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A sea change on the city council?

After years of advocacy, body may soon be majority people of color

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
A sea change on the city council?
State Rep. Russell Holmes (center) canvasses with city council candidate Ricardo Arroyo. Holmes has endorse Arroyo in his bid for the District 5 city council seat. BANNER PHOTO

Back in 2004 when political activist Calvin Feliciano was working as an aide to then-City Councilor Chuck Turner, he was one of a handful of aides of color working in City Hall.

“When I got there, the white councilors, who were 10 of 13, had a 90 percent white staff,” he recalled.

City council candidates Alejandra St. Guillen and Julia Mejia. BANNER PHOTO

City council candidates Alejandra St. Guillen and Julia Mejia. BANNER PHOTO

Now, with twice as many councilors who identify as people of color, having at least one black, Latino or Asian staff member is de rigueur for at-large councilors and those representing a significant population of color. Given that 55 percent of Boston residents now are people of color, that’s pretty much all of them.

Next year, the City Council could draw even closer to representing the diversity of the city’s residents. With three candidates of color leading in fundraising for the four at-large seats and several more in the running for vacant district seats, a majority people-of-color council could be just around the corner.

“Finally, we could have the kind of representation that correlates to the numbers,” said MassVOTE Executive Director Cheryl Crawford. “We’re a majority people-of-color city. We should have a majority people-of-color council.”

Candidates of color vying for the at-large council seats are David Halbert, who has raised more than $52,000; Julia Mejia, who has raised more than $84,000; and Alejandra St. Guillen, who has raised more than $114,361 — all substantial hauls for first-time candidates.

The trio are the best-resourced of the 11 challengers seeking at-large seats, many of whom may have been enticed to run by the perceived vulnerability of incumbent Althea Garrison, who placed a distant 5th in the 2017 election, then rolled onto the council to fill the vacancy left by U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s departure from the body.

Among the people of color in the running for district seats are Lee Nave Jr. in the Allston-Brighton District 9 and Ricardo Arroyo, who is seeking the District 5 seat soon-to-be vacated by Councilor Timothy McCarthy. Arroyo, who has raised more than $83,000 — more than any other candidate in that race — faces fierce competition from veteran political activist Mimi Turchinetz and former McCarthy aide Maria Esdale Farrell, who lives in the district’s predominantly white and high-voting Readville section.

Although Farrell has raised little more than $27,000, the fact that more than 20 percent of that sum comes from building trades locals could point to backing from a powerful building trades-allied political figure in City Hall.

Still, Arroyo may represent voters’ best shot at increasing the number of councilors of color to seven of 13. Endorsements by black and Latino elected officials, including District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Sheriff Steve Tompkins, state Reps. Nika Elugardo and Russell Holmes, and state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, point to considerable momentum in his campaign.

Even if people of color gain the majority of council seats, however, there’s no guarantee that the councilors of color will vote with the same unanimity that was seen during the early 2000s, when Turner, Sam Yoon, Charles Yancey and Felix D. Arroyo worked as a team.

“All skin folk ain’t kinfolk,” said Calvin Feliciano. “But generally, it would be better for the issues people of color care about.”

Feliciano said councilors of color don’t need a majority, just a critical mass, to push their colleagues and the mayor on controversial issues such as gentrification or school funding.

“Having more councilors of color would push the white councilors,” he said. “When you go to city council meetings now, the councilors are cautious of seeing a situation where there are six councilors of color on one side and seven whites on the other. If you have seven of the old-guard white folks voting against issues important to people of color, it looks bad.”

Former state Rep. Carlos Henriquez said he expects to see progress on issues such as the lack of diversity in hiring and leadership at the police and fire departments and the near-absence of city contracts going to businesses owned by people of color.

But for that to come about, the councilors of color would have to show some degree of unity, he added.

“If they’re not leveraging the power they have, they won’t get anything done,” he said.

MassVOTE’s Crawford said the increased representation of people of color on the council would come in handy when the body tackles redistricting in 2022. Not only will city council district lines be redrawn to reflect the shifting population in the city, but precinct lines may be redrawn as well to reflect greater population in previously industrial areas such as the Seaport District. It will be critical for councilors of color to make sure their communities’ political power isn’t diluted by the redrawn lines, as it was for much of the 20th century.

“With more people of color on the council, it’s more likely we’ll be having these conversations out loud,” she said.