THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Final sprint now a marathon in race for at-large council seats

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / May 25, 2011

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Another twist in the at-large race for Boston City Council: It appears unlikely there will be a preliminary election in September because not enough candidates will qualify for the ballot.

Now the four incumbents fighting to keep their seats must wait until November to find out whether the electorate will again embrace Michael F. Flaherty. The South Boston attorney abandoned his City Council seat in 2009 to make an unsuccessful bid for mayor. Now Flaherty, who upended what could have been a sleepy off-year election, is hoping to knock somebody out of office and win back one of the four citywide seats on the council.

A preliminary election would serve as an early warning of trouble for a vulnerable councilor, giving his or her base six weeks to rally at the polls on Election Day. Activists have mobilized in the past to save incumbents.

“It’s a clarion call to get out the votes in November,’’ said John M. Tobin Jr., who served on the City Council for almost decade before leaving last year. “If you are somebody who needs your base shaken up a bit, that preliminary can serve as a free poll and give a road map of how you should approach things over the next six weeks.’’

But this year, it will likely be a one-day showdown in November. Candidates had until 5 p.m. yesterday to file nomination papers, which for the City Council’s four at-large seats require the signatures of 1,500 registered voters.

At the deadline, it appeared that seven people had enough signatures to make the ballot for the at-large race, although it will take the election department several days to certify the names. A preliminary election would take place only if nine or more candidates were certified.

The at-large candidates who have said they gathered enough signatures to make the ballot include the four incumbents: Stephen J. Murphy, Felix G. Arroyo, John R. Connolly, and Ayanna Pressley. The challengers who said they had the necessary signatures are Flaherty; Sean H. Ryan of Jamaica Plain; and Will Dorcena of Hyde Park.

In addition to four at-large members, Boston’s City Council also has nine district seats up for grabs this fall. A handful of those races will require preliminary elections, which have been scheduled for Sept. 27.

Skipping the citywide preliminary election would save $300,000 to $350,000, city officials estimated.

It will also alter the rhythm of the at-large campaign season, which typically gathers momentum through the summer heading into the preliminary. Candidates must recalibrate their plans with the recognition that the race will not begin in earnest until well after Labor Day.

“Five of them should have great name recognition,’’ said Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling, a political consultant, referring to the incumbents and Flaherty. “Folks expect there to be some great political theater as it rolls down to November.’’

All the candidates yesterday downplayed the significance of the preliminary. But it is clear it will have an impact on the race.

“I think it changes it significantly,’’ said Michael J. McCormack, who served on the City Council for a decade. “It’s one roll of the dice. One day in November is going to decide it, and you are really going to have no indication of how you are doing.’’

Take Felix D. Arroyo, the former councilor at large, who finished fifth in the 2003 preliminary election. Arroyo then rallied his base and surged to second place on Election Day to save his seat. In 2007, there was no preliminary election, and Arroyo lost his seat that November. Nobody knows that history better than his son, Felix G. Arroyo, who is running for reelection after his first term.

“One thing I learned in politics, is you play the hand you’re dealt,’’ Felix Arroyo said. “There’s not going to be a preliminary. We’re going to have to make sure that our message is out there and that people know when the election is and they get out to vote.’’

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