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City's political landscape shifts

Minority communities flex new-found muscle in driving Cabral's victory

In his bid for Suffolk sheriff, heavily favored city councilor Stephen J. Murphy carried wards that a decade ago would have virtually guaranteed winning the day, political havens such as South Boston and West Roxbury, bastions of heavy voter turnout.

But he lost, decisively. And in the victory of his opponent, the first black woman to hold a Suffolk County office, is a sea change in Boston's political model.

Andrea Cabral won huge margins in neighborhoods that used to carry little political weight, where minority group voters are turning out in ever-increasing numbers.

Winning in affluent, mostly white areas such as Back Bay and Beacon Hill, Cabral got votes from large numbers of white liberals willing to elect a woman and a member of a minority group. Even in Ward 20, which includes the West Roxbury neighborhood that pundits predicted Murphy would sweep, Cabral lost by only 70 votes.

''The city is changing," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. ''It's a much different place than it was 10 years ago or even five years ago. It's much younger, much more progressive, and much more diverse.

''There are different constituencies," he said. ''What everybody misses is that she [Cabral] was able to put constituencies together."

Cabral's huge victory, winning 60 percent of the vote, surprised nearly everyone. Many believed that Murphy's political experience would carry the day against an appointed incumbent running for the first time. The challenger's Irish heritage, almost a prerequisite for generations of Boston politicians, was thought to be another advantage.

But the voting patterns that defined Boston politics are rapidly shifting.

In the city's 10 most heavily Hispanic precincts outside East Boston, the number of registered voters has increased by 22.4 percent since 2002, according to an analysis by MassVOTE, a non-partisan group that has spearheaded voter registration drives. In the five most Asian precincts, the number of registered voters increased by 16.6 percent, and in the 30 predominantly black precincts, the increase was 15.9 percent.

By contrast, the number of registered voters in mostly white precincts in South Boston, Charlestown, West Roxbury, and Dorchester has increased by only 5.7 percent.

Cabral's campaign appears to have galvanized minority voters. Without a governor's race on the ballot, turnout was lower overall than it was in 2002. But higher percentages of minority voters turned out, relative to 2002, than white voters: Turnout in black precincts was 82 percent of what it was in 2002, compared to 72 percent in Asian precincts, 70 percent in Hispanic precincts, and only 61 percent of non-Hispanic white precincts.

Mostly white South Boston and West Roxbury had high turnouts. But neighborhoods with high minority populations weren't far behind on Tuesday. There were 4,563 ballots cast in West Roxbury and 4,515 in South Boston, but Jamaica Plain turned out 4,303 voters and the Dudley Square-Grove Hall area produced 3,120.

Renee Vaughn, a 33-year-old Dorchester resident, said she rarely votes but decided to cast a ballot for Cabral.

''It did play a role that she was a minority woman, a black woman," Vaughn said. ''She stands for a lot of what I believe in as a single woman raising a child. I liked what she was saying, as far as cleaning up the community and trying to get more jobs for the youth."

Gay and lesbian voters, who have usually stayed away from local races, also mobilized around Cabral's candidacy. She won an endorsement from the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, which normally does not back candidates in such races. Tuesday, when early turnout figures suggested that Cabral needed help, caucus members sent mass e-mails to constituents urging them to vote.

''Midday I got the call the turnout was high in West Roxbury and South Boston" traditional Murphy strongholds, said David Breen, a caucus member. ''I started shooting out e-mails. Other people were doing the same."

Breen said it wasn't difficult to convince gays and lesbians they should care about the sheriff's race. ''It's a cliche, but we are everywhere," he said. ''We are prison guards. We are police officers, and unfortunately some are also prisoners. To some extent the community has an interest in every race where [the winner] has control over people's lives. In this race, it went a little beyond that. It was easy to sell Andrea. It made it easier when you said, 'Look at the alternative, Steve Murphy.' "

Women also appeared to vote in large numbers for Cabral. Several powerful women, including Victoria Reggie Kennedy and fund-raiser Barbara Lee helped Cabral for months.

''I called opinion leaders all over Boston, both Republicans and Democrats, to support Andrea," said Lee, who runs a network called Revolutionary Women.

Several well-known political leaders also helped Cabral, especially in the final days of the campaign, when she received the endorsements of Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, former district attorney Ralph C. Martin II, former attorney general L. Scott Harshbarger, and US Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Globe correspondent Elise Castelli contributed to this report.

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