The dynamic in the race for Boston City Council District 5 is simple: Ricardo Arroyo, a progressive incumbent hounded by controversy over the last year, is battling for a third term against three challengers attempting to unseat him.
In a closely watched race for a seat that covers Hyde Park, Roslindale, and parts of Mattapan, voters will have to decide whether Arroyo’s work on the city’s legislative body outweighs various political imbroglios, including an ethics violation, a scandal involving the downfall of a US attorney, and years-old sexual assault allegations he vehemently denies.
The sexual misconduct allegations surfaced last year during his run for Suffolk district attorney, and they still cloud the former public defender’s political future. Arroyo, the 35-year-old scion of a well-known political family, maintains he did nothing wrong — that he was never charged with a crime, and that he has never committed any sexual violence. But the allegations may have cost him the DA’s race. Now, he’s fighting for another council term.
“I would not be running for office if I didn’t believe I’m the most qualified person for this work,” he said during a recent interview.
His three challengers disagree with that assessment. Enrique José Pepén, Jose Ruiz, and Jean-Claude Sanon all frame themselves as unifiers and say the district is ready for a fresh voice. Only the top two vote-getters in the Sept. 12 race will advance to the final municipal election on Nov. 7.
Pepén, a 26-year-old son of Dominican immigrants, recently stepped down from his role as the city’s executive director of the city’s neighborhood services to run for office. Senior class president at John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science, Pepén credits his interest in politics in part to a housing official who found his parents a home in Roslindale after they were forced out of public housing in Charlestown when he was a child.
That, he said, made him understand “what one city employee can do for one family.”
He knows how government policies hurt and helped his parents, and that drives his public service today, he said. He says displacement is a key problem facing local constituents, and laments the lack of a senior center in the district.
His campaign, though, got off to an inauspicious start, as he recently faced questions about possible campaign law violations connected to his then-day job at City Hall. Pepén reported thousands in campaign contributions for June, a haul that may contravene state law, which prohibits paid municipal employees who are not elected officials “from directly or indirectly soliciting or receiving contributions or anything of value for any political purpose.”
Pepén also appears to have conducted at least one political interview from City Hall. Those activities could fly in the face of state law that prohibits the use of public resources for a political purpose. Public resources covers anything paid for by the taxpayers, including employee time and work computers or phones.
“As a first time candidate, I misjudged the situation,” he said recently, adding that he was already planning to resign from his city job when he launched his campaign.
Sanon, a 64-year-old who runs a company that offers translation services, among other things, has unsuccessfully run for City Council four times.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sanon moved to Boston as a teenager in 1975. Here, he learned English, and during the tumultuous 1970s — when the city was rocked by violence after a judge ordered the city to desegregate its schools — Sanon said he experienced racism firsthand. He recalls being punched on an MBTA train in South Boston and being chased through a Hyde Park neighborhood by four hammer-wielding white people.
“Where I was born, where I came from, we have been fighters,” he told the Globe recently. “We don’t believe in running away from issues and problems.”
This time around, he said he’s running in part because Arroyo ran for higher office last year. To him, that conveyed Arroyo was not fully invested in the district, a criticism the incumbent has dismissed.
When it comes to the City Council, Sanon said the bulk of the work is constituent services. He said he would like to foster a better relationship between law enforcement and the communities of District 5.
Meanwhile, Ruiz is a retired 29-year veteran of Boston police, who said he dislikes being painted by labels. He’s a registered Democrat who previously supported former governor Charlie Baker and President Ronald Reagan — both Republicans — and counts former Boston mayor Raymond L. Flynn as one of his heroes.
“I’m just a Democrat who’s objective,” the 63-year-old said.
Like Sanon, Ruiz was shaped in part by the city’s institutional racism. The busing of the 1970s meant he went to three different high schools. He recalls hearing white police officers use racial slurs when he asked them for directions to his South End home as a child.
A one-time community service officer for Mattapan, Ruiz’s resume is lengthy and includes extensive work in organizing and coaching local youth sports. For four years, he was part of the “dignitary protection team” for former mayor Martin J. Walsh, who he refers to as “an adviser.”
“I call him for anything and everything,” Ruiz said.
For Arroyo’s part, he is leaning hard on his professional and personal experience. The son of a well-known politician who was the first Latino elected to Boston City Council, Arroyo was born and raised in the district and is quick to tick off his council accomplishments: spearheading the formation of a new independent police watchdog, banning the use of facial recognition software by city government, and new limitations on law enforcement’s use of tear gas and projectiles to control crowds.
He also points to his ongoing work around food insecurity and environmental justice, and his push for an elected school committee. Housing, he said, is the biggest issue not only in the district but in Boston.
“It’s an existential crisis for the city,” he said.
And he appears to be ahead financially. According to the most recent state filings, Arroyo’s campaign has more than $27,000 cash on hand, Ruiz’s campaign has $25,000, Sanon’s campaign $15,000, and Pepén’s $10,000.
In a municipal election without a mayoral race, turnout is expected to be low, which typically benefits incumbents. But the run of bad press Arroyo has garnered during his last term could be damaging.
Last year, it was revealed Arroyo was investigated twice for sexual assault allegations when he was a teenager.
One of the women has since said Arroyo did not assault her, while the other said she stands by the allegations. Police in that case concluded that the allegations were unfounded.
He also recently admitted to an ethics violation and paid a $3,000 penalty for continuing to represent his brother in a sexual harassment lawsuit after Arroyo became a councilor.
And, earlier this year, Arroyo was enmeshed in a fiasco that prompted Rachael Rollins, a one-time rising political star, to resign from her post as US attorney for Massachusetts. At the heart of bombshell reports were attempts by Rollins, whom Arroyo counts as a friend, to sway last year’s Suffolk district attorney’s election in Arroyo’s favor through media leaks. Regarding that controversy, Arroyo has also been steadfast that he did not do anything wrong.
He is facing an investigation by the Office of Bar Counsel, the state agency that probes attorney misconduct. That office is looking into allegations that he omitted the sexual assault investigations from his 2014 bar application to become a Massachusetts attorney.
Recently, Arroyo said he viewed the investigation as an opportunity to defend himself and to be validated.
“What is true is on my side,” he said.
Responding to questions about his pitch to voters who may be skeptical of giving him another term, Arroyo said, “I’m a human being. I think there’s no perfect candidate, there’s no perfect person.”
“I hope people understand my humanity,” he said.
Criticism of Arroyo from his opponents, meanwhile, has been somewhat muted.
“When a man’s down on his knees, it’s not up to me to knock him down,” Sanon said. “The people will be the judge.”
Pepén said he thought voters were disappointed “in general with the City Council.”
Regarding Arroyo, Ruiz said, “I absolutely refuse to be the person to throw the next dagger.”
He added: “If you want to know about the incumbent, I wish him well. But I didn’t join this race to lose to him.”