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The Boston Globe

Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

Plenty of talent in Boston’s at-large council race

MAYBE THE Coast Guard should be standing by on Sept. 24 to rescue people swamped by a sea of candidates. As if sorting through a dozen mayoral candidates in a preliminary election isn’t tough enough, Boston voters are also being asked to choose from among 18 at-large candidates for Boston City Council.

Though often derided as statutorily weak, the 13-member council is the proving ground for Boston politicians. And the four members elected citywide can be seen as the institution’s upperclassmen who aren’t necessarily required to perform the day-to-day constituent services required of the nine district councilors. Theoretically, at least, that leaves more time for them to think about citywide issues.

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An effective council doesn’t need a cohesive ideology. It works best when its members represent the concerns of the widest range of Bostonians. Sooner or later they all learn the ins and outs of constituent work, crafting ordinances, amending zoning codes, and scrubbing the mayor’s budget before voting on its approval. So why not vote for a councilor or two who will help the city shed its parochialism without losing its character? Or someone fearless enough to call out the new mayor? Or someone who is ridiculously smart?

Fifteen years ago, Jack F. Kelly III was a rising high school hockey star who descended into narcotics addiction and homelessness. He bounced back to become a neighborhood liaison and political operative for the Menino administration in his native Charlestown. Kelly mixes easily with more recent arrivals to the neighborhood. He’s open about the roughly five-year period of his life spent on drugs and wants to help others with similar problems. But Kelly’s real passion is protecting the city’s middle class. Bikes are great. But somebody will need to remind a new mayor that there are plenty of Bostonians who still rely on their cars — and sufficient parking spaces — to get to work and shuttle around the kids.

Political activist Jeffrey Ross of the South End has helped a lot of other people get elected since moving here about 20 years ago. Now he wants to help himself become the first openly gay city councilor to serve at-large in Boston. Ross, 44, brings a lot to the table, including experience as a bilingual immigration lawyer. Ross recalls being bullied as a schoolboy in California. He abandoned the school yard and started to hang out in his school cafeteria, where he became an expert cake baker by sixth grade. Such resilience somehow feels relevant in a city known for its punishing political environment.

An effective council doesn’t need a cohesive ideology. It works best when its members represent the concerns of the widest range of Bostonians.

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Annissa Essaibi George is your average high school teacher of Tunisian-Polish heritage who runs a yarn shop while juggling her duties as the mother of four boys, including triplets. The Dorchester native is a ferocious defender of the Boston Teachers Union. No one’s perfect. Essaibi George, 39, doesn’t dismiss the impact of violent crime in Boston. But she is also calling attention to the property crimes that drive Bostonians around the bend. Essaibi George chased and caught some guy who broke into her house. She’s not likely to be shoved around by a City Hall operative.

No one has ever accused the Boston City Council of being overly intellectual. That leaves some room for Michelle Wu, a graduate of Harvard Law School. Wu, 28, worked in the special egghead unit of the Menino administration, where she designed technological solutions to outmoded city licensing applications. Some worry that Wu, if elected, would spend more time as a speaker at national conferences than she will at City Hall. There’s only one way to find out.

The larger point is that this race deserves voter attention. The two incumbents — Stephen Murphy and Ayanna Pressley — are accomplished councilors. But two seats went up for grabs when at-large councilors Felix Arroyo and John Connolly committed to run for mayor. Voters can choose up to four at-large candidates from the field of 18. The top eight vote-getters run off on Nov. 5.

There is still plenty of time to review the field. Many of the candidates have serviceable websites. Boston Magazine political writer David Bernstein has posted especially useful online “candidate chats’’ with all of the contenders. Think of it as a nice distraction from following the mayor’s race.

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

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