After nearly two centuries of choosing white men to lead the city, Boston would seem primed to elect a mayor of color, with six minority candidates vying for the spot in a city where more than half the residents are not white.
But as the candidates of color struggle for a toehold in the crowded mayoral field, there is growing belief in some quarters that the ballot could actually be too diverse, threatening to fracture the minority vote rather than unite it.
As Boston braces for its first open mayoral election in decades, the city grapples with a unique dilemma: Will the large number of qualified minority candidates keep any one of them from winning?
“With so many minority candidates, it makes it harder for all of them,” said Larry DiCara, a longtime observer of city politics and former city councilor who studies shifts in voter demographics.
The candidates themselves write off any suggestion that the large field of minority candidates is a bad thing. Instead, they stressed, it shows how far the city has come since 1983.
“Boston’s a different city from what it once was,” said mayoral hopeful John Barros, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants and the executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. “The fact that we have multiple credible candidates of color speaks volumes about the city of Boston.”
The candidates considered to have the best chance of becoming Boston’s first mayor of color are Barros, a former School Committee member; former state representative Charlotte Golar Richie, the field’s only female contender, who spent time working for both Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick; and at-large city councilor Felix G. Arroyo, who has been elected twice on the citywide ballot and whose father also served on the council.
“The historic nature of my campaign is not lost on me,” said Arroyo, the first Latino to ever appear on Boston’s mayoral ballot.
Still, Arroyo said, it would be foolish to think that any candidate, no matter how crowded the field, could finish in the race’s top two spots by appealing only to minorities, who make up 53 percent of the population but — by some estimates — just about 38 percent of the city’s registered voters.
“Candidates that think that any group, especially minority voters, is going to vote monolithically is making a huge mistake,” Arroyo said.
Two other minority candidates, City Councilor Charles Yancey and former Boston police officer Charles Clemons, could conceivably carve out significant chunks of the electorate by election day and, political observers caution, cannot be written off.
Yancey, who is simultaneously running for mayor and reelection to the City Council seat he has had 30 years, is well known across parts of Mattapan and Dorchester that he represents.
While some have questioned the seriousness of his mayoral bid, Yancey has said that he is running because he believes he is the best person for the job.
“There are some who will bemoan the fact that there are so many people of color running, I think it’s good for democracy,” Yancey said.
Clemons is well known because of the popularity of his radio station, TOUCH 106.1, an unlicensed broadcast branded as the “fabric of the black community.”
Though some consider him a fringe candidate, Clemons’s blue yard signs can be seen hanging in parts of Dorchester and Roxbury where many voters are familiar with “Brother Charles.”
Together, some observers say, Clemons and Yancey could have enough of a following to draw a significant number of minority voters away from the other candidates of color.
The sixth minority candidate, David James Wyatt, could not be reached for comment. The lone Republican in the race for mayor, Wyatt has raised almost no money and was not expected to be a major factor.
Only one minority candidate — Mel King, in 1983 — has ever made it through the preliminary round of Boston mayoral voting. His campaign relied heavily on a coalition of minority voters and those whose loyalty he had won while in the State House representing the Ninth Suffolk District.
But this year’s field of wellknown candidates makes building a similar coalition difficult.
“With this many candidates, you never know what’s going to happen,” said John Berg, professor of government at Suffolk University. “Everyone is taking votes away from everyone else.”
But, he said, “if Felix Arroyo or Charlotte Golar Richie or even Charles Yancey were able to take over as the minority candidate, they’d make the final.”
The candidates and their campaign staffs all insist that there has been no talk an alliance behind one minority candidate. Meanwhile, most of the city’s elected leaders of color have yet to back any of the candidates running for mayor.
“Each of us represents different organizations, different neighborhoods, and different special interest groups,” said Clemons, who attempted to organize a breakfast with the other minority candidates earlier this month, stoking rumors that an alliance. “We just need to make sure we’re showing unity in our communities.”
King, who admits that minority voters propelled him into his unsuccessful general election matchup with Ray Flynn in 1983, stresses that Boston is a very different city now.
“I’m always tickled when I hear the assumption is that people of color can only get votes from minority communities,” King said. “No one talks about that for the white candidates. No one is asking if there are too many of them.”
King is also one of many political observers who noted that it is not only minority candidates who have crossover appeal in this race. At-large City Councilor John Connolly can boast a broad geographic coalition, while other white candidates such as state Representative Marty Walsh and Codman Square Health Center founder Bill Walczak are well known in Dorchester’s minority communities.
“No matter who it is — white, black, Hispanic, or anything else — they’re going to have to secure the backing of a good chunk of the minority community,” King said.
Some leaders of minority communities noted that the number of qualified candidates of color will force all of those running for mayor to look at key issues in minority areas.
But even if the candidates say that they are not concerned about potentially sabotaging the chances of electing Boston’s first minority mayor, it remains on the minds of some voters.
At a voter forum in Roxbury this month, Bishop Filipe Teixeira, of St. Martin de Porres Church in Dorchester, asked Golar Richie if the large number of minority candidates is an indication that Boston’s minority communities are fractured.
But the candidate batted back the question, explaining that the large number of candidates is a show of the political power and mobilization of Boston’s minority communities.
“My philosophy is that everyone should run,” Golar Richie responded, before listing her long relationships with, and past support of, many of the others in the race. “A lot of us have long, deep relationships. There’s no way I’m telling any of these other candidates not to pursue their dream of being mayor.”Wesley Lowery can be reached at Wesley.Lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.