Tucked away in a quiet corner of Roxbury, the Highland Park section of Fort Hill is lined with stately brownstones, rambling gardens, and campaign signs showing political allegiances as diverse as the neighborhood’s population. Fences and yard signs still advertise support for an array of unsuccessful mayoral candidates, including Charlotte Golar Richie, John Barros, and City Councilors Mike Ross and Felix G. Arroyo.
What united voters here in last week’s preliminary election was not a shared loyalty to one candidate, but a collective aversion to two — the eventual winners. Eighty-eight percent of voters in this progressive precinct backed someone other than state Representative Martin J. Walsh or Councilor at Large John R. Connolly. Located within the broad swath of Boston’s inner city where neither finalist claimed victory, Fort Hill is among the voting precincts where they had their weakest showings. Of 261 votes cast for mayor in this precinct last week, only four went to Walsh.
As he and Connolly head toward the Nov. 5 general election, competing in the first wide-open race for mayor in 30 years, both candidates will be mining votes in neighborhoods like Fort Hill that previously rebuffed them. And the debate will shift and narrow as they attempt to distinguish themselves in the eyes of voters who previously weren’t willing to give them much thought.
“Neither of those two guys really spoke to me,” said Nicholas Knoblauch, a 25-year-old research assistant at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “I guess now I’m going to pick one.”
A white female neighbor, who declined to give her name, said she had voted for Golar Richie, the only woman in the race, who would have been the city’s first female mayor and first black mayor. Now, she said, “I have to decide who’s less offensive.”
That attitude itself is offensive to voters like Valerie Madden, a Connolly volunteer who had tried to get her neighbors here to rally around Connolly’s campaign.
“People would tell me frankly, ‘I like him. He’s a good candidate. But I’m not going to vote for him because he’s white,’ ” Madden said.
Madden, who is white, and whose husband is biracial, said she didn’t have the “bandwidth to chide my neighbors because I know that where they’re coming from is a place of good intentions.”
Connolly finished second in this precinct — but very distantly behind Golar Richie. The 27 votes he claimed here put Connolly in a tie with Barros, a first-time candidate.
“It was a little disheartening cause I’ve been beating the drum around the neighborhood,” said Madden. “Moving forward, I don’t know how the neighborhood will sway.”
Many residents interviewed in the neighborhood were noncommittal, not yet willing to make a second choice. But some had a good gut sense of which campaign they would support, based in large part on what each candidate seemed to represent. Connolly, a city councilor who has campaigned for years on school reform, attracts parents like Nora Donnelly, of Beech Glen Street, who is focused on improving schools.
But Connolly makes teachers nervous, noted Matt Rowley, a Highland Park resident whose wife teaches in the Boston public schools and who did not like the fact that Connolly sought the endorsement of a national school reform group, Stand for Children. Connolly later rejected expenditures on his behalf by the organization and has called for a campaign free of outside spending.
“With two kids about to enter schools, I’m a firm believer in the value of public education,” said Rowley, who voted for Barros. “I think Walsh is a potentially good progressive candidate.”
Conversely, Walsh’s intimacy with the trade unions makes some other voters here uncomfortable. A former leader of the Boston Building Trades, Walsh has received overwhelming organizational support from unions, and his campaign reaped more than $750,000 from outside groups in the preliminary. He has continued to welcome outside spending and rejected Connolly’s belated decision to renounce it.
“Marty Walsh is too with the unions,” said Tina Andrews, a Cape Verdean voter who backed Golar Richie in the preliminary. “He works for the unions, basically.”
Randy Foote, who teaches government at Roxbury Community College, said he will probably default to Connolly for the same reason, though in the preliminary election, he had voted for Ross, based on his message of innovation.
“I’m not anti-union, but I worry about public unions having too much influence,” Foote said. “I think that Connolly is a forward-looking mayor and I think that Walsh is not.”
Then there are the intangibles.
Cedric Jenkins of Highland got a good feeling from Walsh when he saw him speak at a forum and supported him in the preliminary. Juanita Upshaw of Cedar Street said she will probably do the same after giving her support on Tuesday to City Councilor Charles Yancey, whom she has known for 30 years. Walsh, she said, has a good reputation and seems likable.
“He seems like he’ll follow in the footsteps of the Menino administration,” said Upshaw. “He may do a good job.”
Marjorie Janvier Bellerand, a Haitian-American physician who lives on Fort Avenue, didn’t want to say who earned her vote in the preliminary, but she made this much clear: It was a “he,” and he didn’t win. She was not impressed with Golar Richie, questioning the efficacy of her campaign.
With two children and another on the way, she is most concerned with public education. She was impressed with Connolly when she saw all the candidates at an event at Hibernian Hall; she was further impressed last week that Connolly held his victory party there, at the same Roxbury hall.
But her husband liked Walsh at the earlier Hibernian Hall event, she said. And she still needs to do her homework about the two candidates she didn’t support the first time around.
“It’s a new six weeks,” she said. “I’m open to hearing both of them.”