Barbara Martinez found herself losing a battle last year against Boston’s school bureaucracy. A single working mother from Roslindale, she was fighting to ensure her two young daughters could attend the same local grammar school.
Then Martinez heard Councilor at Large John R. Connolly speak at a community meeting.
“When he left, I chased after him,” Martinez recalled, her tone recalling the desperation of the moment. “He really got it. He really seemed to understand how unfair it was.”
During his six years on the council, Connolly has used his office as a platform to push for changes in the city’s byzantine school assignment system, revamp the teachers’ contract, and expose waste and mismanagement in school cafeterias.
But his passion can also surface as a temper.
Connolly has earned a reputation for sharp elbows on the council, and has butted heads with other officials, a practice that cost him endorsements that went to his mayoral rival, state Representative Martin J. Walsh.
“I get emotional and passionate about issues I deeply care about, and I push on them. Sometimes, I push and it rubs people the wrong way,” Connolly said in an interview. “I’ve been in a lot of living rooms and kitchens with groups of parents. I really felt like I was their voice on the council when it came to school issues. Sometimes, I would have sharp elbows because I felt like I needed to make sure these voices were being heard.”
In Boston, the City Council has little power in a system that concentrates most authority in the mayor. But councilors use the platform to push issues and hold the administration to account.
Connolly has championed cyclists, pushed the city to add hybrid cars to its fleet, helped change city rules to increase energy efficiency standards for buildings, and served on a city climate change task force. He often sided with the council’s more liberal voting bloc on issues such as redistricting.
“You could count on him to vote the right way even when facing a difficult vote,” said City Councilor Michael P. Ross, who lost in the preliminary election for mayor and has not endorsed a candidate in the final.
Connolly received his greatest recognition for his work on education — which also led to some of his most intense clashes.
Connolly and City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo once got into an argument about teacher seniority that became so heated their screams could be heard echoing off City Hall’s concrete walls.
And while Connolly built a diverse coalition last year around a plan to overhaul the school assignment system, that effort ultimately damaged relationships with officials such as state Representative Russell E. Holmes.
Holmes, a Democrat from Boston, had signed on as a sponsor to Connolly’s school assignment plan, but he said he immediately felt intense pressure from Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration to abandon the proposal. At that point, Menino had not announced his intention to retire, and Connolly was positioning himself to run against the five-term mayor, who had his own plans to fix student assignment.
The push to overhaul student assignment and allow children to attend school close to home has been controversial in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, which have more underperforming schools. Connolly’s plan included magnet schools to try to ensure quality choices across the city, but it also preserved walk zones that gave preference to students living about a mile from a school.
Days before a School Committee vote, Menino met in his office with Holmes and Boston’s other 11 elected officials who are black, Latino, and Asian. Holmes and the others successfully pushed for elimination of walk zones.
“That became very contentious with John for us to have had that meeting” with Menino, Holmes said in an interview. “He thought we did an end around, and we should have had a conversation with him. We thought it was the communities of color that are most impacted.”
This fall, Holmes and many other elected officials of color endorsed Walsh’s bid for mayor.
“The moment I strayed from [Connolly’s] plan, he got quite upset. We had stern words for one another,” Holmes said. “It was certainly one of the strong reasons for me endorsing Marty over John.”
City Councilor Matt O’Malley was also part of the student assignment coalition, and he has endorsed Connolly’s bid for mayor. The proposal, O’Malley said, was an effort to transcend the polarizing fight over neighborhood schools.
“It was absolutely a politically dangerous initiative,” O’Malley said. “What we were trying to do — and John clearly led on this and was the driving force behind it — was end the three-decade-old debate and say we can have neighborhood schools that are close to home, and we can also make sure we have quality options for all kids by having a series of citywide magnet schools.”
In an interview, Connolly said even if he had not run for mayor, he would not have sought reelection to the council, simply because it was time to go. He first ran for one of the City Council’s four at-large seats in 2005, finishing fifth and narrowly failing to win a seat held by Stephen J. Murphy.
In 2007, Connolly ran again and took aim at Murphy. Connolly’s campaign later acknowledged it mailed anonymous fliers noting that Murphy had actively sought other jobs. Connolly has apologized several times for the tactic, but it has been brought up in this year’s mayoral campaign.
Murphy kept his seat in 2007 and Connolly won a spot, too, edging out an incumbent councilor, Felix D. Arroyo. Arroyo and his son, City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, have both endorsed Walsh and are playing active roles in his campaign. The younger Arroyo, who lost in the preliminary mayoral election, dismissed a question about whether he and his father harbored ill will toward Connolly over their electoral defeats.
Arroyo acknowledged he has had differences with Connolly, especially when Connolly clashed with the teachers’ union. Arroyo noted that his mother, sister, and wife are all members of the teachers’ union, and he said he would take a more cooperative tack than Connolly.
“I know that his passion around education reform is real. We don’t disagree with the goal of quality schools. The disagreement is in how,” Arroyo said. “I’m unabashed and unapologetic about my support of workers’ rights and the idea that professionals should be treated like professionals.”
When Connolly joined the council, he was initially chairman of the environment and health committee. But when Chuck Turner was arrested for bribery in 2008 and removed as chairman of the City Council’s education committee, Connolly got the post.
Connolly said he used the committee as a tool to push for change. Observers said Connolly, an attorney by trade, has approached hearings like a methodical litigator.
“He’s extremely analytic and detailed,” said City Councilor Mark Ciommo, who has endorsed Connolly’s bid for mayor. “When he gets into an issue, he is an extraordinary researcher.”
Connolly held hearings on resources for students with special needs and students whose first language is not English. He also held hearings on seniority and hiring policies.
Connolly tried to influence teacher contract negotiations by holding a series of hearings that culminated in a 7½ hour marathon session that included testimony from students, parents, and teachers.
In March 2011, Connolly made surprise visits to four school cafeterias and discovered out-of-date food in freezers. School officials ultimately ousted the longtime director of food and nutrition services after finding 280 cases of old food in 40 cafeterias.
Connolly revamped the school budget process by working with Ciommo, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Budget hearings once covered broad issues. Under the new system, one hearing targeted high schools, another special education, a third looked at curriculum.
In 2008, the school budget review spanned eight hearings and lasted just over 17 hours. Under Ciommo and Connolly in 2011, the process nearly doubled, to 15 hearings stretching at least 34 hours.
“To me, the school budget was the key lever to effect change,” Connolly said. “The goal is to account for how we spend every dollar and make sure parents and children had a voice.”
In 2012, Connolly called for the resignation of Carol R. Johnson as school superintendent after she failed to discipline a headmaster arrested for assaulting his wife.
Connolly’s call — which came after other missteps by Johnson, who retired this year — prompted a backlash from some leaders in Boston’s communities of color. At a rally for Johnson, some Connolly critics compared him to former School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks, who was known nationally for her opposition to school integration through busing in the 1960s and 1970s. But some ministers who attended the rally have now endorsed Connolly’s bid for mayor.
City Councilor Tito Jackson has worked with Connolly on several issues, including the push to raise the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 and to teach African-American, Latino, and Asian-American history in the classroom.
But Jackson endorsed Walsh’s bid for mayor. Jackson said Connolly’s school assignment plan put too much focus on geography and not enough on quality. Walsh has helped Jackson’s constituents secure beds in addiction treatment centers, Jackson said, and he believes the labor leader could help diversify unions.
Jackson mentioned one other point.
“Marty has more of a collaborative style,” he said.