In Boston’s northwest corner, a unique political narrative is unfolding this election season. Here, in Allston-Brighton, a two-term progressive incumbent who became the first openly gay female councilor to be elected in the city’s history, is facing a challenger who claims to be even more reform-minded.
Nowhere else on the Nov. 7 municipal ballot is such a dynamic playing out. Indeed, the District 9 race may hinge on a central question: What does it mean to be politically progressive in the Boston of 2023?
“I personally don’t feel like there are two progressives, I feel like there’s one progressive in this race,” said Jacob deBlecourt, the 25-year-old challenger who describes themselves as nonbinary and is looking to oust Councilor Liz Breadon.
Breadon, a 64-year-old immigrant from Northern Ireland, says her record speaks for itself.
“My votes consistently reflected the votes of a progressive. I very rarely take a position that’s not a progressive position,” Breadon said during a recent interview at a Brighton breakfast nook. “I really don’t understand where he’s coming from.”
DeBlecourt disagrees. During a recent interview at an Allston coffee shop they pointed to Breadon’s recent vote in favor of $3.4 million in grants for a controversial police intelligence gathering operation, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC.
Critics have raised concerns about potential civil liberties violations and racial profiling by the BRIC, which maintains the city’s gang database. But supporters noted it shares information among law enforcement agencies, helps combat gang-related crime and terrorism, and provides emergency responses.
DeBlecourt took to social media recently, saying on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, “If we are serious about transparency, justice and accountability, we need to abolish the BRIC.”
Breadon acknowledged that it was a “difficult vote” and that she had vacillated on whether to support the grant funding.
Ultimately, she said, while there are concerns about BRIC’s gang database, there are other current threats to American democracy that BRIC could help combat.
Allston-Brighton is geographically isolated from the rest of Boston, hemmed in by the Charles River to the north, Brookline to the south, and Newton to the west.
It’s a neighborhood that has been home to droves of students and young professionals for years, partly because of its proximity to a number of colleges, including Harvard University, Boston College, and Boston University. A report by the Boston Planning & Development Agency this year estimated that nearly 30 percent of Allston residents — more than 6,800 people — are currently enrolled in an undergraduate program, well above the citywide average of 11 percent.
Additionally, there are significantly more renters in the district, based on data that shows owner-occupied units comprise only 13 percent of the residences in Allston, and 22 percent in Brighton, well below the citywide average of 34 percent.
DeBlecourt, who shares a four-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston with three roommates, has appealed to fellow renters as part of their pitch to voters — noting their bedroom doubles as “their living room, office, and campaign headquarters.”
“That’s how so many people in the neighborhood live,” they said.
DeBlecourt has accused Breadon, a homeowner, of failing to acknowledge the challenges faced by renters and being out-of-touch with the housing needs of many residents in her district. DeBlecourt said that the rent control home rule petition passed by the city council earlier this year does not do enough to help tenants.
The policy, which Breadon voted for, would limit annual rent increases to 6 percent plus inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, with an overall cap of 10 percent in high inflation years. Small owner-occupied properties such as triple-deckers would be exempt. DeBlecourt said the cap could still translate to a rent increase that would price many people out of the Boston rental market.
“It’s not doing enough to protect the people it’s designed to protect,” deBlecourt said.
Breadon acknowledged that many advocates supported a lower cap.
“The 10 percent was sort of a compromise position in a way,” she said, noting that many landlords didn’t want any cap at all.
Breadon listed housing as the biggest issue in her district and said she understands the issues facing renters, having rented for years before becoming a homeowner in 2002. She railed against absentee landlords, whom she said “are using our neighborhood as a cash machine.”
“I’d love to get to a place where they’re held more accountable,” said Breadon, who lives in Brighton’s Oak Square with her spouse. She said universities should offer more student housing.
DeBlecourt, a self-described “policy nerd” who grew up in southern New Jersey, said their parents were social workers, which imbued them with the importance of public service. DeBlecourt moved to Boston in 2016 to attend UMass Boston, earned a degree in political science and stayed. Most recently, they worked as the communications and policy director for at-large Councilor Julia Mejia. During that time, according to deBlecourt’s campaign literature, they helped craft legislation that led to better language access for residents, created the Black Men and Boys Commission, and worked to establish a law that allows residents to sell certain types of food made in their home kitchens.
In a nod to Allston’s rodent problem, deBlecourt has touted the “ratform,” a policy platform that includes recommendations for trash disposal, increasing the number of trash pickups, and the creation of a city “rat czar.” The campaign has circulated posters featuring cartoon rats protesting deBlecourt’s candidacy.
“I really care about this community,” said deBlecourt, adding that the people who make the neighborhood the best “are the ones who are at the greatest risk of being displaced.”
There is a substantial money gap in the race. Breadon had $38,000 in her campaign coffers, while deBlecourt had $2,000 as of the end of September.
However, deBlecourt said “we’ve raised enough” to campaign on the issues.
Breadon grew up in rural County Fermanagh. Her father was a farmer and her mother was a nurse. While the Troubles started when she was 10, she said her experience differed from many who came of age during Northern Ireland’s long, violent conflict. In a place where religion underpinned violence for decades, Breadon describes herself as “an oddity in a sense, I walked to my own drum.” While she was raised Protestant, her family ran a country store, where she interacted daily with Catholics. She went to school with Catholics and graduated from what is now the University of Ulster, where she studied physical therapy and health service management.
Breadon said that when she became aware of her sexuality in her 20s, she found that she “wasn’t free to be myself.” That, she said, drove her politically to the left, leading her to campaign for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s.
It also was one of the factors that led her to leave her homeland.
“You don’t fit in, you go and find your own tribe,” she said.
That journey landed her in Boston in 1995. She was first elected to the council in 2019, then cruised to re-election two years later.
In addition to housing, Breadon ticks off transit and climate change as two major issues facing Allston-Brighton. She cited concerns about the urban heat island effect in the district and recent rains that have at times flooded basements and the Green Line.
She touted her work on behalf of Brighton High School which helped renovate five science labs and proved to be a “game-changer” for the school.
“I still feel I have a lot more work to do,” she said.