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City Council embraces a greater diversity

With newly sworn-in members, 4 of 13 are people of color

Councilors (from left) Felix G. Arroyo, John Connolly, Stephen Murphy, and Ayanna Pressley congratulated each other, with Mayor Thomas Menino seen at rear. Councilors (from left) Felix G. Arroyo, John Connolly, Stephen Murphy, and Ayanna Pressley congratulated each other, with Mayor Thomas Menino seen at rear. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / January 5, 2010

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An African-American woman and a Latino man joined the Boston City Council yesterday, adding diversity to a body that now more closely reflects the people it represents.

The swearing-in of Felix G. Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley means that four of the 13 seats are now held by people of color. Although the council is not a mirror image of the city, the composition is a far cry from a few decades ago, when diversity meant both Irish and Italian men.

“Your election really says a lot about the direction Boston is going,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in brief remarks to the council. “Diversity is part of what makes Boston great.’’

Pressley, the first black woman to be elected to the council, addressed the issue head-on.

“I did not run to make history,’’ she said. “I did not run as the woman. That being said, I recognize the historical significance. I did not run as a woman, but I am not going to run from being a woman.’’

For Arroyo, history is a little more personal. The 30-year-old is the second Latino to be elected to the council; the first was his father, Felix D. Arroyo, who served from 2003 until his defeat in 2008.

Father and son locked arms in an embrace yesterday afternoon, blushing with proud grins.

“He did it on his own merits. He has his own light and he will make it shine,’’ the elder Arroyo said. “People say you want your children to do better than you. He did it. He got elected in the first time he ran. I lost.’’

The council also voted unanimously yesterday, and without any public discussion, to elect Michael P. Ross to a second yearlong term as council president. Ross sketched an agenda that includes forming a citizen committee, led by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, to explore creative solutions to longstanding problems such as housing, job creation, and the retention of skilled workers.

“I want to bring together our region’s best thinkers, from science, industry, arts, and education,’’ Ross said in a speech to the council. “Not just for a one-day summit, but to advise us on what we must do to compete effectively to be the best city in America.’’

Ross also launched a committee to investigate overhauling the city charter, exploring changes to mayoral succession, and establishing term limits for the city’s next chief executive.

In December, the last City Council defeated an effort to introduce term limits. But the issues sparked such intense discussions, Ross said, that “it is clear that a few council sessions are not enough time for the considered debate and deliberation these issues deserve and many of our constituents want.’’

The inauguration festivities created an ebullient mood yesterday on the fifth floor of City Hall, with proud parents and spouses filling the City Council offices for a reception with pastries and hors d’oeuvres.

Stepping away from the crowd, the younger Arroyo talked about his plan to focus on youth issues such as summer jobs and after-school programs. But he acknowledged that as a newcomer to the council, he had a lot to learn.

“I don’t know how to turn the heat down in my office,’’ Arroyo said with a laugh. “It’s hot in here.’’

The euphoria of being a freshly minted lawmaker was even more apparent in Pressley, who balanced a cup of coffee as she gave hugs and handshakes. Working her way down the crowded hallway toward the council chamber, she blurted out, “Let’s hold hands,’’ and promptly grabbed a reporter’s hand. Finding a seat, she reflected on the ceremony at Faneuil Hall, where the council took the oath of office.

She said she thought of some of the luminaries who have taken the stage in that hallowed brick building: Susan B. Anthony, the women’s suffrage leader, and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist.

“It was incredibly surreal,’’ Pressley said. “All of the history in that room.’’

During the ceremony, the mayor provoked loud laughter when he administered the oath of office to the City Council, some of whom aspire to run for mayor, and mistakenly read them his own oath, asking them to uphold their duties as “mayor of the city of Boston.’’

“I was told to read it exactly as written!’’ the mayor said, before swearing in the members as city councilors. “Unbelievable!’’

Also yesterday, the Boston School Committee, at its annual reorganization meeting, voted to keep the Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr. as its chairman and Marchelle Raynor as its vice chairwoman. Two new School Committee members, John Barros and Mary Tamer, were sworn in at the meeting.

James Vaznis and Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at aryan@globe.com.