Politics

The crowded at-large councilor race in Boston proved too much for some candidates — and has implications for November

Standing out in a 17-candidate pool was just one of the challenges facing at-large candidates last week.

In the preliminary elections, only 24.72% of eligible voters in Boston voted, a low turnout considering the amount of candidates running for each position.  Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A fledgling political campaign is a challenge for any candidate. Tack on issues that arise from an ongoing pandemic, a historic five-way mayoral race drawing most of the spotlight, and a 17-candidate slate, and it starts to sound like a perfect storm of campaign challenges. 

This was the Boston at-large city councilor race this year, as 17 candidates, many of them political newcomers, each tried to secure one of eight available slots for four seats on the November ballot. 

The two incumbents running, Michael Flaherty and Julia Mejia, won first and second, respectively, followed by Ruthzee Louijeune, Erin Murphy, Carla Monteiro, David Halbert, Althea Garrison and Bridget Nee Walsh. Of the eight candidates moving onto November’s elections, three are first timers on the ballot. 

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“We understand the mayoral race obviously takes up most of the oxygen in the room, and it did do just that when it comes to press coverage … we were an afterthought to the mayoral race, which I think did influence people’s awareness of our race,” said Annika Jensen, campaign manager for Halbert. 

Voters who showed up to polls echoed similar sentiments. A Mission Hill resident, Elise Cole, had shown up to the polling station mostly to vote in the mayoral elections, and expressed that she had seen posters for Mejia on her way to work, but had not known who to vote for for city councilor.

Jensen, who was with Halbert at polling locations both on election day and during early voting, found that several voters had not heard about the city council elections and had not known it was ongoing. 

Even those involved in city politics were unsure of all of the candidates in the large pool. 

“This year, I haven’t paid much time to the city council elections,” said Matt Fitzgerald, who was volunteering at a polling station for incumbent candidate Michael Flaherty and said he has been involved with Boston city politics for approximately 40 years. “As far as the new city councilor candidates go, I couldn’t tell you what they do. It’s been really just the sheer number of candidates and a high profile mayor race.” 

The COVID factor

For some candidates, the issue of visibility may have cost them their campaign. 

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The unprecedented ways in which candidates had to adapt their campaigns to fit the pandemic showed how hard it was to motivate their bases. Jon Spillane, who ran as a candidate for at-large city councilor but did not make the November ballot, said that he found it hard to get in contact with voters. 

“The biggest thing that affected the race was COVID — it really affected the rollout of voters,” he said. “The first few months of the campaign was on Zoom, and then going into the summer, everyone had been cooped up with COVID, so it was harder to get in contact with voters than other summers. When you did door-knocking, people weren’t home.” 

Although the number of candidates running was not necessarily unexpected, due to four seats being open for at-large city councilor, the 17-candidate slate did cause some issues. 

“When you have a forum with 17 candidates in it, it really impacts the quality of the forum,” Spillane said. “If you’re going to have 17 candidates, there should be a minimum threshold of who can run so you can have more serious candidates.”

Reaching out

However, some successful candidates were able to leverage more unconventional strategies to reach their voters. Mejia, an incumbent who had also been an at-large city councilor last year, shared her “secret weapon” she used to connect with her voting base. 

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Boston’s 87.7FM Notorious VOG radio show gave Mejia a platform to connect with non-traditional voters, whom Mejia described as those who are heavily impacted by the decisions made in office everyday, but not necessarily attuned to local politics or government. The radio station allowed her to stay connected to these listeners and keep consistency with this audience. 

“I think that people usually tend to overlook folks who are not politically savvy, but those are the ones that are going to be inspired to vote for people who reflect their journey,” Mejia said, attributing some of her success to engaging with folks in non-traditional ways. 

THE 2021 ELECTIONS

Other candidates found that running in a 17-candidate pool was not so much a struggle as it was a learning experience. 

“It was really incredible to get to work alongside such a broad, diverse and talented group of candidates,” said Emily Polston, campaign manager for Louijeune. 

Looking toward November

In the upcoming weeks, as the candidates ramp up their campaigns to gain the remaining voters for the general election, the candidates going through are optimistic about their supporting bases. After all, fewer candidates means more voters to appeal to. 

Jeron Mariani, senior project manager at Field First working with Monteiro, referenced the large number of untapped votes in the preliminary election. In that contest, only 24.72% of eligible voters in Boston voted, a low turnout especially considering the amount of candidates running for each position. 

“We believe that there’s a lot more Carla supporters out there, that Carla’s crew is going to grow between now and November,” Mariani said. 

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Others are looking for the opportunity to tap into voters who might be disillusioned that their preferred mayoral candidates failed to advance during the preliminary elections. At Halbert’s campaign, Jensen hopes to connect with those in Black and brown communities who voted for Kim Janey, Andrea Campbell, or John Barros, all of whom were Black candidates who did not secure a ballot spot in the final mayoral race. 

“With those people feeling, maybe disenchanted or feeling disappointed, looking to the at-large race, there are some incredible candidates of color, not just David,” Jensen said. “But there is a chance to elect a full POC slate for at-large.” 

There remains to be a forum or debate set for the eight candidates to face one another, but time will be of the essence in the coming few weeks running up to the general elections. 

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