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Deeply divided, can Boston’s city councilors repair relations?

A highly charged August meeting laid bare what has become a raw rift that had been months in the making.

Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo listened to colleague Frank Baker speak during a contentious meeting in August.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Last year, Boston elected one of its most diverse City Councils in history, with a mandate to empower the legislative body to bring change to City Hall. But in recent months, tensions have been building behind the scenes, reaching a boiling point weeks ago when the new council looked more like an ugly rerun of old-school Boston politics — dysfunction and a deep schism with racial overtones.

A meeting in late August featured extraordinary accusations of racism between councilors of color and their white colleagues, a spillover from the bitter primary election for Suffolk district attorney in which one candidate, City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, faced years-old accusations of sexual assault late in the race. One councilor, Frank Baker, compared Arroyo to a predator, while Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson alleged her white colleagues’ votes were at times racist. Councilor Kendra Lara, meanwhile, said she had been on the receiving end of racist attacks from a colleague’s sister.

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The discord even spread to the audience, some of whom heckled councilors or bickered among themselves, and then were summarily ordered to clear the council chambers. Once outside, a fight broke out among some spectators.

The highly charged affair laid bare a raw rift within the council, and provoked a significant soul-searching question for the councilors, several of them new to office: How will they be able to repair relations, if they ever want to get things done?

“We can’t continue to function in this environment,” said Julia Mejia, who is in her second term as an at-large councilor. She proposed bringing in a mediator to facilitate discussions among the councilors.

“I think we have a responsibility to the constituents we serve that we have to move the city forward despite our differences,” she said.

To be clear, some City Hall insiders say, sharp elbows are part and parcel of Boston politics, and that friction on the council is nothing new. In the 1960s, Katherine Craven, the first woman elected citywide to the body, called a fellow councilor “a bald-headed son of a bitch,” adding “I’ll poke you in the jaw,” during a hearing about urban renewal. Two years later, she hurled an ashtray at another councilor during a meeting after he called her a “foul-mouthed hag.”

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And councilors in the past were have been accused of contributing to Boston’s lengthy history of racism and discrimination. For instance, Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, who served on the council for 28 years and died in 2007, thrived on his brash offensiveness and made racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments throughout his lengthy political career, during which he was often the top vote-getter in City Council races.

The tensions at the August meeting were fueled by the ugly turn late in the Suffolk DA race, which prompted Council President Ed Flynn to strip Arroyo of his committee chairmanships. Arroyo has vehemently denied the allegations and was never charged with a crime. At the August meeting, some councilors of color who supported Arroyo accused their white colleagues of racism.

Boston pols tend to have long memories, some City Hall insiders argue, and the emotion on display at the August meeting reflected a very real split on the council, one they don’t see healing anytime soon. Indeed, multiple councilors declined to even speak about it, while others issued vague statements.

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The stakes for a resolution are high: The council has more power over the city’s purse strings than ever, and it’s engaged in the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing council district lines.

Arroyo, for one, did not think the recent turmoil would stop members from reaching consensus where there are points of agreement. To assert that, he said, would be to ignore the city’s political history, which is littered with council divisiveness.

“I don’t see a world where people just disagree to disagree,” he said recently.

In an interview, Mejia said the tension within the council reflects a divide among city residents and policy makers over the future of Boston.

“Every single issue right now is politically charged and also the ideology is divided in terms of how we get to where we need to be,” Mejia said. It’s important to talk about race and structural inequities, she said, but that can be difficult, as many people don’t want to have the conversation.

“I can’t even say the word race without people rolling their eyes,” she added. “You can’t talk about the inequities in the city of Boston without calling it out.”

Arroyo, for his part, thought that the meeting on Aug. 31 displayed a “build-up of a feeling of racial micro-aggressions,” and outright racial hostility. Among the council chairmanships that Arroyo lost was one that oversees the redistricting process.

For some councilors, his removal was “an indication that people of color were being held to different standard,” said Arroyo, who is Latino. He pointed out that seven councilors — a majority — support him being reinstated.

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“It triggered a whole lot of pent-up feelings,” he said.

Arroyo said he is still waiting for Flynn to explain why he lost the chairmanships. Flynn has said the move was in the best interest of the council, but Arroyo counters that he did not break any laws or council rules.

In a statement, Flynn tried to mollify the anger among members, saying that as the city recovers from the pandemic, councilors must remain focused on delivering basic city services and improving the quality of life for residents.

“Regardless of our differences of opinion and vision to do so, elected officials and the city work best when we work together, listen to one another, learn from each other’s lived experiences, and treat everyone with respect and dignity,” Flynn said.

But Anderson, who received criticism for using an expletive on the council floor during the August meeting, concurred with Arroyo, saying in a statement, “Racism exists in all elements of society, whether it be personal or structural. So, yes, we are held to different standards. For years on the City Council, white men have had it out in the chambers and not much was said about decorum or etiquette.”

Councilor Brian Worrell, in a statement, lobbied for peace, saying, “The people of Boston are frustrated with the current divisive tone of politics and the distraction it creates for achieving real legislative goals.”

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At the Aug. 31 meeting, Lara said she was subjected to brutal racism, including e-mails calling her the n-word, and said the attack was arranged by the sister of Councilor Erin Murphy, whom Lara criticized for failing to condemn her sibling.

Murphy has since said the crux of that accusation, that her sister orchestrated racist e-mails sent to Lara, was false, saying it was an unprofessional smear.

“We don’t have to agree politically, but we need to treat each other respectfully,” Murphy said. “If we can’t get along and we’re publicly fighting, how can we expect the city to heal and grow? We should be role models.”

In an e-mail, Lara stood by her accusation.

Baker, whose district includes portions of Dorchester, South Boston, and the South End, also took exception to the implication he was racist.

“I actually find it laughable. Can you quantify that? That’s a big charge there, you know, that I’m a racist,” he said. “I help a lot of communities. I think I’ve been pretty available to all of my communities in my district.”

Known for his brusqueness, Baker was quick to engage in the rift. He supported Flynn’s move to take Arroyo’s chairmanships away. At the Aug. 31 meeting, he said of the accusations against Arroyo: “If a predator continues to roam, the killing field only becomes larger.” Weeks after that statement, he said he stood by his comments.

In a recent interview, Baker said the council is the most divided he’s seen it in his decade on the panel.

But, he added, “It’s like any family fight . . . you have to eventually come back around,” he said.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.