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Black candidates stay in Dorchester Council race

Avery Bleichfeld
Black candidates stay in Dorchester Council race
District 3 candidates Joel Richards (left) and Barry Lawton are continuing their campaigns despite redistricting uncertainty. COURTESY PHOTOS

Following a ruling by a federal judge that blocked a new redistricting map for the Boston City Council, the two Black candidates vying for the District 3 seat in eastern Dorchester said they’re continuing with business as usual.

Since it was created in 1983, District 3 has always been represented by a white councilor even as residents of color have become a majority of its population. It has been drawn as an “opportunity district” to allow voters of color a chance to elect the candidate of their choice.

The May 8 ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Patti Saris blocked the map in response to a lawsuit that alleged the City Council placed too heavy an emphasis on race in redistricting. She asked the Council to try again to draw the lines, saying, “The ball is back in the City Council’s court.”

Joel Richards, a resident of Fields Corner, was living in the adjoining District 4 under the old map. The new, now blocked, map puts his residence in District 3, where he is running for the Council seat being vacated by Frank Baker, who is not seeking reelection. Despite the ruling, Richards said he is not concerned about being kicked back to District 4.

“This has changed nothing for me, personally. Every map that was presented before had me in District 3, so I’m fully confident that any new map that is produced by the City Council will put me back in District 3,” said Richards, who ran to be the councilor for District 4 in 2021.

Barry Lawton, the other Black candidate who has declared a run for the seat, said that because of years of work in state and local politics, he doesn’t see the debate around the maps affecting him much and has continued to collect signatures for his campaign.

“We really don’t know where the lines are, but for me, I’ve served the area for so long, it doesn’t really matter that much,” said Lawton, who lives in the Savin Hill-Upham’s Corner area of Dorchester and has run for state representative four times, most recently in 2014.

As city councilors grapple with how to balance communities of color in their redistricting map, Lawton said his goals are not about representing one community or another, but rather the district as a whole.

“I’ve witnessed the transformation of this district and I’m hopeful that it will continue being more and more diverse, but I think the point that I really would like to make when I’m running for office is we need to harness that diversity into one voice for City Hall for the things that we need in our district,” Lawton said. “And I think that voice has been weakened because it’s not the whole district talking together.”

Richards, too, said that being a candidate for all constituents is a priority to him.

“What really matters to me is that the problems that I’m facing or the questions that I have about the city are across all racial lines,” Richards said. “And that’s why I’m saying ‘a Boston for all.’ If I go to City Hall as your councilor, my kids will still be in the Boston Public Schools, so the problems — they are still real to me.”

In describing his platform, Lawton said he would work toward bringing an elected school committee back to Boston, following a 2021 non-binding ballot question in which nearly 80% of voters expressed support for an elected committee. Mayor Michelle Wu has expressed opposition to a fully elected committee.

Lawton also said he would like to see work done around the issue of race in Boston — both in healing divisions and in addressing what he sees as incorrect narratives framing Boston as a racist city.

Richards highlighted goals around ensuring that students across Boston can go to modern and safe schools, improving issues around traffic in the city, increasing safety by installing more streetlights and addressing the shortage of affordable housing.

“Every day, friends of mine move away because of the housing prices and because of the schools, and I want that to stop,” Richards said. “I want people to stay and enjoy this great city, because it is an amazing city. It just needs to be a city for all people.”

The white candidates in the race are John FitzGerald, a city employee from Adams Village; Jennifer Johnson, a Meetinghouse Hill activist; Patrick O’Brien, a former State House aide; and Matt Patton, a lawyer from Savin Hill. Others may jump in.

The preliminary election for all seats on the Council is Sept. 12, followed by the final election on Nov. 7.