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Vacancies spur city council candidates

Trio of departures could pave way for a majority people of color on council

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

A trio of departing incumbents has ratcheted up interest in this year’s Boston City Council races and spurred at least 14 candidates to vie for the soon-to-be vacated seats.

District 5 incumbent Timothy McCarthy, District 8 incumbent Josh Zakim and District 9 incumbent Mark Ciommo are bowing out of their respective Hyde Park, Back Bay and Allston-Brighton-based districts.

The departure of the incumbents and the emergence of a crop of candidates dominated by women and people of color could mean that for the first time in the council’s history white men will be in the minority.

Currently, there are seven white males on the council. The departure of the three district councilors leaves at-large Councilor Michael Flaherty, District 1 Councilor Ed Flynn, District 3 Councilor Frank Baker and District 6 Councilor Matt O’Malley as the last four white males in a body that throughout much of its history had no women or people of color.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for the City Council to be more reflective of the city and the issues of importance to people across the city than it currently is,” said NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha Sullivan.

State Rep. Russell Holmes, who has endorsed attorney Ricardo Arroyo in the District 5 race, noted that it will only take one more person of color to tip the scales on the council.

“All we need is one more seat,” he said. “Seven is attainable.”

Political consultant Wilnelia Rivera noted that many of the challengers have no ties to, and no allegiance to the mayor, a break with the traditional arrangement during the 20-year administration of the late Thomas Menino, who was rarely challenged by the body.

“What we’re seeing is a shift in the power structure of the council,” she said. “It’s clear that the power the mayor has had historically over the council is no longer there.”

Long road

Thomas Atkins became one of the the first African Americans elected to the City Council in 1967. It wasn’t until 2003 that Felix D. Arroyo became the first Latino to serve on the body. In 2005, Sam Yoon became the first Asian American to serve on the council. In 2010, Ayanna Pressley became the first black woman to serve on the body.

Currently there are six women of color elected to the council.

Cheryl Crawford, executive director of the voter rights nonprofit MassVOTE, said she hopes increased diversity on the council will translate into policies that better represent the will of the city’s diverse population.

“This is really an opportunity to put in place a lot of what we’ve been working on,” she said. “Now is our time to make some changes.”

Crawford said she would like to see reforms to the mayorally-appointed school committee, with either an elected body or a hybrid body. She also notes that the council will soon tackle redistricting, following the 2020 Census.

Other issues the council will face include improving police relations and making law enforcement agencies more accountable to the communities they serve, and stemming the tide of displacement in the city, Crawford said.

“Can we put the brakes on gentrification?” she said. “Can we make development happen for us?”

The districts

McCarthy’s Hyde Park district, which has long been majority people-of-color, has drawn out at least six candidates: attorney Ricardo Arroyo, who sought to unseat McCarthy before he withdrew from the race; activist Jean-Claude Sanon, who twice challenged McCarthy unsuccessfully; city worker and Democratic Party activist Mimi Turchinetz; writer and poet Yves Mary Jean; former McCarthy legislative aide Maria Esdale Farrell; and city worker Alkia Mimi Powell.

Vying for the District 8 seat to be vacated by Zakim are community activist Hélène Vincent, who works for a foreign language immersion program; 2018 challenger and businesswoman Kristen Mobilia, president of the Historic Fenway Garden Society; affordable housing advocate Priscilla MacKenzie Bok and Landon Lemoine, a vice president at a health care startup firm.

Vying for the District 9 Allston-Brighton seat are affordable housing activist Lee Nave; legislative consultant Amanda Smart; physical therapist Liz Breadon; and Boston middle-school teacher Brandon Bowser.

Additionally, at-large Councilor Althea Garrison placed fifth in the 2017 race for four at-large seats, but was seated after U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley left the body to serve in Congress. Because she garnered less than half the votes fourth-place finisher Annissa Essaibi-George received, Garrison is seen as vulnerable. The at-large race has drawn at least seven declared candidates.

The electoral season

Rivera, who managed Pressley’s campaign, said the prospects are good for candidates of color and women, even in a typically low-turnout year where there’s no mayoral race on the ballot.

“This is Act 2 from the play that Ayanna started last year,” said Rivera, who is working on the campaign of at-large challenger Alejandra St. Guillen. “There’s something different happening in this cycle.”

Aside from the chain reaction precipitated by Pressley’s departure from the council, Rivera said the enthusiasm among non-traditional voters, voters of color and progressive white voters is higher. She noted that the majority of challengers vying for at-large seats are people of color, as are a majority of those seeking district seats.

The fact that three incumbents have bowed out underscores the change coming to the council, Rivera said.

“What you’re seeing is incumbents doing soul-searching,” she said. “Do you want to be part of the continuing change in the city?”

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