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The Boston mayoral race’s unintended consequence: a City Council shakeup

David Halbert waves goodbye to a voter after chatting with her about his campaign for the Boston City Council on June 15, 2021.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

When it comes to elections, most of Boston’s attention has been focused on the historically diverse slate of candidates jostling to be the next mayor. But the fall municipal elections will usher in another major change at City Hall: the biggest election year makeover to the Boston City Council in over two decades.

With more than one-third of the council running to replace former mayor Martin J. Walsh in the city’s top post, the body is in line for the most turnover it has seen in a single election since 1993.

Four of the six candidates running for mayor hail from the council, including the current acting mayor, Kim Janey, who ascended to the role from her post as council president in March. Councilors Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi George, and Andrea Campbell, along with Janey, all chose not to run for their current council seats while vying for mayor (although they are allowed to do so under the city charter). Their imminent departures from the body, along with the retirement of District 6 Councilor Matt O’Malley, leave five seats in the Nov. 2 general election up for grabs with no incumbent running : two at-large and three district posts.

The vacancies have ushered in a large field of council candidates: Forty-eight contenders have qualified to appear on the ballot in the Sept. 14 preliminary election across the nine district races and the at-large contest.


“I’m delighted just to see the incredible interest,” said Matt O’Malley, the lone councilor choosing to retire from electoral politics this cycle.

Seventeen candidates are running for the council’s four at-large seats, including two incumbents seeking re-election: Councilors Julia Mejia and Michael Flaherty. The other two at-large seats are the ones being vacated by Wu and Essaibi George.

In addition, 21 candidates have qualified for the ballot across the three open-seat district races created the departures of Campbell, Janey, and O’Malley.


Three of the six district incumbents who are seeking re-election — District 3 Councilor Frank Baker, District 5 Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, and District 9 Councilor Liz Breadon — will face challengers.

Despite the opportunity created by the four councilors jumping in to the mayoral race, some candidates acknowledge the difficulty of making a name for themselves with voters’ attention largely fixated on the top of the ticket.

“It’s really hard to compete with the mayoral stage, especially when you have a competitive one like you do this year,” said Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston-based political consultant who has run numerous City Council campaigns but is not working for any candidate yet this cycle.

Both incumbents in the at-large race — Mejia and Flaherty — are favored to win re-election.

“In a race this open, when you’ve got two open seats, it’s hard to make a contrast that you’re running against Julia or running against Michael,” Rivera said.

Mejia and Flaherty both sit on sizeable fund-raising cushions, with more than $100,000 and more than $240,000 in the bank as of the end of May, respectively. Mejia was elected by just one vote following a recount in 2019.

Ruthzee Louijeune, left, is a candidate for Boston City Council. She stops by Ripple Cafe and puts up one of her signs, with the help of 18-year-old campaign fellow Lillian Gibson.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

First-time candidate Ruthzee Louijeune — a lawyer and former senior counsel to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s a presidential campaign — has raised more than any other candidate since the start of 2021, raking in over $154,000 as of the end of May, according to state campaign finance filings.


“I’m feeling good about the numbers and the energy,” said Louijeune, who is running in the at-large race. “I bring a lot of unique voices to the table.”

Kelly Bates, a lawyer and social change advocate, had also raised more than $100,000 since the start of the year by the end of May — the second most among non-incumbents in the at-large field. Second-time candidates Erin Murphy and David Halbert have both brought in close to $72,000 since January.

Halbert, who served as an aide to former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and multiple members of the City Council, said he hopes to bring an “insider’s view but that outsider’s perspective” to City Hall, highlighting that there are no Black men currently serving on the council. Halbert, who finished eighth in the 2019 at-large race, said he would aim to use his perspective “to inform the policy decisions . . . particularly in conversations around equity.”

Alex Gray, another former Patrick advisor who also served in Walsh’s administration, has made headlines running to become the city’s first blind councilor.

Boston City Council candidate Alex Gray poses for a portrait while volunteering at the Mary Ann Brett Food Pantry, based at Saint Margaret Church of Saint Teresa of Calcutta Parish in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, on April 17, 2021. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“[Boston is] seen as being a leader on diversity and representation on the council,” he said. “Including disability at the table is just a natural extension of that reputation and history-making body that we’ve become.”

Voters in Districts 4, 6, and 7 will have open-seat district races, a hotly contested at-large race, and the mayoral election to vote on, making them pivotal areas to boost turnout for mayoral candidates, said Rivera, the political consultant.


“When you have a split field, like you do in the [mayoral race], and when you have two open at-large seats, you really are looking for votes wherever you can, and on the margins,” she said. “The competitive nature of the mayor’s campaign makes it more difficult to find where those votes are. In places where you have more than one race that people are excited about, you’re [more likely] to get more people to turn out.”

In the District 6 race to replace O’Malley, the two leading contenders — Kendra Hicks and Mary Tamer — each had more than $70,000 in cash on hand as of the May filing, more than any other non-incumbent district candidate.

Mary Tamer is a candidate for Boston City Council. She works at home on campaign financing, with her 23-year-old campaign manager Crane Friedman.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“For me, it’s about making as much voter contact as I can,” Tamer said.

Hicks, who is backed by many progressives and the Boston Democratic Socialists of America, announced she would challenge O’Malley before he said he would not seek re-election.

Nine candidates have lined up to replace Campbell in District 4, which includes Dorchester and Mattapan, as well as parts of Roslindale and Jamaica Plain.

Eight candidates are running to replace Janey in District 7, where Angelina “Angie” Camacho has a fund-raising lead.

Baker, Arroyo, and Breadon — the incumbent district councilors facing re-election challengers — all hold significant fund-raising leads over their opponents. Stephen McBride, who is running to oust Baker in District 3, has mounted the most credible campaign of any district challenger, having raised a little more than $16,000 since the start of the year.


District 1 Councilor Lydia Edwards, District 2 Councilor Ed Flynn, and District 8 Councilor Kenzie Bok are all running unopposed.

Though the mayoral race has absorbed attention and money from contests further down the ballot, O’Malley, the outgoing District 6 councilor, said he expects it to ultimately boost turnout.

“I don’t deny the fact that it’s always hard to get oxygen when there are other marquee races happening,” he said. “But even still, I think that that’s countered by the fact that you are seeing a higher than normal level of civic participation and interest.”