John Barros hears it so often that no one could blame him if he’s getting a little tired of the back-handed compliment.
“I like you so much, but I don’t see how you’re going to win.”
Barros is the most dynamic of the 12 candidates for mayor and probably the one who has converted the most voters since he entered the race as a near-unknown in April. Now, with two weeks to go, he races the clock in a bid to win over voters who have waited until the homestretch to focus on the race.
His pitch is simple and effective. At fund-raisers, T stations, and coffee shops, he offers it over and over: “Believe in your vote,” Barros says. “Believe in true democracy. Change the conversation from who can win to who do I want to win. That's true empowerment.”
The thumbnail biography of Barros is impressive. He runs the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and until he quit to run for mayor, was a member of the appointed Boston School Committee. He has been a neighborhood activist from an absurdly young age and has had a hand in many major and successful efforts to bring stability to what was once a forlorn part of Roxbury.
The son of Cape Verdean immigrants, he grew up in Roxbury and went to Dartmouth College on scholarship. He returned home and threw himself into civic life at the neighborhood level.
He believes the lessons he has learned doing neighborhood development and working on education issues can translate to the city as a whole.
“I wasn’t sure when I got into this that Boston was going to be able to move past politics as usual,” Barros said. “Now I know Boston doesn’t simply believe in established power networks and money.”
Barros’s signature issues are education and development. He supports charter schools and other innovations but believes that the key to addressing the achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers is addressing the social ills that take them to school ill-prepared to learn.
“If we’re serious about eliminating the achievement gap, we have to be serious about building healthy neighborhoods,” Barros said Tuesday.
As for development, this urban policy geek believes that the city does a woeful job of planning its neighborhoods. Though he rightly rejects the idea of doing away with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, he has vowed to open up the decision-making process in City Hall.
“Participation is something that constantly comes up (in talking to voters),” he said. “The debate over planning is symbolic of a much larger issue.”
He says what many other candidates are afraid to say: that after two decades of effective but semi-autocratic rule, residents are clamoring for a larger voice in running the city.
“People are looking for a mayor who’s accessible, who cares about the city — the whole city — and who will engage them in a city that continues to grow,” Barros said. “Mayor (Thomas M.) Menino is extremely accessible. But there are policies around him that don’t reflect his personality.”
Barros’s message may be starting to resonate, especially among people who feel shut out of power. Endorsements have begun trickling in, and his events are getting bigger.
“I think people were really afraid of picking a side unless it was one of the major candidates, because they were afraid of the backlash,” said youth activist Natalia Urtubey, who supports Barros. “But I think we’re better than that and don’t need to be afraid of the machine.”
Barros is counting on voters who aren’t afraid to buck predictions and polls. He says he draws inspiration from Deval Patrick, President Obama, and Elizabeth Warren, underdogs who won.
“What I need is for people to believe in the power of their vote,” Barros said.