Constituents of Boston City Council District 5 face a stark choice between two candidates running to represent them after the incumbent, City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, was knocked out of the race in September’s preliminary contest.
There is Jose Ruiz, a 63-year-old retired Boston police officer who says he admires Republicans Charlie Baker and Ronald Reagan and enjoys the support of former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh. (Ruiz was a member of a security detail assigned to Walsh during his time as mayor.)
He faces Enrique José Pepén, a 27-year-old self-described progressive who stepped down from his City Hall post as the executive director of the city’s neighborhood services to run for office, and has the endorsement of his former boss and a longtime Walsh political rival, Mayor Michelle Wu.
Neither candidate minces words when asked to highlight the chief differences that separates them from their opponents.
“I’m a progressive, Jose is more of a moderate-conservative,” Pepén told a reporter before a recent candidates forum.
Ruiz, meanwhile, asserted, “I’ve got the better resume, without a doubt; I’ve built organizations, I’ve run organizations . . . wherever I’ve gone, I’ve left it better than I found it.”
Despite wildly disparate paths to the ballot, the candidates share some similarities: both are Latino men who tend to pepper their policy stances with references to their families and upbringings.
Ruiz hails from a sizable extended family. His mother, who moved to Boston after growing up in rural Puerto Rico, is a well-known housing advocate in the city and helped found Villa Victoria, a public housing community in the South End, the neighborhood where Ruiz grew up. A father of four, Ruiz was a police officer for 29 years, but he says he is more than just a cop. He often brings up his years of experience organizing, administering, and coaching local youth sports.
“I consider myself a son of Boston,” Ruiz told a group of voters at a recent community forum. “I’m really, really comfortable wherever I’ve gone.”
Pepén has two children of his own, both under the age of 3. The son of Dominican immigrants, Pepén recalls working as a translator for his parents while growing up in the city. His father worked at laundromats and his mother cleaned dorms while he was young. His father, who was hired by the Wu administration in August to serve as an immigrant business liaison, would in his free time help immigrants learn English and become citizens. The younger Pepén worked under former councilor Tito Jackson and former congressman Joe Kennedy III, among others.
Senior class president at John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science, Pepén credits his interest in politics in part to a single housing official who found his parents a place in Roslindale after they were forced out of public housing in Charlestown when he was a child.
While Pepén said he is grateful for Boston for what it’s done for his family, he is focused on leaving the city better “than I found it.”
“I want to do it while I’m living,” said Pepén. “I’m going to feel the repercussions.”
On the money front, Pepén’s campaign spent $23,000 in September, ending the month with a balance of just under $11,000. Ruiz’s campaign, meanwhile, spent $12,000 last month, ending with $25,000 in the bank.
September’s preliminary saw Pepén finish first with 40 percent of the 7,500-plus ballots cast in the district. Ruiz came in second with 30 percent of the vote, which proved to be enough to advance to this November’s general election. The incumbent, Arroyo, who is known as a progressive stalwart on the council, came in third in the preliminary with 18 percent and was eliminated, as was the fourth-place finisher, Jean-Claude Sanon, who garnered 10 percent of the vote.
On the issues, there are some notable distinctions between Ruiz and Pepén. Take the idea of an elected school committee in Boston.
Pepén said he supports such a notion, saying he is receptive to a full-elected school committee or a hybrid model that has some seats elected and others appointed. (Currently, the entire body is appointed by the city’s mayor.)
Ruiz, meanwhile, is more skeptical, noting that in the past an elected school committee has caused problems for the city, including the court-ordered busing of the 1970s. An elected school committee won’t guarantee diversity on that body, he said.
“Right now, you would have to convince me how that would be better than what we have today,” he said.
Ruiz, who during his lengthy law enforcement career served as a community resource officer for Mattapan, among other roles, agrees with the notion that BPD needs hundreds of more officers in the streets, and supports bringing law enforcement back into the city’s schools. Wu, he said, ran on anti-police rhetoric in her mayoral bid and police officers need to know that city leadership has their back.
”People are so afraid with police reform,” he said. He added, “They don’t know if the new leadership is going to back you up.”
Regarding police, Pepén is much more circumspect, saying transparency is paramount for BPD’s operations. He would like to see Boston police’s cadet program be used to further bolster diversity within the force’s ranks.
“I would like to see more people who look like me,” he said.
On perhaps the most pressing issue facing the city — Boston’s housing crisis — both candidates have emphasized the obvious: the city needs more residential units.
“The demand outweighs the supply as we all know,” said Ruiz.
In his pitch to voters, Pepén, meanwhile, has stressed the need to hold developers accountable and wants to ensure that affordable housing is truly affordable while also protecting the middle class from displacement.
“There’s a lot of families in my district, so I want to make sure they’re able to stay here,” he said.