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Common traits, different paths in District 8 council race

Both candidates competing for the District 8 seat on Boston’s City Council are young and gregarious, with law degrees, backgrounds in public service, and similar positions on many issues.

What separates them, they say, is how their disparate experiences have prepared them to address the city’s problems.

Michael Nichols, who captured 27 percent of the vote in the September preliminary, is seen as the underdog. He is stressing his work as City Council research director and previously as legal counsel to then-state representative Linda Dorcena Forry, now a state senator, and other state legislators.

Josh Zakim, who won 45 percent of the vote in the five-way preliminary contest, is emphasizing his work representing families facing foreclosure for Greater Boston Legal Services and later, at law firm Mintz Levin, handling municipal bond transactions for the state, the Massachusetts Port Authority, and the MBTA.


Nichols is trying to chip away at Zakim’s apparent lead one voter at a time. He said his approach to leadership sets him apart.

“There are two kinds of people who run for government office: There are policy people and politics people,” said Nichols, 30. “While policy people are the ones that you want representing you, politics people are the ones who win elections. I’m a policy person, and I think it’d be fair to say I’m running against a politics person.”

Nichols’s proposals for addressing issues in the district include bringing a new K-8 school to the Fenway in the space to be vacated by the Boston Arts Academy if it moves, as the city has proposed, to a new facility to be built near Chinatown.

For Zakim, 29, being the son of the late civil rights activist Leonard P. Zakim has created name recognition but has also set a high bar for public service, he said in an interview.


His parents, he said, “set expectations to do good . . . and that’s what is important to me; that’s why I’m in this race.”

Zakim said working with state agencies on capital projects has prepared him to be a councilor at least as well as Nichols’s work with the council.

“The fact that my opponent has worked in City Hall for, I think, around a year, I don’t think that’s dispositive here,” he said, using the legal term for evidence that will settle an issue. He said the endorsements he has received from several current city councilors demonstrate their faith in his leadership ability.

On Thursday, Zakim announced the endorsement of Michael P. Ross, who has represented District 8 since 1999 but decided not to seek reelection when he mounted an unsuccessful run for mayor. Zakim has also garnered the backing of councilors Tito Jackson, Salvatore LaMattina, and Ayanna Pressley; current and past state legislators; labor unions; and community organizations.

Nichols boasts fewer big-name supporters but has received about five dozen endorsements from community leaders, according to a list provided by his campaign.

District 8 encompasses parts of the West End, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Kenmore, Fenway, Brigham Circle, and Mission Hill. Both candidates say the election will be won or lost based on personal contact with voters across those disparate neighborhoods.

Earlier this week, Nichols met with a warm reception as he went door-to-door in Beacon Hill.

When he knocked at the red-brick row house of John Winthrop Sears, the longtime resident came to the door, proclaimed his support, then invited the candidate into his book-cluttered parlor and offered a cup of coffee.


Nichols accepted water and admired Sears’s inscribed copy of his favorite book: David McCullough’s biography of John Adams.

Sears, 82, served as a state representative, Suffolk County sheriff, and city councilor and ran for mayor of Boston in 1967 and governor of Massachusetts in 1982.

Sears said Nichols has a good chance of winning.

“It’s a horse race, and there are an awful lot of people who surface at the last minute, especially in this ward,” Sears said, explaining that some Beacon Hill residents travel frequently and may skip a preliminary but vote in the general election.

On Monday afternoon, Zakim canvassed the Mission Main housing development in Mission Hill, near his Tremont Street campaign office, telling parents he is committed to quality schools in all neighborhoods. At the end of each conversation, he pointed to his personal cellphone and e-mail address printed on fliers he handed out and encouraged voters to contact him with questions or concerns.

Zakim said that in these one-on-one exchanges he can learn what is really on residents’ minds, be it a neighborhood problem or a broader issue.

“When you’re knocking on someone’s door, you can catch them on the best day of their life or on the worst day of their life,” he said.

On Cornelia Court, he chatted with a group that included Raphael Phanor, 58, who was visiting relatives and unsure whether his home fell into District 8.


After a lengthy discussion in which Zakim demonstrated his knowledge of the exact street and house number that marked the district’s edge, they concluded that Phanor was a resident, and he promised his support.

“You get my vote, trust me,” Phanor said.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.