Though this year’s fiery mayoral contest has consumed public attention, a lively contest for at-large city councilor is heating up in the final days of the campaign.
Only four of the eight at-large contenders will make the final cut after Tuesday’s vote; preliminary returns and recent polls show strong support for the two incumbents, Michael Flaherty and Julia Mejia. Erin Murphy, a former Boston Public Schools teacher for more than two decades, and former City Council and State House staffer David Halbert, who both ran unsuccessfully in 2019, are locked in a tight battle for the other two seats with first-time candidates Ruthzee Louijeune, a lawyer, and Carla Monteiro, a social worker.
This year’s at-large contest is filled with charismatic candidates with powerful personal stories, but the race will ultimately come down to who has the best citywide organization to bring the most voters to the polls.
All have raised significant cash, and each has attracted big-name endorsements, said Larry DiCara, former city councilor and local politics historian.
“These races are often not about big ideological issues; it’s about personal stories, personal relationships, and making people feel comfortable with you,” DiCara said, noting that is tough to tell how the pandemic has affected the candidates’ ability to build a rapport with voters.
Each promises change on the council, and offers ideas for boosting affordable housing, improving city schools, recovering from the pandemic, and steering police funding to more mental health services. All have plans to address the crisis at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Whoever makes the top four will join a political body that must work with a new mayor around some thorny topics, such as fixing the city schools and tackling the Police Department, which needs a permanent police commissioner.
A council seat is also a launching pad, having vaulted the careers of Ayanna Pressley to Congress, Councilor Michelle Wu as mayoral candidate, and Kim Janey, as the first woman to serve as the city’s acting mayor.
The fifth-place finisher could also become a councilor if Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins is confirmed as President Biden’s next US attorney for Massachusetts and, as many speculate, Flaherty is appointed to succeed her. In that case, the candidate in fifth place would take his spot on the council.
“There should be a lot of excitement because of what’s happening at the City Council level,” said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, urging bigger turnout than the preliminary election. “I hope that people pay attention and respond to this prospect for change … in the city.”
In the Sept. 14 preliminary election, Flaherty, Mejia, and Louijeune were the three highest vote-getters, followed Murphy, Monteiro, and Halbert, with candidates Bridget Nee-Walsh and Althea Garrison trailing, according to the election department.
Polls have shown the tightest contest is between Murphy, Halbert, and Monteiro.
Monteiro’s arguably the underdog, running behind Murphy and Halbert in polls and in fund-raising. On the campaign trail, she’s presenting herself as a candidate who, as a social worker, has dedicated her professional life to understanding the needs of families in crisis, and has both the sensitivity and the skill to bring real change.
“As we look to recover from an ongoing pandemic, mobilize resources to address the crisis at Mass. and Cass, we are presented with an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine behavioral health services in Boston,” she told a lively crowd of about three dozen supporters at The Blarney Stone restaurant in Fields Corner recently. “Now’s the time, more than ever, to elect a social worker to our city government.”
If elected, Monteiro, who is 39 and lives in Dorchester, said she would push for more social workers in the schools. She wants supervised injection sites to address the city’s opioid crisis, and a reallocation of some police funding to better support mental health services.
Born in Boston to immigrant parents, Monteiro would become the council’s first person of Cape Verdean descent if elected. At her campaign event on a cold Sunday afternoon, she was accompanied by Pressley.
Monteiro told her “story of struggle,” having faced eviction as a child, searching for jobs as a teenage mother, and waiting on government lists for affordable housing with no end in sight.
After getting her GED, she earned her associate’s degree from Quincy College, her bachelor’s from Bridgewater State University, and her master’s in social work from Boston College. She works at Boston Children’s Hospital in the emergency psychiatry department and at Brigham and Women’s Hospital providing addiction care.
She said she’s lost family members and friends to gun violence over the years, experiences she says will help inform how she would lead on matters such as more support for trauma and mental health services.
“Voters see so much of their own story in me,” she said in an interview. “I’ve always been doing the work here, and that gives people a lot of faith in me.”
Halbert, a 41-year-old Dorchester resident who finished eighth in the 2019 at-large final, is drawing strength from his years of behind-the-scenes jobs in politics as he works to push into the top four.
A former aide to former city councilors Sam Yoon and John Tobin, Halbert also served as a scheduler for former governor Deval Patrick. Over the years, he’s developed a wide array of political friendships and alliances; in this race, he’s also been endorsed by Pressley, a good friend whom he met more than a decade ago at a campaign fund-raising event on Martha’s Vineyard.
At a campaign event at Ross Playground in Hyde Park recently, Pressley — who also endorsed Louijeune, Mejia, and Monteiro — stood alongside Halbert, who wiped tears from his eyes as Pressley spoke.
“I don’t know if we deserve him, but I know that we need him,” Pressley said.
Halbert said his experience inside City Hall and on Beacon Hill has helped him understand the issues and will help him advocate for residents.
Halbert supports a School Committee that has both appointed and elected members, and said that if elected he would advocate for raising the percentage of Boston’s affordable housing units to at least 20 percent. He would also push to steer more police funding to mental health services.
Halbert said he will be “honest about what I believe and why I believe it.”
If elected, Halbert would be the first Black man elected citywide since Bruce Bolling of Roxbury served 40 years ago.
“That’s significant, and I’m proud that many of the [Black individuals] I’ve run alongside have come aboard to my campaign,” Halbert said.
The day Pressley endorsed his candidacy, Halbert’s eldest daughter tested positive for COVID-19. The campaign responded to his quarantine with virtual chats Halbert hosted from his basement and “#DaveForTheDay,” where volunteers offered to canvas throughout Boston on his behalf.
“COVID was one of those curveballs thrown at you in the middle of the campaign, but our team stepped up,” Halbert said. “It’s deeply touching to me that we’ve been able to build a community and [been] able to meet the challenges of things you can’t anticipate.”
Like Halbert, Murphy is trying her second run for the at-large seat. She spent a part of a rainy Monday afternoon in a conga line at a Halloween party for seniors, many of whom support her.
“She has great ideas. Dorchester people like her,’’ said 84-year-old Mary Lent, who hails from the neighborhood.
Murphy is often compared to another Dorchester candidate in the municipal election: Annissa Essaibi George, who is running against fellow At-Large Councilor Michelle Wu. Murphy and Essaibi George are former teachers, both support adding additional police officers, and both grew up in Dorchester.
But Murphy, a soft-spoken single mother and granddaughter of Irish immigrants, has no trace of the thick Dorchester accent that Essaibi George is known for. Murphy said she lives in a rented second-floor apartment in a triple-decker in Dorchester. When the Long Island Bridge was abruptly closed in 2014, one of her sons, who was in detox on the island as it was being evacuated, called her.
“I got a call in the middle of the night and he was in a cab [crossing the bridge],” she recalled.
Murphy — backed by a trove of state and local lawmakers and who, along with her competitors, have raised a significant amount of campaign donations — said she got involved in civic service at an early age, learning from her extended family. Her mother and aunt started the city’s first teen center, with young Erin in tow. Her grandfather, Richard J. Murphy, started the first neighborhood association in the city, and a city school is named for him.
Her own life has had its share of triumphs and setbacks. A single mother of four, she lost a toddler son, who was 14 months, to heart disease. Another son battled addiction. As councilor, she said she would make support for mental health, trauma, and addiction services key issues.
Murphy said she ran in 2019 because she thought she could make a difference on the council. She had seen families in crisis not get the support they needed and said she would be their advocate as councilor. She is pushing for quality schools in every neighborhood, strong veterans’ outreach, safer streets, and more community policing. She does not support using ZIP codes as entrance criteria for the exam schools, adding that the city needs more quality elementary schools.
After the 2019 election, Murphy said she kept campaigning even though she lost.
“I really want this,” she said. “I can make a difference.”
Louijeune, who has had strong showings in recent polls, spent a recent Friday afternoon greeting visitors in English and Haitian Creole at the Immigrant Family Services Institute Inc. in Mattapan, bumping fists and taking selfies with just about everyone. Young children ran up and hugged her.
Louijeune, a 35-year-old Hyde Park resident, said she feels “comfortable in all parts of the city,” but still maintains close ties with the people in her Haitian community who hope to put one of their own in public office.
“Everything happening to me right now is because of you,” one of the center’s volunteers said to Louijeune.
The candidate credits her father, whom she calls a role model, for paving her way. A popular host on a Haitian television show, Robert Louijeune helped to elevate the voice of his people. Haitian leaders, hoping to exert their political will, have been running for office, endorsing political candidates, and seeking better partnerships with those in political leadership at City Hall.
Louijeune said she’s running because she’s “seen the best and worst” of Boston.
“My teacher at Boston Latin School said I would never make it,’' she said. “No teacher should ever say that. But my neighbors in Mattapan were Polish American and Irish American and Jamaican American and African American and we were all working class people looking out for each other, so that our families could make it.”
If elected, Louijeune pledges to help lead the city through the recovery from the pandemic and work to ensure there is a “village approach” to addressing the needs of children, local businesses, and residents.
She has said that everyone who lives in the city should feel a sense of belonging, and that the city’s budget should reflect their needs. The city, she said, has fallen short on addressing inequities; if elected, she would press to make rent affordable, help students thrive, and boost support for Black and Latinx business owners.
“I’m someone who’s been on the receiving end of inequities and empty promises, so I know what it takes to bring about coalitions to make change,” she said. “I love this city fiercely.”
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @tianarochon.