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Challengers abound in City Council races

Eight candidates vie for City Council’s four at-large seats

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Boston voters casting ballots in the Nov. 7 election will have eight candidates to consider for the City Council’s four at-large seats. But in two district races, the run-up to the Sept. 12 preliminary election is where the campaign action may be most intense.

In District 3, covering Dorchester from Neponset to South Boston and some newly added precincts in the South End, eight candidates will appear on the September ballot, vying to replace outgoing incumbent Frank Baker. In District 5, which includes Hyde Park and precincts in Mattapan, Roslindale and West Roxbury, incumbent Ricardo Arroyo faces three challengers.

Additionally, councilors Tania Fernandes Anderson of District 7 in Roxbury and Dorchester and Kendra Lara of District 6 in Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury will each face one or more challengers on the November ballot. Districts races with just two candidates skip the September preliminary balloting, as does the at-large race when there are eight or fewer names on the ballot.

At-large

The four at-large incumbents are (in order of votes received in 2021) Michael Flaherty, Julia Mejia, Ruthzee Louijeune and Erin Murphy. Challenging them are Henry Santana, who directs the city’s Office of Civic Organizing; political organizer Clifton Braithwaite; health care worker Shawn Nelson; and Catherine Vitale, who is currently homeschooling her children. Nelson and Vitale gained notoriety as anti-vaccine activists who have frequently picketed at Mayor Michelle Wu’s home and during her public appearances.

So far, the four incumbents show a significant advantage in fundraising. Flaherty reported a balance of $222,617 in May, Louijeune $125,020, Murphy $76,532 and Mejia $37,436. Among the challengers, Santana leads with a balance of $11,419, followed by Vitale, who has raised $1,100. Braithwaite raised $210 and Nelson has reported no donations.

The imperative for challengers and incumbents alike in citywide races is to earn name recognition. The glossy flyers sent to voters citywide can cost tens of thousands of dollars to mail out. But with no September preliminary, the deep-pocketed incumbents are unlikely to expend campaign resources until fall.

“The district races are going to be where we see the big spends, because there are primaries,” notes political strategist Kristen Halbert.

District 3

At the beginning of the year, incumbent District 3 Councilor Frank Baker faced just one challenger — schoolteacher Joel Richards, who announced his candidacy in December of last year. Baker’s announcement in May that he will not seek re-election seemed to open the floodgates of what is now the busiest district preliminary. In addition to Richards, now vying for one of the two slots on the November ballot are retired schoolteacher Barry Lawton; small-business owner Jennifer Johnson; former City Council aide Ann Walsh; attorney Matt Patton; Boston Planning and Development Agency official John Fitzgerald; former aide to state Sen. Nick Collins Patrick O’Brien; and community organizer Rosalind Wornum.

The eight candidates will be competing for voters’ attention during an election cycle that typically draws the lowest turnout, notes Ward 15 Democratic Committee co-Chairman Ed Cook.

“There’s nothing on the ballot except the City Council,” he said. “For most people, that’s a big yawn. It’s going to be hard for any candidate to get their name out there.”

Cook said a successful candidate will need resources to boost their name recognition with mailers, identify their voting base, and turn voters out on the day of the Sept. 12 preliminary and during the early voting period, Sept. 2-8. Because district lines were recently redrawn in District 3, leaving some candidates unclear in which side of Dorchester they would run, candidates have a shorter-than-normal window in which to reach out to voters. They must do so during the summer months when district residents are most likely to be on vacation.

“Identifying who your voters are will be difficult,” Cook said. “Everybody is going to have to reach out to the new precincts, which go all the way to the Back Bay.”

District 5

Incumbent Ricardo Arroyo is facing challenges from Haitian community activist Jean-Claude Sanon, retired police union activist Jose Ruiz, and the executive director of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services, Enrique Pepen.

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who lives in the district and is a member of the Ward 18 Democratic Committee, said incumbency will give Arroyo an advantage.

“The Arroyo name is still strong,” he said. “The Arroyos in District 5 are pretty formidable.”

While Arroyo received negative press coverage after Boston Globe reports last year alleged he was investigated for sexual assault in high school, his challengers face an uphill battle for name recognition and in securing the resources to mount a campaign. Tompkins says putting together a campaign with a finance director and chief of staff and communications strategy during a low-turnout year can be a daunting task.

“They have to develop a message that’s going to resonate with the people in District 5,” he said. “They’ll have to take two or three months and really pound that into the electorate. Arroyo has already been there. He’s done that.”

So far Sanon, who has run for the seat twice before, leads among the challengers in fundraising, showing receipts of $7,371 during May. The other two challengers haven’t reported any contributions. Arroyo reported a balance of $17,348.

Districts 6 and 7

In District 6, incumbent Kendra Lara faces a challenge from William King, who ran twice for a seat on the at-large council, winning 3.3% of the vote in 2017 and 1.3% in 2019. In District 7, incumbent Tania Fernandes Anderson faces potential challenges from anti-vaccine activist Padma Scott and Winthrop Street resident Luis Martinez Meran.

Candidates for all district seats have until July 5 to submit signatures from 150 registered voters to secure a spot on the ballot.

At-large seats, boston city council, November 7 election