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A return to the trail

Political veteran Flaherty seeks City Council encore

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / October 26, 2011

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Standing at the T turnstiles in Forest Hills, Michael F. Flaherty unbuttoned his right sleeve, rolled up the cuff of his pressed blue shirt, and stretched out his arm. Waves of people rushed past, early morning commuters flooding off buses from Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, and West Roxbury.

“He’s back,’’ said Kempton Flemming, 50, shaking the hand of the former city councilor campaigning for an encore.

“Good to be back,’’ Flaherty said.

Workers from across the city converge on this spot, jostling past Flaherty as they travel downtown. Municipal employees recognize the candidate from the decade he spent at City Hall, including a five-year run as council president. Others know his face from his 2009 bid for mayor, when Flaherty says he “came up a little bit short.’’ He lost to four-term incumbent Thomas M. Menino by 15 percentage points.

That explains why a well-dressed woman charging through the turnstiles asks the real question, “You running for mayor again?’’

The candidate blushed. The next mayor’s race is not until 2013. “No,’’ Flaherty said. “I’m running for City Council at large.’’

He may be on the ballot for City Council on Nov. 8, but more than anything Flaherty’s candidacy focuses on the mayor he lost to in a bitter fight. He uses Menino as a foil, attacking the administration as an indirect way of criticizing his opponents, the four incumbent councilors at large.

“Now more than ever we need an independent voice on the City Council,’’ Flaherty told a South Boston civic association earlier this month.

“The City Council gets bullied every day’’ by the mayor, he said with a hint of anger. “They are told how to vote, when to vote, what to vote.’’

When pressed, Flaherty does not offer specifics. He will not name which councilors are allegedly bullied, because he says he does not want to get into back-and-forth fights with individuals. Asked about instances in the past two years when the City Council stood up to Menino - like opposing the administration’s plan to close four libraries - he dismissed those as “isolated victories.’’

Having spent the past two years largely out of the public eye at the private law practice of Adler Pollock & Sheehan, Flaherty is running to regain a seat as one of four at-large members of the City Council who represent the entire city. To win, he must knock off an incumbent - Felix G. Arroyo, John R. Connolly, Stephen J. Murphy, or Ayanna S. Pressley - all of whom are running for reelection. Two other challengers will also be on the ballot, Will Dorcena and Sean Ryan.

The Menino administration shrugs off the criticism from Flaherty. “We heard this same rhetoric two years ago’’ when he ran for mayor, said Dot Joyce, Menino’s spokeswoman. “It’s a page from the same playbook.’’

But Flaherty’s depiction of the City Council members as puppets controlled by the Menino administration enrages the incumbents. Not only is it inaccurate, current councilors say, but it’s hard to take from Flaherty, a former ally of the administration who did not vote against a Menino budget until he was running for mayor.

Passions can flare between Boston’s executive and legislative branch, said City Council President Stephen J. Murphy. But he defended the council’s independence and rejected Flaherty’s contention that the mayor bullies it.

“The most pressure I ever felt [from Menino’s office] came in January 2002 to vote for Mike Flaherty for council president,’’ said Murphy, describing the first time Flaherty won enough votes from his colleagues to lead the body. “I guess it was OK then. The message changes to suit the candidate.’’

Flaherty acknowledges that he was once close to the Menino administration, but says that it has helped him “realize how bad it was.’’

The candidate grew up in South Boston, not far from the home where he is raising his children. He was the product of one of the neighborhood’s well-known political families. His father is a retired 12-term state representative and municipal judge. His mother remains one of her son’s staunchest advocates in their neighborhood.

Flaherty served as a prosecutor for the Suffolk district attorney’s office and waged unsuccessful runs for office before winning an at-large seat on the City Council in 1999 at the age of 30. The last time he ran for City Council in 2007, he won 25,863 votes, more than anyone else in the city.

Now Flaherty is running as a challenger, not an incumbent, even if he retains the honorific title of councilor when he is introduced at campaign events.

On the trail, Flaherty asks voters, “Is Boston working for you?’’ He talks about unemployment and the economy. And he revisits some themes from his mayoral campaign, railing against the violations of the residency requirement at city construction sites, where he says trucks have out-of-state license plates.

In Boston, campaigns can be a race to shake more hands than your opponents or, in Flaherty’s case, to remind more voters who he is. That’s why senior events such as the luncheon for the Golden Age Club of East Boston are popular this time of year.

“I always vote for Flaherty,’’ said Jerry Deneumoustier, 77, of East Boston, moments after shaking hands with the candidates at Spinelli’s banquet hall. “I just like him. That’s it.’’

A few tables over at the Golden Age Club, however, Cassy Martorana, 65, avoided Flaherty. She is waiting for the arrival of Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley, a relative newcomer whose reelection may be threatened.

“I like her,’’ Martorana said.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.