh’s education cabinet.
If all four incumbents run for re-election and all nine potential challengers jump in, the 12-way race could make for some crowded candidate forums.
If all eight challengers run and Garrison and the three incumbents opt for re-election, all 12 will face off for the four at-large seats in a preliminary election next year. The City Council will be the only race on the ballot. As a so-called off-year election, 2019 will likely have lower turnout. In the sleepy 2015 at-large race, Ayanna Pressley was the top vote getter with just 31,783 votes. That year, with only five names on the ballot, Annissa Essaibi-George came in fourth with 23,447, bumping longtime incumbent Stephen Murphy. Voter turnout was just 13.6 percent, half the 27.8 percent turnout for the 2017 municipal election in which former District 7 Councilor Tito Jackson took on incumbent Mayor Martin Walsh.
Whether a crowded field of challengers pushes the vote totals higher or not, reaching the more than 20,000 voters likely necessary to secure a slot on the November ballot will likely require significant campaign contributions. Essaibi-George, the most recent addition to the council, raised more than $86,000 in the 11 months leading up to the 2015 election, on top of the $24,562 she brought in from 2014.
Mejia’s $17,000 war chest may be commendable for a first-time candidate, but she has a bit of ground to cover catching up to the $48,123 in incumbent Annissa Essaibi-George’s account, the $238,494 incumbent Michelle Wu is sitting on and the $300,562 incumbent Michael Flaherty has.
If Wednesday’s fundraiser was any indication, however, Mejia might well put a dent in the gulf between the challengers and incumbents. Sprinkled in the crowd were contacts she made while she was in the pro-charter camp as founding head of and organization originally called the Charter Parent Leadership Action Network. Among the attendees was Dominic Slowey, head of the public relations firm that has represented pro-charter organizations in Massachusetts.
Although Mejia told the audience she no longer supports lifting the cap on charters, “because that’s the wrong conversation,” her connections to the movement and continued work on cross-sector collaboration could open doors to deep-pocketed donors.
While attorney Jeff Ross hasn’t raised much since he ran unsuccessfully for the Suffolk County register of deeds seat last year, he loaned his campaign $75,000 in March, giving him the third-largest war chest in the race so far.
Candidates reached by the Banner cited education, displacement of low-income and middle-class renters in the housing market and crime as key issues they would work on in the council.
“We’ve got schools closing,” said DaRosa. “People are being gentrified. There’s not enough low-income housing and the crime rate is on the increase. We need change. The same-old, same-old politics has to change.”
Tinsley, who teaches special needs students at the Taylor Elementary School in Mattapan, also cited the city’s BuildBPS program, which aims to both develop new school buildings and close down existing schools.
“They aren’t focused on the needs of all our students,” Tinsley said.
Halbert, taking a different agreeable tack, said he plans to work with the Walsh administration, if elected.
“I really want to work in collaboration with the administration and other councilors on education,” he said.