THERE ARE large forces at play in the race for the four at-large seats on the Boston City Council, from jockeying for future mayoral races to sounding alarms about the return of an all-male council. At bottom, though, voters should pick their candidates based on who’s best for the job — most diligent at council business, and most adept at identifying key issues and addressing them. The contest isn’t about personal ambitions, or any particular neighborhood, race, or gender. It’s about serving the citizens of Boston.
On that basis alone, the four incumbents — Ayanna Pressley, John Connolly, Stephen Murphy, and Felix Arroyo Jr. — have distinguished themselves. Each has carved out a niche responsive to voters’ concerns, from Murphy’s shrewd fiscal management to Connolly’s promotion of a longer school day to Arroyo’s advocacy for libraries and community centers to Pressley’s exertions to prevent teen pregnancy and keep high school-age parents in class.
Each of these efforts is unique. They probably wouldn’t exist, or have been pushed to fruition, if these particular councilors weren’t in office. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, whose shadow looms over the council, can exert pressure on its members, especially those in district seats, who depend on him to provide services to their constituents, but he can’t completely ignore a good idea. On the City Council, effectiveness isn’t a matter of catering to the mayor or criticizing him: It’s about promoting solutions that are too effective to ignore.
So when Murphy, a 15-year council veteran whose calling card is his knowledge of the budget, proposed refinancing convention-center debt to save millions of dollars, there was no reason for politics to get in the way. Likewise, Murphy’s efforts to dramatically expand the payments in lieu of taxes by nonprofit institutions won instant mayoral encouragement. The result: an expected tripling of such revenue in five years.
Connolly, at 38, heads the council’s education committee, and got headlines for exposing the use of outdated foods in school cafeterias, an obvious service to the public. Less obvious was his committee hearing on reforms to the teachers’ contract, an admirable declaration of independence from the powerful teachers’ union.
Arroyo, the council’s youngest member at 32, casts himself as a diehard labor supporter and advocate for youth activities. His backing of unions such as the firefighters’ can be reflexive, but is rooted in his personal experience as a negotiator for a janitors’ union. His direct engagement with the city’s grass roots is unconventional for a politician: He coaches sports, works closely with troubled teens, and personally tries to discourage gang activity.
Pressley, 37, came to office two years ago with a knowledge of politics gained in the office of Senator John F. Kerry and an open, engaging campaign style. She’s grown considerably in the job, having helped to forge a compromise on the firefighters’ contract and stood up to some of her African-American supporters in voting to oust bribery-tainted Councilor Chuck Turner.
But her deeper distinction comes from her willingness to promote issues that are far from other officials’ radar screens, such as human trafficking, where she revealed her own experience with a violent pimp who tried to recruit her. Her advocacy for teenage girls ranges from support for sex education, including abstinence, to applying pressure on the Boston schools to activate a long-dormant mandate to help accommodate teen parents.
Pressley’s seat is widely perceived to be threatened by the return candidacy of longtime councilor Michael Flaherty, who gave up his seat to run for mayor in the last election. Some fear the symbolism of replacing the council’s first-ever African-American woman with a white man. That wouldn’t matter as much if Pressley’s presence carried only symbolic weight. But she represents less the principle of diversity than the reality of diversity: Her advocacy for women and girls yields tangible results.
Flaherty is a bright, knowledgeable public servant whose particular distinction in this race is that he is an ardent critic of Menino. He declares that the mayor is putting his political weight behind the incumbents, and will thus expect their cooperation on issues. But that’s not entirely true; none of the incumbents came out of Menino’s political machine, and all have a history of challenging him on certain issues.
Still, Flaherty offers a bracing critique of a city government under the thumb of a dominating mayor. He’s animated in describing how mayoral pique can sometimes influence policy. Obviously, Flaherty wants to replace Menino. But that’s not a persuasive enough reason to return Flaherty to the City Council. There’s no legislative agenda behind his campaign, while the four incumbents have all shown exactly what they’d do as councilors. Flaherty doesn’t need to be on the City Council to run for mayor and be taken seriously. For this office, Murphy, Connolly, Arroyo, and Pressley are superior choices.