Second in a series of profiles of Boston’s 12 mayoral candidates.
On a recent morning, Felix G. Arroyo started his campaign day around 7:30 outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brighton’s Oak Square, brightly greeting customers fueling up before work. After an hour, an aide checked her watch, and he hustled off to the Sisters of St. Joseph for 30 minutes at a March on Washington commemoration. “Pray for me,’’ he whispered to one of the nuns, before rushing away again. Next was a radio show. After that, a gun control rally.
In a day that ended well past 8:30 p.m., he never stopped rushing, and there was a reason. The mayoral candidate doesn’t have much in his campaign war chest compared with some of the other contenders, so he’s relying on something else.
“I’m blessed with a lot of energy,” he said.
In a crowded mayoral field where several of the other 11 candidates have amassed large stockpiles for campaign spending, Arroyo is banking on a ground game that outpaces his opponents. His hope is to secure some 25,000 votes and one of the top two spots in the Sept. 24 preliminary election.
As the only Latino candidate in the race — and at 34, the youngest — he is trying to make history in Boston, as the first minority to lead a city where minorities make up the majority of residents. But more than that, Arroyo is on a difficult quest to prove that the route to the mayor’s office is paved not solely with money, but with long days, hard hours, and plenty of face time with potential voters.
“When I got into this race, I was under no illusions that I would have the most money,’’ said Arroyo, a two-term city councilor at-large. “I felt that our vision of Boston and that our style of campaigning — grass-roots, door to door, face to face — are what would make the day for us.”
Arroyo’s campaign has about $150,000 cash on hand at the end of August compared with more than $1 million for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, and he has knocked on at least 12,000 doors in the past month, according to the Arroyo camp and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Polls show him still in the middle of a pack in which clear front-runners have yet to distance themselves from the field, but he’s getting support from pockets of the city, including many Latinos, and his former union, Service Employees International Union Local 615, whose members have been mobilizing others, knocking on doors and helping the local nonprofit ¿Oìste? register eligible Latinos to turn up at the polls.
Arroyo’s campaign has posted its biggest fund-raising month in August, with about $102,000 added. Roughly half of the donations came from Puerto Rico, where Arroyo’s father-in-law, Hector Luis Acevedo, is a former mayor.
On the campaign trail, Arroyo talks about his vision for the city, stressing a plan to close the education achievement gap, boost jobs and programs for area youth, and force banks to invest in the neighborhoods. On Monday, he released a blueprint for tackling poverty, the first candidate to do so.
“The next mayor has to be serious about creating a path out of poverty, and that’s a unique piece of my campaign,’’ said Arroyo, whose plan calls for such things as more funding for rental assistance programs and universal access to early- childhood education.
In community forums, Arroyo gets personal and often describes himself as “a son of Boston” whose parents, Felix D. and Elsa Montano, moved from Puerto Rico to the Villa Victoria housing development in the South End, where his father taught adults English and championed causes as a community activist.
Arroyo’s parents eventually moved to Hyde Park and raised five children, grinding through some tough years, Arroyo says on the trail. To keep the gas bills low, they left the oven door open to heat the house. And when the furnace broke near the end of one winter, they boiled water to take baths and bundled up together to keep warm.
“I remember as a family we all slept together in one room to keep warm,’’ recalled Elsa Montano, a former Boston public school teacher, in an interview about her son.
They were a family of causes — for better education, youth, and support for battered women. “We always had a cause,’’ Elsa Montano said. She recalled advocating for a battered women’s shelter and going to the State House with baby Felix in tow to speak on women’s rights.
“He was in the baby stroller and he was going to the State House with me,’’ she said. “For him, that was so normal.”
His parents instilled in the young Felix and the rest of their children a sense of responsibility to help others, Elsa Montano said. It shaped Felix, who graduated from Another Course College high school in Boston and spent three years at UMass-Boston, working three jobs and going to school full time. He did not finish, but he eventually earned a master’s degree in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University after the school waived the requirement for an undergraduate degree.
Growing up, Arroyo was a regular presence at City Hall while his father was city councilor, the first Latino in that post. And he was an aide to Chuck Turner, a former district city councilor of Roxbury. He coached youth baseball teams and mentored the teens who played. He felt compelled to serve.
“I didn’t grow up thinking, ‘I want to be in politics,’ ’’ Arroyo said. “But I did grow up thinking that I’d want to be some sort of public servant.”
His passion caught the attention of Jasmine Acevedo, now his wife. They met 12 years go while she was an aide for the government of Puerto Rico, working in Boston.
As they grew closer, Arroyo began showing her data on the dismal high school dropout rate in the city and persuading her to become a teacher.
“He changed my life,’’ said Acevedo. “He really believes that people have to take action, not just talk. I’m a teacher. I changed careers because he inspired me to.”
They often spend their evenings talking about issues like education, she said. When he decided to run for mayor, she was not surprised.
“This is personal to us,’’ said Acevedo. “This is about the children I teach. This is about the children he’s mentored.”
Arroyo’s career also includes four years as an organizer for the SEIU 615, helping janitors as they fought for new contracts that doubled their wages.
“What he picked up really quickly was a relationship with our members,’’ said Peter Rider, the union’s assistant district leader. “They felt empowered because he would put them in front to speak and he’d be in the background.”
Arroyo eventually ran two successful campaigns as a city councilor at-large. In that role, he helped to break an impasse between the mayor and the firefighters’ union in stalled contract talks. He also fought back a big school reassignment plan and joined with neighborhood residents to block library closings.
Melida Arredondo, another longtime supporter who hailed Arroyo’s work on the fire union contract, said he’s a passionate advocate for the causes he champions.
But as she watches Arroyo at the mayoral forums, she wonders if he should make a stronger pitch for himself.
“As an advocate, I think he’s very forceful,’’ said Arredondo. “But in terms of what people are looking for as their mayor, at this point I would say that Felix is too polite.”
She said Arroyo needs to capitalize on what she calls his “Latino-ness,” by emphasizing aspects of his Hispanic heritage to distinguish himself from the pack.
“I think he’s concerned that the other guys will say that he’s the Latino guy,’’ Arredondo said. “But he was born and bred here. He needs to turn it around. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it.”
Arroyo said the historical moment is not lost on him. But if he wins, he will be the mayor of all of Boston.