We sat down with three candidates of color from Boston’s recent elections, John Barros and Felix G. Arroyo, who ran for mayor, and Michelle Wu, who ran for and won an at-large City Council seat, to hear what they learned from their campaigns — and what their hopes are for the city’s future under Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as you campaigned earlier this year?
John Barros: The biggest challenge I faced was probably raising money. I had to get out there and as a candidate who did not hold an office, present myself as a viable candidate, and then make the case for why I was going to actually win, and get people to invest in that.
Michelle Wu: For me it was name recognition. As a first-time candidate running citywide, Boston becomes much, much larger, and everybody expects to see you and have a conversation with you face to face. It’s a lot of ground to cover. And the focus the whole time was on the mayor’s race. So as a council candidate, there was the extra challenge of really needing to get out there and have a strong ground game.
Felix G. Arroyo: My circle of friends aren’t people with a lot of disposable income, and so we would high-five each other if I got a $100 check.
So for me it was fund-raising, and trying to figure out how do we build a campaign that’s grass roots in nature without the funds to be able to feed it.
What was the most hopeful sign you saw on the campaign trail?
Arroyo: I went to the Latino senior day center. It’s in Hyde Park, hundreds of Latinos there. And I could tell they were looking at me, but didn’t really see me. They saw their own kid. They saw why they moved to this country. They saw that we have real opportunities here. It’s really a classic American story of someone who looks like me, whose parents moved here speaking no English, could now say I’m running for mayor.
Wu: I was surprised every day by where support was coming from. When I first started, way back in December, as a young Asian-American woman, your base is going to be [Asian-American] neighborhoods. That was the expectation. And even campaigning outside those neighborhoods, I was surprised by how many people wanted to see more diversity on the City Council. This year, I think largely because of the mayor’s race and the sheer number of candidates on the ballot, there was a sense of excitement. But there is still a long way to go in really making everyone feel like they are part of Boston — even if they came here for school and haven’t quite figured out how to connect in yet. There needs to be a better way of reaching out to everybody and pulling them into the strong networks that are here in the neighborhoods.
Barros: During the campaign, I spent some timewith students at different schools. The Mather School has a diverse group of students they call ambassadors. These are students that welcome you, take you around the school, tell you what’s going on, take you from class to class. And to these kids, I was their hero. They were excited. They probably all think I’m mayor, and I don’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t win. My nephew found out the other day. He was devastated. But he told me, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll win next time.” But yeah, that’s inspiring. Changing the realm of what’s possible, changing how they identify who they are. Boston is far more progressive than the narrative around Boston. In general, the Boston voters want to see diversity. They want to talk policy. They want to talk about a new Boston that is more engaging, that’s more inclusive, that creates more opportunity for more people.
Boston is a majority-minority community; why has that not translated into more people of color in political office here — and for that matter, more women?
Wu: I think the first thing to note is Boston’s diversity itself is very diverse. So it’s not a monolithic community in any one of the sub communities — in the Asian-American community there are multiple languages and economic situations, multiple groups backing different candidates. Obviously the city is changing, and the demographics are there, but whoever is in leadership, it’s undeniable that communities of color play a strong role in what the issues are and defining what the needs of the city are. I think in the mayoral election, communities of color played a huge role in setting the agenda, and defining the terms.
Arroyo: You know, we know two people of color in the final eight in the city councilor at-large race. They finished one and two. Right? And both happen to be women. There’s a statement. While we didn’t make the finals, myself, Charlotte Golar Richie, and John, we had really strong showings in the primary. These things take time. There are also some realities when we say Boston is a city that’s majority people of color. You’ve got to dig deeper into those numbers. A lot of people of color are under the age of 18, and have different statuses. We have a lot of people of color who are not eligible to vote yet. It will happen over time, you know, when you see more immigration reform, when you see citizens more engaged. And I think there’s work we have to do as leaders in our community around the importance of voting in both elections and not just the finals.
Barros: One of the sad story lines is the lack of participation in this last election. The other thing I’ll say is this: We are a diverse set of communities in this bloc. And we haven’t organized yet. I’ll be right out front and say it: We need to make sure everybody is at the table. And we need to respect the diversity of not just background ethnicity but of policy stance and positions people are going to take coming out of these communities. I think we matured a lot during this campaign, and I was proud to stand with Felix and Charlotte Golar Richie to support Marty. I was proud of the fact that after we did that, all the electors of color did the same thing. And that we stood as a bloc.
What qualities did you, John and Felix, see in Mayor-elect Martin Walsh that made you and other leaders of color coalesce around him?
Barros: You know Marty Walsh lives in my ZIP code. He lives, in many ways, in my neighborhood. It’s not a stretch to think about him as an inclusive candidate. In fact, Marty Walsh’s track record has been one of being an advocate for that neighborhood, being an advocate for the community centers, for the programs, for that part of Boston that I think is most diverse. So for me it was a really simple decision. He’s a more inclusive, progressive candidate in this race, and that’s why he won.
Why didn’t minorities coalesce around a single candidate of color during the preliminary mayoral election?
Arroyo: There wasn’t a single minority candidate. That’s the answer. You know, 12 people running [for mayor in the preliminary election], five of color, one woman. And I think it would have been a mistake to create a situation where there was a single candidate of color. I’ve become closer to John Barros than I’ve ever been, and it was because we were on a ballot together. All sorts of people were inspired to vote because he was on the ballot. Also, because Charlotte was on the ballot. Because I was on the ballot. The voters decided who the final two were going to be. While there are many still bemoaning that there wasn’t a person of color in the finals, this election was decided in the communities of color in the end.
What should be on Walsh’s agenda, now that he has been elected mayor, with regard to Bostonians of color and inclusion in general?
Wu: The theme of my campaign was around building pipelines to opportunity. In Boston there are incredible resources all around the institutions, universities, hospitals, jobs, but it’s not getting out to everybody. And there are huge gaps based on geography, based on ethnicity, based on income, and I plan to have many conversations with our mayor-elect about this. The reason communities of color don’t participate as much in the elections is there is a sense that politicians come around when it’s election time and then disappear afterward. And there needs to be that sustained engagement and intensity of outreach after the election when you’re talking about actually implementing ideas.
Barros: Education, economic development, and health. Education, there is no question, we cannot tolerate an achievement gap. It’s a crime. We need to drive that gap down. Opportunity is not just about putting people at the table. Opportunity is making sure people can play. Third, health. You know when I say health I think not just your classic health disparities, but the social indicators for health, you know crime, safety, mental health, domestic stability. All of those things are critical for us to do the first two things. And we’ve got to handle that as a city.
Arroyo: I think for me personally overarching everything is just the effect of poverty on our communities. So, when we look at poverty, then you start to see what some of those effects are: It includes mental health, substance abuse issues. And so
we’ve got to really focus on the issue of poverty and recognize that this is all connected: public safety, education, economic development, and public health. I consider Mayor-elect Walsh a friend, and it normally takes me about two minutes in every conversation for me to say the word “poverty” to him, and it’s going to be like that for the next four years. I think it’s natural to him — as someone who was a union organizer, someone whose parents were immigrants, someone who knows what it is like to work hard for a living — he understands that. There is no easy solution to it, but I’m looking forward to it.
What’s next for you, John and Felix?
Arroyo: Like John, I’m on [Walsh’s] transition team, I really do want to keep working on the issues that I’ve worked on as a city councilor, but specifically around poverty.
Barros: I’m obviously a big supporter of Walsh. I’m not putting him in there to see him fail. We’re going to have a transition process. At the end of the transition process, we’re going to articulate a new government.
Michelle, as a new city councilor, what will some of your priorities be, especially around the goal of making Boston more inclusive?
Wu: What I heard across every neighborhood and every group that I visited during the campaign trail was that people wanted to stay engaged. They really want to see you there. At the end of every senior center visit, they said you have to come back. If you’re elected, come back. So, I think the biggest piece for me, the biggest priority is to really continue being out in the neighborhoods and out in the community.