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With field set for November elections, familiar political battle lines take shape

A vote sign outside Boston City Hall.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As the dust settles from this week’s dramatic preliminary election for Boston City Council, a contest in which voters ousted two young but scandal-plagued incumbents, familiar battle lines are taking shape for November’s general election, pitting a class of progressive newcomers against more-moderate candidates with ties to the city’s old guard.

After the preliminary election narrowed crowded races down to just two contenders, several general election matchups feature a candidate claiming the progressive lane, in many cases linked with Mayor Michelle Wu, versus an opponent seen as more moderate, some of whom have won the support of Wu’s predecessor and shadow rival, Martin J. Walsh.

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Those dynamics mirror the 2021 mayor’s race, and raise a host of questions — set to be answered with the Nov. 7 general election — about the current state of the city’s political mood.

Two years ago, city politics took a notable turn to the left with the decisive election of Wu. This week, voters resoundingly rejected Ricardo Arroyo and Kendra Lara, two of the council’s most outspoken progressive voices, but also two of its most embattled incumbents.

Now, political observers wonder, is the city cooling on progressive politics? Or were voters this week merely rejecting two politicians whose personal conduct had come into question?

In District 5, which includes Hyde Park, Roslindale, and parts of Mattapan, the parallels to past rivalries are particularly obvious: Wu is backing Enrique Pepén, who worked in her administration at City Hall, while Walsh has endorsed rival candidate Jose Ruiz, a former longtime Boston police officer who served on Walsh’s security detail while he was in office.

In other cases, the ties to either Boston’s new breed of progressive politicians or its old guard are subtler, visible through less obvious endorsements as well as donors or staff. Take for instance Cam Charbonnier, a Democratic consultant who worked for Walsh and for Annissa Essaibi-George, who lost the mayor’s race to Wu in 2021. This cycle he successfully steered the campaigns of three contenders — all of whom moved on to the general Tuesday night — who occupy the more-moderate ends of their respective contests: Ruiz, William King from West Roxbury, and John FitzGerald from Dorchester.

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Both Pepén and Ruiz said they were grateful for the high-profile support, but insisted they are running as their own people.

“Compare Jose Ruiz to Jose Ruiz. Look at my resume,” Ruiz said Wednesday, emphasizing his decades-long career in law enforcement. “Am I gonna be somewhat like Marty? Absolutely. Am I gonna be someone that has an eye to the future, like Michelle Wu? Yes, I want to be seen like that too.”

Pepén, for his part, identified himself as the race’s progressive contender, noting that “there’s always room for growth in the city.”

“With two mayors involved in the race, those questions are gonna be brought up,” he acknowledged.

That ideological divide — progressivism versus more traditional Democratic Boston politics — could animate a number of council races this fall, observed David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College.

The current era of Boston politics is seeing “the sort of old-style, more pragmatic type of politicians are being challenged by a newer class of more ideologically motivated candidates,” Hopkins said.

On Tuesday night, two well-known members of that latter group — Arroyo and Lara — resoundingly lost reelection. Lara had struggled to maintain the district’s support after she crashed a car into a Centre Street home while driving without a license. Arroyo, for his part, had faced scandals ranging from sexual assault allegations (which he denies, and for which he was never charged) to a recent ethics violation.

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To some, those defeats were at least in part a rejection of the policy positions Lara and Arroyo have championed on the council.

“I do think there is a real turn against progressive politics, period,” said Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a Boston-based political consultant who is not working for any City Council candidates this election season. Voters were fed up with the council’s “shenanigans,” she added, referring to interpersonal drama and scandals on the body this year.

But other evidence suggests Lara and Arroyo lost in spite of their progressive politics, not because of them. In Lara’s District 6, which includes Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, as well as in Arroyo’s District 5, the top vote-getter was a candidate who has staked out the progressive lane, noted several political watchers, including Wu herself.

Speaking to reporters at an unrelated event Wednesday, Wu said, “The majority of votes went to candidates who defined themselves as wanting to be in that progressive agenda and aligned with what we’re trying to do in the administration in bringing about needed change.”

Apparently referring to Weber and Pepén, Wu said that “the two candidates who received the most number of votes in each of those races also defined themselves as people who are interested in not settling for what has been, pushing for what’s needed, and doing so in a way that can really be effective and get things done.”

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John Nucci, a former councilor and mayoral candidate, predicted that both Arroyo’s and Lara’s supporters would break toward the more progressive candidate in their respective districts on Nov. 7.

In Dorchester-based District 3, where a pack of political newcomers was competing to replace outgoing Councilor Frank Baker, it was the Walsh-backed candidate, FitzGerald — a Boston Planning & Development Agency official — who secured a decisive first place finish. He will compete in November against Joel Richards, a public school teacher supported by Boston’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Ann Walsh, the cofounder of an education nonprofit, conceded the race Wednesday morning, though fewer than 100 votes separated her from Richards, according to the city’s unofficial tallies.

And in Roxbury-rooted District 7, Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, another progressive voice on the council, will proceed to November’s general election, facing perennial candidate Althea Garrison.

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.

Some interpreted Tuesday’s results as a rejection of the divisive, chaotic spirit that has hamstrung the council during its current two-year term. At a time when political accountability seems out of reach nationally — each new indictment of former president Donald Trump, for example, seems to only shore up his support — Tuesday’s results show that Boston voters want to hold their elected officials to high standards, they said.

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“The results yesterday sent a statement that the voters are using their power,” said Councilor Erin Murphy, who supported a pair of candidates who outpaced both Arroyo and Lara. She lamented that “oftentimes words like ‘clown show’ and ‘disgrace’ are used to describe this body,” and said she was “not surprised” by the results.

“On the council, I’ve been one of the few, if not the only in some cases, being vocal about my disappointment . . . [in] some of my colleagues,” Murphy said.

Arroyo and Lara were just two of the infamous members of a council that has made more headlines during this term for its chaos than for its policy moves. Progressives hardly had a monopoly on that dysfunction; Baker, a conservative presence on the council who is not seeking reelection this year, was often at the center of the body’s most dramatic moments, once accusing a colleague of anti-Catholic bias and comparing others’ behavior to pigs.

Matt O’Malley, who was Lara’s predecessor as District 6 councilor, said voters on Tuesday displayed a “real desire to return to less drama” on the council.

Even with some of the district races defined by stark political differences, O’Malley predicted that in the general election, voters would be more focused on effective governance than ideological distinctions. For O’Malley, that means delivering on constituent services: showing up with a citation at a 100-year-old’s birthday party, making sure streets are plowed after a snowstorm, helping a resident navigate school registration, making sure a pothole is filled.

“Bostonians want a City Council that’s going to be an incubator of ideas and policy and constituent services, and sadly it’s deviated from that of late,” he said. ”Bostonians want a City Council that’s going to work well together.”

Jon Chesto and Catherine Carlock of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.