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In Boston City Council’s at-large race, a pair of serious contenders vie for an open seat

Bridget Nee-Walsh (left) and Henry Santana are at-large candidate for Boston City Council.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Despite wildly disparate paths to Boston politics, two of the challengers who are predicted to do well in this fall’s City Council at-large field cite the same phrase when asked what sets their candidacy apart.

“Life experience,” both Bridget Nee-Walsh and Henry Santana said during separate interviews. Nee-Walsh, a 44-year-old single mother, artist, and South Boston native, makes her living as a union iron worker, while Santana, a 28-year-old who emigrated from the Dominican Republic as a young child, grew up in Mission Hill public housing, and most recently worked in City Hall.

There will be eight candidates on November’s municipal ballot for four at-large council spots, which represent the entire city. Three of those — Ruthzee Louijeune, Julia Mejia, and Erin Murphy — are incumbents. Councilor Michael Flaherty, the top vote-getter in the field two years ago, is not running for reelection, leaving an open seat. Of the five other candidates who will appear on the ballot, two are antivaccination extremists — Shawn D. Nelson and Catherine Vitale. Another candidate, Clifton A. Braithwaite, had only $86 in his campaign coffers as of the end of September.

Some political observers predict the incumbents will win reelection, leaving the real battle for the fourth spot in the at-large field between Nee-Walsh, who ran unsuccessfully two years ago, and Santana, a first-time candidate who has the support of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

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“I don’t think it’s all that complicated,” said John Nucci, a former Boston city councilor. “Incumbents are probably going to get reelected as they usually do.” The larger question, he said, is whether the at-large race will tip the direction of the council’s ideology.

It’s not unheard of for incumbent at-large councilors to lose, although it is uncommon. Stephen J. Murphy was ousted by voters in 2015, as was Felix D. Arroyo in 2007. In 2019, perennial political candidate Althea Garrison filled the at-large vacancy created by Ayanna Pressley’s election to Congress, then lost her bid to serve a full-term later that year.

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In her pitch to voters, Nee-Walsh leans heavily on her organized labor experience. She was the first woman at her union, Local 7, elected to the organization’s executive board. Other board members, who were all male, “didn’t always want me in the room” and there would be heated arguments sometimes, she said in an interview. But she said the differences were always resolved with respect. She believes the council, which has been riven by nasty acrimony during the last term, needs a return to professionalism.

“You don’t have to get along with people to collaborate and have conversations,” she said during a recent interview at a Charlestown coffee shop.

Santana, who most recently worked for Wu as her director of civic organizing and stepped down from that post to run for office, was also critical of the council. Santana said he takes “pride in being a public servant, being able to fix the smallest of issues,” from ensuring that students have access to Wi-Fi for remote learning to helping provide Thanksgiving dinners to families in need.

“That pride’s been missing in this version of the council,” he told the Globe during an interview at a downtown cafe.

Nee-Walsh describes herself politically as an open-minded moderate. She credits her six years in art school — first at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, then at the Burren College of Art in Ireland — away from her insular hometown as a formative experience that molded her as “more open-minded than maybe the average person from Southie.” She still enjoys painting landscapes and portraits and lives in the home where she grew up serving as caretaker for her 83-year-old mother who has dementia.

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She rattled off a list of Southie pols — some products of old Boston — who influenced her: Congressman Stephen Lynch lives six doors up from her, and former Boston City Council president Bill Linehan lives four doors down. She said she believes it’s important for lawmakers to take their jobs seriously and to always be prepared to have a conversation with constituents, whether it’s after Sunday Mass or at a funeral.

“You could never catch them off guard, you would never see them in a bad mood,” she said.

Both Linehan and Lynch have endorsed her, as has Councilor Frank Baker, a Dorchester resident considered to be the most conservative voice on the council and who is not seeking reelection, and the district councilor from Southie, Ed Flynn, considered to be a centrist on the legislative body.

Santana is a self-described progressive. His big-name support and political mentors are decidedly more left-leaning. There is Wu, arguably the most progressive mayor in the city’s history, and also Kenzie Bok, a progressive housing and budget policy wonk who holds a PhD and at one time lectured at Harvard.

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On policing, at least one of Nee-Walsh’s stances puts her at odds with the city’s progressives: She favors hiring hundreds more police officers in Boston.

Nee-Walsh said residents throughout the city are calling for more police.

“I think our police have been wearing the black eye for things that have happened in other states,” she said.

She is also proposing the construction of five vocational schools by 2030 in Boston, which currently has one. She wants a vocational class offered in every city high school and said it will prepare students to make a sustainable living. If they’re in a trade union, she said, “they won’t need affordable housing.”

Santana also cites housing as a crucial issue and lamented the departure of families and young professionals who can’t afford to live in Boston. Santana said that growing up in public housing “really frames my thinking.” Too often in public housing units, “the infrastructure and quality of life are not up to par,” he said.

He moved to Boston from the Dominican Republic when he was 3 years old. His father worked as a handyman, and his mother did similar work until health problems led her to become a stay-at-home mom. His parents live in the same unit at the Alice Taylor development where he grew up.

Santana emphasized the importance of afterschool and summer programming for children, saying “Kids need to feel invested in.” When he was growing up, it was not uncommon to witness a shooting or wake up to the sound of gunshots, he said.

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At one point, he recalled, his father had to decide whether to seek a higher-paying job, which would have made the family ineligible for public housing.

“It didn’t make sense,” said Santana. “I understand how it keeps people in the system.”

Boston’s de facto segregation meant he first interacted with white people when he attended high school at Fryeburg Academy in Maine, where he was class president, he said. He graduated from Lasell University with a degree in history and political science.

Santana, who currently rents an apartment in Dorchester, said many of his neighbors growing up did not know how to navigate various systems in the city, whether housing or public schools. He never voted before the preliminary election last month that earned him a place on the November ballot. Though he became eligible to vote after he became a US citizen in 2012, he said he did not receive a certificate of his citizenship until this past year.

Nee-Walsh, meanwhile, frames herself as the face of working class Boston. The daughter of a mailman who bartended at night and a mother who worked in the city’s assessing department for more than a half-century, Nee-Walsh jokes that there is not a job she hasn’t had, from nanny to boat captain to janitor to dairy farm tour guide.

“We don’t need someone to show up and reinvent the wheel,” she said. “We just need a blue-collar, working-class person to represent families.”

“I show up and I work,” she said.

There, too, Santana echoed those sentiments.

“It’s about the work,” he said, before admitting, “It’s very cliché to say.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.