For the candidates running in this fall’s Boston City Council elections, breaking through the noise of a historic mayoral election, never-ending COVID-19 news, and volatile national politics has proven difficult.
Now they have just over three weeks before voters winnow the field in a preliminary election on Sept. 14. From there, eight candidates will face off on Nov. 2 for four at-large council seats, and two candidates will duke it out for each district council seat where there is a competitive election.
The at-large contest features two incumbents — Julia Mejia and Michael Flaherty — who both hold sizable campaign war chests and are favored in the race. The biggest challenge for many of the non-incumbents, observers say, is breaking through an already saturated news cycle.
“Running . . . during a contested mayoral election, particularly for an open seat ― it’s really tough to get any type of oxygen,” said John Tobin, a former District 6 councilor. “And it’s even tougher in today’s climate, unfortunately, with COVID.”
Five vacancies on the council — created by one retirement and four mayoral hopefuls — have left the body in line for the most turnover it has seen in a single election in nearly three decades.
Seventeen candidates are running for the four at-large posts on the council, two of which are being vacated by mayoral hopefuls Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George.
Preliminary elections for seats in districts 4, 6, 7, and 9 will also take place next month. The competition is especially fierce in 4 and 7, where the departures of councilors Andrea Campbell and Kim Janey, who ascended to the role of acting mayor from her post as council president, have left wide open fields.
This cycle isn’t the first attempt for several of the candidates in the at-large race, including David Halbert and Erin Murphy, who both came up short in the the competitive at-large general election two years ago. Murphy, a former Boston Public Schools teacher, came about 5,600 votes shy of Mejia, the fourth-place finisher.
“The connections I made in 2019 stayed, and they’ve only grown from there,” Murphy said.
Halbert also expressed confidence in his ability to get on voters’ radar, but noted the difficulty of drawing attention in a crowded race.
“There’s a lot of noise this year,” Halbert said. “You’re everywhere, and you have to be.”
First-time candidate Ruthzee Louijeune, who served as senior counsel on Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, has earned the backing of Warren and the Greater Boston Labor Council. Louijeune, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, has raised more money than any other council candidate since the start of the year, leaving her with more than $180,000 in the bank as of the end of July.
Gina Christo, a political consultant with the Boston-based firm Rivera Consulting, which has worked on numerous City Council campaigns in the past, said that Louijeune and Halbert sit in pole positions for the two open at-large seats based on their fund-raising chops and endorsements.
The field also features numerous candidates who have experience in and around the council. James “Reggie” Colimon, who previously served as then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s City Council liaison, emphasized his experience in city government, saying that he could “hit the ground running on day one.”
Jon Spillane, who has worked in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development and as an aide to District 8 Councilor Kenzie Bok, said he has the most experience working on housing issues, putting him in a position to address “the top issue facing the city” if elected.
Alex Gray, a former aide to former governor Deval Patrick and Walsh who is blind, has made accessibility for disabled people a core message of his campaign. Nick Vance, who sits on Governor Charlie Baker’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, has focused on unemployment and addiction.
Kelly Bates, an advocate who served on an ad hoc education committee launched by former Mayor Tom Menino, called for a thorough vetting of the Boston Police Department’s leadership “to make sure that we only have officers and leaders that model the kind of leadership that the city deserves.”
Other candidates are newer to politics. Bridget Nee-Walsh, a laborer and union organizer, is wearing her outsider status on her sleeve.
“I think I would be the voice of blue-collar, working class people,” she said.
A laundry list of labor organizations agree with her. A recent surge in donations, meanwhile, suggests the South Boston resident is picking up steam: Nee-Walsh brought in nearly $24,000 in July, roughly two-thirds of her overall funds raised and the most of any candidate in that period, save Louijeune.
Carla Monteiro, a social worker; Domingos DaRosa, a contractor; and Said Abdikarim, a former engineer who came to Boston as a refugee from his native Somalia, are also running for at-large seats, as is Donnie Palmer.
Rounding out the field are perennial candidates Althea Garrison, a former councilor, and Roy Owens, who is also on the ballot in District 7.
Even with mayoral elections driving interest, turnout in municipal elections is often meager. In 2013, just over 113,000 residents turned out to vote in the city’s preliminary elections, which featured the first open-seat mayoral race in 30 years.
But voters in areas where there is a competitive district race on top of the at-large and mayoral contests may be energized, making them key areas for citywide candidates, observers say.
“If you’re an at-large [candidate], you’re camping out in those districts that have contested district races,” Tobin said. “You can play Switzerland.”
District 4 and District 7 are among the most racially diverse in the city, and in each district a quarter or more of residents live in poverty, according to census data. Candidates in those races are focusing on the inequities and hardships faced by their would-be constituents.
In District 7 — which runs through Roxbury, the South End, and Dorchester — eight candidates have jumped into the fray, but two stand far ahead of the pack financially. Of the pair, entrepreneur Tania Anderson has the upper hand in both fundraising and cash on hand, filings show, but community organizer Angie Camacho has big-name endorsements from the Boston Teachers Union and the Greater Boston Labor Council.
Also running in District 7 are Marisa Luse, Brandy Brooks, Joao DePina, Leon Rivera, and Lorraine Payne Wheeler.
Nine candidates are vying for the open spot in District 4, which includes parts of Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Roslindale. Evandro Carvalho, a former state representative who now leads the city’s human rights commission, has raised and spent the most of any candidate since the start of the year, but Boston Public Schools teacher and Christian pastor Joel Richards, as well as activist Leonard Lee Sr. are not far behind, and have more cash on hand than Carvalho, according to the latest filings.
Also running in District 4 are Josette Williams, Brian Worrell, Deeqo Jibril, William Dickerson III, Troy Smith, and Jacob Urena.