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Michael Jonas | The Political Trail

Symbolism not enough to retain seat

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Jonas
November 11, 2007

The New Boston got pushed aside by the Old Boston in a West Roxbury minute.

A nasty skirmish over an unsigned mailing that challenger John Connolly sent out attacking incumbent Steve Murphy was the talk of the town during the final days of Boston's at-large City Council race. But the election story ended up being Connolly, anchored by a big vote in his home base in West Roxbury, knocking off incumbent Felix Arroyo for the fourth and final citywide seat.

With that, the council's at-large lineup will now consist of three Irish-Americans (Murphy, Connolly, and ticket-topping incumbent Michael Flaherty) plus Korean-American second-termer Sam Yoon.

The loss by Arroyo - the only Latino ever elected to the council - is sure to prompt hand-wringing from minority and liberal activists, who will regard it as a big setback. But such lamentations obscure the fact that incumbents who lose generally do so for good reason. For all the path-breaking symbolism of Arroyo's presence on the council, it never seemed to move much beyond that.

Arroyo's tenure was generally regarded as uninspired. He took flak for a spotty attendance record. And he never seemed to grasp the most elemental fact of political life - that you have to make sure you get reelected if you want to continue in the game. Arroyo was an anemic fund-raiser, and that left him badly outgunned this fall when it came to campaign mailings and the other basics needed to keep his name in the mix in an off-year election where turnout plummeted to a record low.

It's not inconceivable that Arroyo could wind up back on the council, despite Tuesday's loss. Should Murphy end up landing a job with the Patrick administration - talk of which was part of the fodder for Connolly's attack missives, which charged that Murphy wasn't interested in his council duties - Arroyo would retake his seat by virtue of his fifth-place finish.

But that could actually hold back the cause of minority political empowerment if it papers over the desperate need for fresh, young talent from the black and Latino community. The minority community needs to field hungry counterparts to the 34-year-old Connolly, who was willing to devote his summer to hitting every civic group picnic from Mattapan to Monument Square.

While Connolly joins a crop of 30-something-year-olds, including Yoon, who have arrived on the council in recent years, the only black members are District Councilors Charles Yancey, 58, and Chuck Turner, 67. Arroyo turns 60 next spring. Rising political stars of tomorrow these are not.

It's been years since there was a serious black candidate for a citywide council seat, a position from which a future mayoral candidate could burnish a reputation. "Mark my words, two years from now there will be a black candidate in the at-large race," says Horace Small, with the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, who is frustrated at the minority community's failure to cultivate new candidates for office.

Small says the nuts-and-bolts of building - and sustaining - a political organization to turn out supporters on Election Day is something that minority candidates have to master.

Those candidates also have to be willing to make running for office more than a one-shot deal. Waging a serious but ultimately losing effort two years ago helped Connolly lay the groundwork for his victory on Tuesday, a path that City Councilors Flaherty, Rob Consalvo, and John Tobin all followed before him.

There's nothing fancy about the work of a Boston city councilor. The same is true of what it takes to get there - and stay there.

Michael Jonas can be reached at jonas@ globe.com.

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