Graying black men gathered at a McDonald’s in Roxbury, sipping coffee from paper cups as they hashed out the topics of the day: Celtics basketball, changing weather, and, this week, the candidates running for mayor.
“The only two respectable ones are [Charlotte Golar] Richie and [Councilor Charles C.] Yancey,” said 70-year-old George Washington.
A third name entered the conversation, that of John F. Barros. “Barros is good, too,” said Charles Jones, 70, who also supports Yancey.
The exchange underscores a split in the black community as Boston prepares to vote in the first open mayor’s race in a generation. With 12 candidates on Tuesday’s ballot, many of the city’s key voting blocs will be torn.
But in an increasingly diverse city, the division is especially acute in the black community, where for the first time in Boston history there will be more than one viable black candidate.
Heading into the preliminary election, Golar Richie has emerged as the candidate backed by historically powerful voices from the black community. She has been a state representative and served in prominent posts in city and state government. Golar Richie’s supporters say she has the knowhow and temperament to win.
“She has the experience, state experience and city experience,” said Jeanne Richardson, a 65-year-old from Mattapan who said she is voting for Golar Richie. “She’s diplomatic, more of a consensus builder.”
Barros has gained traction as the insurgent candidate with the fresh face. He has never run for elected office and is the son of Cape Verdean immigrants. He served on the appointed School Committee and has helped rebuild Dudley Square as executive director of a well-known nonprofit group.
Barros’s campaign focuses more on grass-roots organizing and less on endorsements. At age 40, he has a young family, and crowds at his event tend to be skew younger.
“He’s enthusiastic,” said Brandon Watson, a 21-year-old from Roxbury who plans to vote for Barros. “He’s a young, bright guy. He comes from the neighborhood. To me, it seems like he really cares about changing the neighborhood.”
Some black leaders have pushed unsuccessfully to coalesce behind a single candidate, a move that drew criticism and appears to have had little impact.
“The black community is not monolithic,” said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “Those days are gone.”
A recent Globe poll confirmed that perception, showing that the black vote had not clustered behind a single candidate. The survey did not include a large enough number of African-Americans to say with statistical certainty who was winning the key voting bloc, but the data highlighted trends, said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll.
The Globe poll suggests that Barros and Golar Richie have the largest share of the black vote, with a sizable chunk going to Yancey. Smaller slices of support went to Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo, who is Latino, and to Councilor at Large John R. Connolly and Councilor Rob Consalvo, both of whom are white.
Yancey is running for both City Council and mayor, but has raised little money and has only a few campaign staff. After 30 years on the council, Yancey has loyal support among some older voters, especially in his district, which includes Mattapan and part of Dorchester.
Two other black candidates — Charles L. Clemons Jr. and David James Wyatt — will also appear on the ballot but have not actively raised money for a campaign.
“I think [the black community] is all over the place,” said Lawrence Watson, a 49-year-old African-American carpenter from Codman Square who is undecided. “News reports are saying that a lot of the minority community is supporting Golar Richie or Barros. But I don’t know. I’ll probably be up in air until the end.”
In its long history, Boston has only elected white men to serve as mayor. In 1983, Melvin H. King became the first and only person of color to advance to a final election for mayor.
Since then, Boston’s demographic profile has changed dramatically, with blacks, Latinos, and Asians now accounting for a bigger share of the population than whites. But Boston’s voting-age population is still 52 percent white. About one-fifth of residents over age 18 are black.
For Mayor Thomas M. Menino, black voters and other communities of color stood as an electoral firewall. The mayor ran up such large margins in those communities that he was able to hold power for 20 years, even if he was never a favorite in such white ethnic strongholds as South Boston.
“The black vote is going to be significant,” the Rev. Eugene Rivers said this week as he stood with eight other black clergy on the steps of a church and endorsed Golar Richie. “We should say that as leaders in the black community. When I say the black vote, we don’t just mean African-American. Cape Verdeans are black, too.”
Standing nearby, Golar Richie noted that no candidate is likely to make it into the final election in November without garnering some support in the black community. “It’s not just the candidates of color interested in communities of color,” Golar Richie said. “We have a new city where candidates of whatever hue feel that it’s important to campaign in the African-American community. That’s a good change in the city of Boston to be proud of.”
Barros struck a similar tone.
“Boston should be proud of the fact that it has a very diverse slate of candidates,” Barros said in an interview Tuesday. “Other cities don’t find this strange. For Boston, there will be a day this is not strange, when you have a number of candidates of color that are viable and strong.”