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Tom Keane

What’s really at stake in council election

Ayanna Pressley was elected in 2009. Ayanna Pressley was elected in 2009. (Jim Davis/ Globe Staff)
By Tom Keane
October 15, 2011

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IT’S BEEN a busy few weeks for the Boston City Council. Members are trying to push Massport to pay employees a “living wage.’’ The body recently congratulated the Transgender Political Coalition on its 10th anniversary. The council is close to passing an ordinance limiting retail sales of knives, while it recently voted to raise the dropout age to 18. And a number of councilors are pushing to ban noisy nighttime trash pickups.

It’s easy to mock this stuff — small bore, penny ante, we pay 13 people $87,500 a year for this! — but an alternative view is that these are the core issues of public policy: economics, individual rights, public safety, education, and the balancing of the interests of people living and working in close quarters. Granted, it’s not as media-worthy as Occupy Boston, but for most residents, it’s far more important.

Elections for the council are just over three weeks away — on Nov. 8 — and, with three exceptions, they promise to be tepid affairs. Of the nine district seats, only two are truly contested. Long-time Dorchester councilor Maureen Feeney is retiring, and the two top vote-getters from last month’s preliminary - Frank Baker and John O’Toole - now square off. Meanwhile, Bill Linehan, in office for four years, faces a surprisingly strong challenge from Suzanne Lee. She’s from Chinatown; he’s from South Boston. Some read this as a referendum on Southie’s political strength; others as a referendum on the mayor (he’s with Tom Menino; she isn’t).

Meanwhile, Michael Flaherty - also from South Boston - seeks to return to the at-large seat he left two years ago to run for mayor. Flaherty’s run irks many. There are four incumbent at-large councilors, and for Flaherty to succeed, one of them needs to be knocked out. The speculation is that Ayanna Pressley, just elected in 2009 and not especially well known, is the most vulnerable. But the stakes are somewhat larger here than merely Pressley’s personal fortunes: the City Council has a problem when it comes to both race and sex.

Race first. Boston is what some call a majority-minority city. The council doesn’t reflect that at all. Two district members (representing largely African-American sections of the city) are black. One at-large member, Felix Arroyo, is Hispanic. Pressley is the sole at-large black member. Is she loses, the body is down to just three non-white councilors out of 13.

Even more striking is sex. With Feeney’s departure, Pressley remains the council’s sole woman. If Flaherty edges her out (and if Lee fails to best Linehan), the council will be all-male - understandable for a fraternity, not so understandable for a representative body. The puzzle is why and there’s no easy answer. Calling Boston voters more racist or sexist than voters elsewhere is an easy, but untrue, accusation. More likely, it’s a holdover from the days when politics was a family business, handed down from father to (usually) son. That combined with the personal nature of local politics - people vote for those they know or those they’ve heard of - make it hard for newcomers to break in.

Perhaps the Occupy Boston demonstrators might take up the challenge. This is not in jest. By my count, 60 of the 141 individuals arrested last week were Boston residents. Camping out and taking the occasional stroll around town may get you interviewed, but in the long run, change in a democracy only occurs when new people with new ideas run for and win office.

Stephen Murphy, the council’s president, observes that compared to other legislative bodies - i.e., Congress - the council has been a place of late where members have focused on results instead of personal battles. (This despite the conviction earlier this year of Chuck Turner, a councilor accused of taking a bribe.) And even as his police were arresting the Occupiers, Menino acknowledged that their issues - foreclosure, corporate responsibility - are the same ones that he regularly engages.

The Tea Party activists quickly figured out that for their anger to mean anything, they had to get elected, and they mobilized with stunning speed. They now occupy seats at all levels of government, making their voices far more effective than those who would simply occupy Dewey Square.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe. He was a Boston city councilor from 1994 to 1999.