Boston voters on Tuesday rejected two embattled incumbent city councilors, issuing a stunning rebuke to the dysfunctional legislative body and sinking two once-promising political careers.
Ricardo Arroyo and Kendra Lara, two of the most influential and outspoken progressive voices on the City Council, became the first incumbent councilors in at least four decades to be eliminated in the first round of voting, after being dogged by personal and political scandals for months. Voters in council Districts 5 and 6 instead chose to elevate a slate of relative newcomers to politics, setting up contests between fresh progressive voices and more moderate contenders in the November general election.
Both Lara and Arroyo conceded shortly after 9 p.m., just over an hour after the polls closed.
In Lara’s District 6, which includes West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, labor attorney Benjamin Weber will face IT director William King in November. In Arroyo’s District 5, which includes Hyde Park, Roslindale, and parts of Mattapan, the general election pits former Boston police officer Jose Ruiz against former City Hall official Enrique Pepén.
The first-term Lara, 34, had struggled to maintain the support of her constituents after a June 30 car crash, when authorities say she slammed an unregistered vehicle into the side of a Jamaica Plain home while driving without a license.
Lara told a small crowd gathered at the Brendan Behan Pub in Jamaica Plain that with Tuesday’s loss, she has been “promoted to activist.”
“Sometimes when you fight the system, the system fights back,” she said, without referring to the car crash or the related criminal charges, to which she has entered a not guilty plea.
Lara kept a smile on her face and struck an upbeat tone as she spoke. Then, thanking her supporters, she took a swig from a glass of beer.
Arroyo, 35, hails from a well-known Boston political dynasty, and had been seen as a rising political star. Now, after an unsuccessful 2022 bid for Suffolk district attorney, Arroyo has lost two major political contests in as many years.
Over the last year, Arroyo had been featured in negative headlines ranging from years-old sexual assault allegations (which he denied, and for which he was never charged) to ethics violations. Arroyo’s name surfaced repeatedly in the bombshell ethics reports showing that Rachael Rollins — who resigned as US attorney for Massachusetts — had used her post to try to sway last year’s race in Arroyo’s favor. Arroyo has been steadfast that he did not do anything wrong.
As he spoke to supporters Tuesday evening at the Square Root in Roslindale, a choked-up Arroyo acknowledged “it’s been a tough 12 months.”
He attributed his loss to relentless negative press that, he said, “builds up over time.”
“You serve at the will of the voters, and the voters spoke, and I accept that,” Arroyo said. Next to him as he spoke stood his father, Felix D. Arroyo, who was the first Latino elected to City Council in Boston’s history.
While campaigning, both councilors had asked voters to focus on their policy positions, not their personal and political baggage. But that pitch proved unsuccessful — and vote tallies showed it wasn’t close. Unofficial returns showed neither incumbent was in striking distance of the first two finishers; both Arroyo and Lara trailed their nearest opponent by double-digit percentages.
The losses make history: Since 1984, when the city adopted its current council structure, no incumbent councilor has lost in the preliminary round of voting. Fewer than 10 incumbent councilors have lost reelection bids at all in the last 40 years.
Tuesday’s results are the strongest indication yet of how frustrated voters have grown with the current City Council, whose two-year term has been plagued by internal chaos, more notable for its division and dysfunction than for its policy achievements. And the vote could portend a new ideological balance on the council, where progressives earned strong representation in this term but have struggled to make commensurate policy strides.
Arroyo and Lara are just two of the most infamous members of a council that has been hamstrung by infighting and disarray for most of this two-year term. The council has made more headlines for chaos and name calling than for policy change — a record that seems to have driven voters to the polls seeking change. Turnout is typically low in municipal election years without a mayor’s race on the ballot.
Candidates who bested incumbents Tuesday celebrated their victories with supporters, and started to look ahead to the general election campaign.
“You should be able to see this smile through the phone,” Ruiz told the Globe Tuesday night.
Ruiz said he planned to work out at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and be back on the campaign trail by 8 a.m.
“I see a path toward victory,” said Ruiz, who was endorsed by former mayor Martin J. Walsh. “I’m enjoying the moment.”
His rival Pepén, too, celebrated his finish in an e-mailed statement Tuesday evening.
“To every volunteer, every supporter, every endorser that put their trust in me — thank you, from the bottom of my heart,” said Pepén, who is backed by Mayor Michelle Wu. “There is so much work ahead of us as we march towards the General Election.”
I am honored and beyond thankful to announce that we made top of the ticket today. Your hard work, dedication, and unwavering support is what made this achievement possible. To every volunteer, every supporter, every endorser that put their trust in me–thank you, from the bottom… pic.twitter.com/ns123sxIRM— Enrique José Pepén (@EnriquePepen) September 13, 2023
In District 6, King said in an phone interview that he was “incredibly overwhelmed and humbled” by the results, pitching himself in the general election as “a candidate who can talk to everyone and work with everyone, and try to bring the council together.”
For his part, Weber said in a phone interview that he’s “happy I was able to show the people of District 6 who I am.” He said he’s been a “zealous advocate” in his professional life as a lawyer, and he wants to “represent the residents that same way.”
Thank you District 6 voters for the faith you have put in me. I am thrilled by the support we received across every neighborhood in the district. Together, we can make Boston a place where my kids and everyones kids want to stay and raise their own families. Onto November!— Benjamin Weber (@ben4district6) September 13, 2023
Meanwhile, in Roxbury-based District 7, incomplete unofficial returns showed that incumbent Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson would advance to the general election, as expected. With more than 90 percent of precincts reported, she appeared poised to face Althea Garrison, a perennial candidate who has appeared on the ballot more than 30 times, and briefly served in the State House and on the City Council.
In Dorchester-based District 3, a crowded field of seven candidates narrowed as results poured in. John FitzGerald, an official with the Boston Planning & Development Agency who enjoys major endorsements, including from Walsh, pulled ahead and was set to advance to November, unofficial results showed. Two other candidates, public school teacher Joel Richards and education nonprofit cofounder Ann Walsh, were jockeying for the second-place slot in the general election. Fewer than 100 votes separated them with 97 percent of precincts reported.
Walsh told the Globe late Tuesday that she was waiting for a complete count of the ballots, and expected results by Wednesday morning.
The November election will also feature eight candidates for four at-large councilor slots, as well as contests in the other five council districts. Some incumbent councilors are running unopposed.
Arroyo said Tuesday that it was too soon to say who he might support to succeed him in District 5. He said he planned to be at work at City Hall on Wednesday, and would serve on the council until his successor is sworn in in January.
“And then we’ll figure it out,” he said.
Later Tuesday night, Arroyo and his brother Felix G. Arroyo joined Lara on the patio at Brendan Behan in Jamaica Plain. Ricardo Arroyo cracked a smile as he sat down to join his colleague and childhood friend.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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