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A new Arroyo blazes own path on council

Felix G. Arroyo (left), chatting with fellow Councilor Mark Ciommo, has established himself as a significant presence on the City Council. Felix G. Arroyo (left), chatting with fellow Councilor Mark Ciommo, has established himself as a significant presence on the City Council. (Jodi Hilton for The Boston Globe)
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / June 22, 2010

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Felix G. Arroyo beamed with a boyish grin, blushing as older colleagues heaped praise on the youngest elected official in the room, a 31-year-old freshman with just five months on the Boston City Council.

The council had just secured its most significant victory in recent memory, settling a seemingly intractable contract standoff between the mayor and the firefighters’ union. Arroyo used his know-how as a former union organizer to help push both sides back to the table.

“Councilor Arroyo, for one of the newest members of this body, you’ve shown tremendous leadership,’’ Council President Michael P. Ross said June 9, moments before the final vote. “You should be commended for that.’’

The grin remained on Arroyo’s face the next day as he tried unsuccessfully to hang a framed picture in his new City Hall office. His cellphone chirped with the “Knight Rider’’ theme song, a ringtone the councilor joked could only belong to a child of the 1980s. But Arroyo’s age and youthful affectations belie the breadth of his experience, informed by a political education that began in grade school when his father worked at City Hall.

Those early civics lessons have given Arroyo the acumen to quickly establish himself as a significant presence. Not only was he integral to the resolution of the firefighters’ contract dispute, he has been a vocal critic of a city plan to close libraries, he has promoted jobs and opportunity for youth, and he even managed to make himself a lightning rod in the national debate over illegal immigration.

The highly publicized battle over the firefighters’ contract, in particular, helped established Arroyo’s identity in his own right, a difficult task for the son of a trailblazing father with the same name, former councilor Felix D. Arroyo.

Before his father became the first Latino elected to the City Council, the younger Arroyo started working full time at City Hall when he was not old enough to join fellow staffers for a drink, becoming Councilor Chuck Turner’s director of constituent services at age 20. Even then, Arroyo knew his way around the building. As a boy, he tagged along with his father, who served as an education adviser and personnel director for Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, whose office young Arroyo would waltz into with a thousand questions.

“It would be a mistake to say this was his first baptism by fire,’’ Flynn said of the firefighters’ deal. “He knows the city, he knows City Hall, he knows the people . . . it should be of no surprise he could pull this thing off.’’

Arroyo and two other councilors personally mediated a breakthrough bargaining session between the Menino administration and the firefighters’ union. The two other councilors — Ross and Salvatore LaMattina — had never done this before. Both worried that negotiations were breaking down, because the two sides spent long periods away from each other, holed up in separate rooms.

“I was trying to tell my colleagues that this is a good thing,’’ Arroyo said. “Because it’s within those private conversations sometimes when the deal happens.’’

“It was a back-to-home experience for me,’’ he said.

Home was the headquarters of SEIU Local 615 on West Street, the secret location where the city and the firefighters hammered out the deal. Arroyo picked the spot because he worked four years as political director of Local 615, which represents janitors and security guards. The same room hosted Arroyo’s campaign kickoff in June 2009, when he launched his successful push for an at-large council seat, a bid strongly backed and partially financed by organized labor.

Arroyo hails from a family of public school teachers and politicians. His parents moved from Puerto Rico to Boston to attend Harvard University, and he was born in the South End in 1979, the second of five children.

Growing up in Hyde Park, Arroyo graduated from Another Course to College, a Boston public high school where he returned June 14 as commencement speaker.

One of Arroyo’s regrets is not fully applying himself in school. He studied finance and labor at the University of Massachusetts Boston but never earned a degree. His attention wandered as he held three jobs, including stints as a busboy at Sonsie restaurant on Newbury Street and as a security guard at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He did, however, earn a master’s degree in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University after the school waived the requirement for an undergraduate degree.

He met his wife, Jasmine, when she volunteered for one of his father’s failed bids for office.

“I tell my dad, ‘You lost, but I won,’ ’’ Arroyo said. His wife, a first-grade teacher in Boston, brought her own political pedigree to the marriage: Her father is Héctor Luis Acevedo, the former mayor of San Juan.

Arroyo began running for office not long after his father lost his reelection bid after five years on the council. His father had been popular but came under fire during his last campaign for skipping council meetings.

“He has his own vision of the world,’’ Felix D. Arroyo, 62, said of his son. “I was more of an activist. He has been an organizer, and that gives you a different perspective.’’

Arroyo speaks highly of his father and his time in office but notes that they were shaped by very different life experiences: He is a born and bred Bostonian, for instance, while his father spent his formative years in Puerto Rico.

“The rule of his thumb is that I get half of his friends and all of his enemies,’’ the younger Arroyo said.

Since taking the oath in January, Arroyo has jumped into office with the exuberance of a rookie councilor. He has pushed the city to deposit its money in financial institutions that invest in the community. And he has tried to carve out a niche with the youth agenda.

But outside the firefighters’ contract dispute, Arroyo has received the most notoriety for a resolution he sponsored with Ross calling on the city to consider canceling contracts with firms based in Arizona after the state enacted a strict new immigration law.

Arroyo said at the time that the crackdown promoted “racial profiling,’’ but his efforts drew the ire of talk radio across the country, eliciting so many faxes in protest that it broke the City Council’s fax machine.

“He put this resolution out, and suddenly the whole country knew Felix Arroyo,’’ LaMattina said. “I think he put himself out there and wasn’t prepared for the backlash.

“But he’s a quick learner,’’ LaMattina continued. “There’s a bright future for young Felix Arroyo in this city.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.

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