JUST SIX years ago, Michael Flaherty was the symbol of the New Boston when he displaced City Councilor Albert ''Dapper" O'Neil by reaching out to minority and gay voters outside his traditional base in South Boston. Last week, City Council President Flaherty hoped aloud that the New Boston moniker still applied to him during a candidates' debate at the Center on Media and Society at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Identity politics in Boston is elusive, a good thing considering the not-so-distant past, when Bostonians of different races and ethnicities viewed one another through hardened images. Voters looking to pin labels on any of the eight candidates vying on Nov. 8 for four at-large seats on the City Council shouldn't make too many assumptions. The only thing that seems certain now is that any successful candidate seeking citywide office needs to keep busy building bridges, not barriers.
If anyone can lay claim to the New Boston label in the at-large race, it would seem to be Sam Yoon, the first Asian-American to run for political office in Boston. Like many of the city's minority residents, Yoon sensed opportunities in the 2000 Census showing that minorities, for the first time, comprised the majority of the city's 589,000 residents. Yoon was among the founders of the New Majority in 2003, an umbrella group of minority organizations that declared a mission to recreate the city's social and cultural institutions to reflect the changing city. At a New Majority candidates' forum in Dorchester earlier this month, Yoon, an expert on affordable housing, stressed the importance of electing candidates who looked like the city's minority residents. But last week, under questioning from the ethnic press, Yoon took pains to emphasize that he sought to represent ''the city as a whole." Then he diverged directly from the views of his progressive mentors, including the incumbent Councilor at Large Felix Arroyo, by taking a stand against a strict form of civilian oversight of the Police Department. Welcome to the New Boston.
At first blush, incumbent Councilor at Large Stephen Murphy seems the antithesis of the New Boston. Popular in the city's largely white and conservative precincts, Murphy termed the jockeying among his colleagues for minority votes as ''sideshows" in the 2003 at-large race. His participation, for the first time, in this year's gay pride parade might be chalked up to pure political calculation. But Murphy also helped to lead an effort on the council to soften the inflexible Criminal Offender Record Information law, which hinders the ability of former inmates to find employment and housing, an edgy stance with support among the city's minority leaders. In the New Boston, a white law-and-order candidate can double as a CORI reformer.
Arroyo, 57, has achieved near rock star status in the New Boston, quite a feat for a journeyman public official. Arroyo, the city's only Hispanic councilor, shocked observers with a strong second-place showing in 2003, a reflection of the growing political clout of the New Majority. Now council candidates, both incumbents and challengers, defer openly to Arroyo during debates. Arroyo is leading an effort to redefine housing subsidies in a way that favors the city's poorest families. But his New Boston reputation is a function of his philosophy, not his legislative record. And that philosophy, he told the UMass-Boston audience last week, can be summed up as ''equity and respect."
Challenger Matt O'Malley earned his New Boston credentials by running last year's successful campaign for Andrea Cabral, Suffolk County's first minority sheriff. O'Malley nearly jumped out of his seat last week at the UMass forum while considering whether a New Boston actually exists. ''You're damn right there is, and I helped to create it." Yet O'Malley opposes even the mildest form of rent control, a priority for members of the New Majority umbrella group. And he touts the endorsement of the Boston Teachers Union, whose resistance to pilot schools interferes with quality education for the system's mostly minority students.
Some New Boston candidates come with pedigrees. Challenger Patricia White warned forum listeners that failure to vote for her would leave the council nearly devoid of a woman's perspective. But that claim should not be confused with a call for gentility. While other candidates lobbed softballs at each other during the forum, White, daughter of former mayor Kevin White, went on the attack, accusing opponent John Connolly of trivializing the educational and economic needs of minority families.
But Connolly, son of Michael Connolly, a former Massachusetts secretary of state, was having none of it. He has adopted a New Boston variant of the 1961 political advice from poet Robert Frost to Harvard grad John Fitzgerald Kennedy: ''Be more Irish than Harvard." Connolly, also a Harvard grad, boasts that he rivaled the accomplishments of any of his classmates by going to work in a poor urban school for $200 per week.
Another legacy candidate, Ed Flynn, inherited the populist gene from his father, former Mayor Ray Flynn. He links the interests of families in his native South Boston with the needs of those in minority neighborhoods by calling for drug treatment on demand.
Identity politics is too pat. It's a sign of health in a city when voters have to struggle a bit to assess a candidate rather than merely catalog his or her race, gender, or ethnicity. Paul Watanabe, the director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, describes the New Boston as an ''identity without the politics." Council President Flaherty calls the New Boston ''a state of mind." Whatever it is, it's a place capable of attracting the strongest field of at-large council candidates in years.