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Lawrence Harmon

A new voice is in political jeopardy

Ayanna Pressley is the first black woman to serve on the City Council.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Ayanna Pressley is the first black woman to serve on the City Council.

BOSTON’S FOUR at-large city councilors subscribe to an age-old survival philosophy: Separate stalks are easily broken, but tied together they are hard to destroy. Enter challenger Michael Flaherty of South Boston, who is determined to take a weed whacker to this garden party on election day Nov. 8.

If predictions of a paltry 12 to 15 percent turnout prove accurate, just 4,000 votes could separate the ticket topper from the candidate who finishes out of the money in fifth place. Incumbents Felix Arroyo, John Connolly, Stephen Murphy, and Ayanna Pressley are running as an informal slate, hoping to block Flaherty.

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Pressley, the first black woman to join the council in its 100-year history, is the most vulnerable. She has served just two years. The other incumbents appear much safer, with some combination of more money, better field organizations, longevity, and political legacy. Flaherty, meanwhile, enjoys strong name recognition citywide, having served for a decade on the council before leaving the post to make an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2009.

The incumbent slate has real appeal. The 13-member council is functioning at its highest level in many years, with a minimum of gum-flapping and maximum of attention to substance. Each of the at-large incumbents brings something significant to the table. Murphy has mastered the details of the city’s budget. Arroyo devotes much of his professional and personal life toward improving the lives of the city’s young people. Connolly has deep knowledge of Boston’s serpentine school system. And Pressley is a powerful voice for eradicating poverty and violence in Boston.

But Flaherty stands out, too. In a statutorily weak body that requires staying on the mayor’s good side for neighborhood services and help at the polls, Flaherty doesn’t want anything from Menino . . . except the mayor’s job. He relishes exposing weaknesses in the Menino administration’s public safety, education, and information technology operations. And he chides the mayor and at-large councilors as a “hugging and high-fiving team’’ dedicated to the status quo.

Earlier this week, cracks started to appear in the slate after a Globe article highlighted the symbiotic relationship between Connolly, whose base is in high-voting white wards, and Pressley, whose supporters in minority neighborhoods might now look kindly on Connolly as well. That high-profile alliance made Murphy and Arroyo feel relegated to the bench, despite their consistent efforts to promote Pressley’s candidacy among their close supporters and organized labor. By week’s end, however, the four at-large incumbents appeared to be pulling in the same direction.

It would be a shame if Pressley, 37, gets bounced in November. You could argue that she would have only herself to blame for not raising money quickly enough or creating more of an election buzz in minority neighborhoods. But voters citywide should want to see more of her.

Two years ago, Pressley swept into one of two open seats while mouthing liberal platitudes. Now she is at serious risk of losing that seat despite offering specific strategies to reduce teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and family instability. The Chicago native has worked in more rarefied environments; she was a senior aide for US Senator John Kerry. But after just two years on the council, her body language and blunt speaking style reflect the rough and tumble of Boston politics. She has been good for the council, and the council has been good for her.

Pressley prefers to stress the diversity of ideas she brings to the council. But it’s fair to consider the demographics of the council as well. If she loses, there is a good possibility that all four at-large councilors and all nine district councilors will be guys.

Why should Flaherty care? It’s not his fault that Dorchester district councilor Maureen Feeney, the only other woman on the council, has decided not to seek reelection. He’s chasing a seat, not Pressley’s seat per se. And having to run against a slate only gets his competitive juices flowing.

Still, it grates to think that Pressley might be plowed under. To be effective, the City Council doesn’t need to reflect the exact makeup of Boston. But it shouldn’t look like a rugby team, either.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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