Turnout at polls lowest in decades

Arroyo loses City Council seat

Email|Print| Text size + By Donovan Slack and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / November 7, 2007

Boston's voter turnout plummeted to its lowest level in more than two decades yesterday, especially in the city's predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, a tide of apathy that swept the City Council's only Latino member, Felix Arroyo, out of office.

Only 13.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots yesterday, less than half of the average turnout in similar elections since 1985, in which council seats were up for grabs but there was no mayoral election. Turnout in those elections ranged from 23 percent to 32 percent.

Reversing a trend of increasing voting by minority groups set over the last five years, turnout was especially low in nonwhite communities and disproportionately strong in traditionally white, Irish enclaves of South Boston, West Roxbury, and Dorchester. The shift propelled West Roxbury lawyer John Connolly onto the council, replacing Arroyo.

Community leaders and voting advocacy groups blamed the low turnout on a number of factors. A cold, gray drizzle blanketed much of Eastern Massachusetts for most of the day. And for the first time, there was no preliminary election this year to take the temperature of the electorate and inspire voters to rally behind vulnerable candidates. More broadly, it marks a further decline in Boston's storied culture of local political involvement, in which ward-level politics has been a crucial part of the community fabric.

"This is a very disturbing and discouraging turnout, coming almost a year to the day that we had a record gubernatorial turnout," said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, referring to an election in which turnout was so high that many precincts in Boston ran out of ballots. "It's a lack of a campaign and lack of inspiring messages."

Some observers say there has been an apathy among Boston residents that has been growing for years, the result of a transient population, younger demographics, and more diverse residents who are less likely to vote.

Although certain elections have increased voter turnout in nonwhite districts - fueled largely by excitement around candidates such as Deval Patrick, the state's first black governor, Sheriff Andrea Cabral, and Councilor Sam Yoon - the minority communities that comprise a majority of the city's population have not yet become fully politically engaged in the same way as the Irish ward bosses and the mayor's political machine, observers say.

"There was a genuine interest in Boston politics, and now it's about as moribund as it could be," said Michael McCormack, who ran for City Council in 1981 against 40 opponents. "If it were any more moribund, it would be a cadaver."

"In some of the suburban communities, there seems to be more interest than in the city," he added.

Voter turnout for mayoral elections yesterday in Quincy, Fall River, and Brockton hovered around 50 percent.

Along with Connolly, incumbents Michael F. Flaherty of South Boston, Stephen J. Murphy of Hyde Park, and Sam Yoon of Dorchester will fill the council's four at-large seats.

In the district races, Maureen E. Feeney of Dorchester, Charles C. Yancey of Mattapan, and Chuck Turner of Roxbury successfully fended off challengers. In Allston-Brighton longtime city employee Mark S. Ciommo beat Assistant District Attorney Gregory J. Glennon to win an open district seat.

Five district councilors ran unopposed, the most since at least the 1990s, another factor that might have contributed to record no-shows at the polls yesterday.

The larger shift away from civic engagement that some say has been occurring over decades is due to massive shifts in the city's demographics. Immigrants now account for more than 1 in 10 Boston residents, and one third are between the ages of 20 and 34, according to data compiled by the city. Those populations traditionally don't vote, which shifts the focus of get-out-the-vote efforts to other blocs.

Arroyo's loss marks a dramatic fall for the councilor, who was elected in 2003 and had such a trajectory that he was frequently mentioned as a mayoral candidate.

But several nonwhite leaders said his political capital began to wane, and he did a poor job of mobilizing his supporters.

In June, he did not gain endorsement of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee, which includes Arroyo's liberal base on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay and in 2005 gave him its only endorsement.

Over the past year, he has been criticized for spotty attendance at City Council meetings, few legislative items passed, and a general lack of interest in the council. Some councilors began referring to his chief of staff, Jamie Willmuth, as the "shadow councilor" because he attends so many meetings on Arroyo's behalf.

Never a prodigious fund-raiser, Arroyo raised even less this year than in previous elections. He had $1,101 in his account on Oct. 31, while his opponents averaged around $60,000.

After the results were in, Arroyo said the lack of interest in the race, and the elimination of the preliminary election hurt his candidacy.

"It really created problems for people who are not traditional voters," he said. "But, hey, you put your record on the line and see what happens."

Arroyo gathered with supporters at Slades Bar & Grill in Roxbury and said he accepted the people's "verdict" and was grateful he had the privilege of serving them for four years.

There are only a handful of cases in recent memory in which Boston incumbents were unseated.

Flaherty unseated Dapper O'Neil in an at-large race in 1999; Diane Modica lost her seat in 1997; and David Scondras was ousted in 1993, by 27 votes.

At polling places yesterday, voters trickled in carrying umbrellas and wearing rain slickers. As turnout reached only 7 percent at 3 p.m., city officials began to worry.

"There's a lot of lonely poll workers out there," Boston Election Commissioner Geraldine Cuddyer said. "It's very, very sad."

Donovan Slack can be reached at

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