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In Boston, incumbency loses some of its power

Tuesday night’s preliminary city council election results show the limits of power that was once ironclad.

District 5 Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara both were voted down in the preliminary election.Globe Staff

Has the spell been broken?

Time was, incumbency on the Boston City Council was impenetrable.

Seldom would voters budge the denizens of City Hall’s fifth floor, no matter how much they deserved it. And some of them absolutely, desperately deserved it. With rare exceptions, councilors gave up their sinecures only when they got a better job, or just felt like moving on.

No more. On Tuesday night, two incumbent city councilors — both beset by controversy — were knocked out of their races in the preliminary election, each of them bested by two challengers, who will now face each other in November.


Voters — or at least the tiny sliver of them who showed up in this election — decided progressives Kendra Lara and Ricardo Arroyo could no longer represent them. They left Lara after she crashed an unregistered car into a Jamaica Plain house in June, and it emerged that she had been driving without a license for years. They rejected Arroyo after he was fined for improperly representing his brother in a suit before the city and was implicated in attempts by former US attorney Rachael Rollins to help him get elected as Suffolk DA.

Their travails contributed to chaos in the council chamber, as councilors seemed to prefer grandstanding and verbal brawling over getting anything meaningful done, infuriating the grown-ups in the room, and frustrating Mayor Michelle Wu.

And a bunch of voters, apparently.

“I’m elated and excited and very happy,” said state Senator Lydia Edwards, a former city councilor who has expressed frustration with the dysfunction in her old workplace. “Boston voters decided they are holding the City Council to standards, demanding more from local government, and refusing to allow the status quo to continue.”

With pugilistic hothead and conservative District 3 Councilor Frank Baker declining to run for reelection, the council now has a shot at becoming a more credible body, though soldiers on both sides of its pitched ideological battles remain.


Wu, Edwards, and others are clearly hoping for a return to the more ambitious, collaborative approach that marked the council when they both served there a few years ago. Wu put some heft behind that hope, backing her former staffer Enrique Pepén against Arroyo, her former ally. In a testament to Wu’s pull, Pepén topped the ticket in District 5, and will face former Boston police officer Jose Ruiz in November. Ruiz was endorsed by former mayor Marty Walsh, who has known him for years and for whom Ruiz was a driver.

“This was less about Arroyo and more about a relationship,” Walsh said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’m not trying to get back into politics.”

Because the former mayor was close to longtime city hall official John FitzGerald’s father and has known him for many years, Walsh also endorsed FitzGerald to take Baker’s seat. He got the most votes in that district on Tuesday.

Frank Baker backed FitzGerald too, but while the would-be councilor might not be a progressive firebrand, those who closely track City Hall doings say they’re not worried he would be a Baker-style reactionary.

“I’m concerned about the narrative that somehow Boston is rejecting progressive politicians, which is utterly false,” Edwards said. “Voters rejected incumbents because of the drama.”

But it’s also true that reactionaries were doing their best to undermine Arroyo and Lara. White grievance activists who oppose diversity efforts, police reform, and vaccine mandates attacked them relentlessly and amplified their transgressions — just as they’ve attacked other councilors of color and the mayor.


New Balance chairman and Trump supporter Jim Davis formed a super PAC to knock Lara and Arroyo out of their jobs, supporting FitzGerald, Ruiz, and the two candidates who will now face off for Lara’s seat, labor attorney Ben Weber and IT director William King. Weber in particular seems antithetical to Davis’s regressive views, and he was the top vote-getter in his race. All four candidates told The Dorchester Reporter they did not ask for and do not want the PAC’s support, which could really turn voters off in November.

Whatever happens then, it’s a sure bet that, come January, Boston will have a council quite different from the embarrassment the city has had for the last couple of years. Let’s hope it’s more effective, too.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to the office held by Lydia Edwards.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her @GlobeAbraham.