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City Council races drawing few candidates

Stephen J. Murphy
Stephen J. Murphy(David L Ryan / Globe Staff)

City Hall needed security guards to control the crowd of candidates two years ago when an open mayor's race unleashed two decades' worth of pent-up political ambition.

Sixty-one people ran for mayor or City Council. The electoral fervor was so intense that one candidate's name appeared on the ballot twice: City Councilor Charles C. Yancey stood for reelection (he won) and simultaneously ran for mayor (he finished 10th).

This year? Not so much.

"You can hear a pin drop," said John Donovan, acting director of Boston's Election Department. "Compared to [2013], it's nonexistent. There is no real action down here for the upcoming election."

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In Boston, municipal elections in years without a mayoral race are often quiet affairs because there is no contest at the top of the ticket to draw people to the polls. This year appears to be particularly sleepy: All 13 incumbent city councilors are running for reelection. Only a handful of challengers have been actively campaigning.

"I think people are electioned out," said City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy, who is in his 19th year in an at-large seat. "There's been the mayor's race, the governor's race, special elections ongoing all over the place, and ballot questions."

Potential candidates might also be discouraged because they face daunting odds. Only a handful of challengers have ever knocked off City Council incumbents.

"Because you run every two years, you are constantly in campaign mode as an incumbent," said John M. Tobin Jr., a former city councilor who ran two unsuccessful campaigns to unseat an incumbent before winning an open seat.

Five district councilors remain unopposed, but time remains for candidates to emerge. The city Election Department began accepting applications for nomination papers Wednesday, and candidates can sign up as late as May 11 . So far, nine challengers have signed up to run, but to make the ballot they must gather scores of signatures from registered voters. The signature threshold — which is 200 for most districts or 1,500 for an at-large candidate — often eliminates long shots and gadflies.

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Serious challengers, however, need to raise money and build a campaign, an undertaking that requires more than a whim.

"When I first ran, there were 40 people on the ballot," said Michael J. McCormack, a former city councilor whose inaugural race was in 1981. "Out of the 40, I would say 15 were candidates with something to say. Since that time, you're lucky to get [enough candidates for] a preliminary."

In each of the last two council elections without a mayoral race, five of the nine district councilors ran unopposed. The city did not hold preliminary elections in 2007 and 2011 for the four at-large seats because there were not enough candidates.

There must be a minimum of nine candidates to force a preliminary election. There were only seven candidates in 2011. Four years earlier, nine candidates qualified for the ballot, but the City Council voted to cancel the preliminary election to save money. All nine candidates appeared on the ballot in the final election in November.

The lack of a preliminary can hurt challengers. A preliminary election focuses media attention on City Council races and can drive more people to the polls for the final election in November.

Voter turnout, which is often lackluster in municipal elections, sinks to anemic levels when the City Council tops the ticket.

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"The challenge is we're dealing with a very small voter pool," said Annissa Essaibi George of Dorchester, a teacher and store owner who is running for an at-large seat. "I don't have the benefit of a mayor's race happening, which gets people excited and out to vote."

In 2011, the last time only the City Council appeared on the ballot, just 63,000 people went to the polls, which represented 18 percent of registered voters. That was up from 2007, when voter turnout stood at 14 percent.

For this year's run, George has been aggressively raising money. According to bank filings at the beginning of the month, the 41-year-old mother of four from Dorchester had a balance of nearly $33,000, which was more than three incumbent at-large city councilors: Ayanna Pressley ($30,000), Murphy ($27,000), and Michelle Wu ($7,000).

The fourth at-large councilor, Michael F. Flaherty Jr., had $87,000, which was more than any other incumbent. A large share of Flaherty's war chest came from contributors who live in his home neighborhood of South Boston. Donors included attorneys, city employees, and real estate developers.

Another challenger running for an at-large seat is Bryan Fuller, a South Boston resident who said he left his job at the financial firm State Street to campaign full time.

Fuller is a first-time candidate and Army veteran who has rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. He had nearly $3,000 in his campaign account, according to a bank filing from Friday.

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City Councilor Tito Jackson may have two challengers for his district seat, which includes much of Roxbury. Perennial candidate Althea Garrison and Web-based radio personality Charles Clemons have both signed up to run.

In Dorchester, Councilor Frank Baker may have a fight from Donnie Palmer, a first-time candidate, teacher, and professional boxer.

Councilor Josh Zakim may face a challenge from Thomas Joseph Dooley III for a district that includes Beacon Hill and Back Bay.

In the City Council district that covers parts of Mattapan and Dorchester, three candidates may run to unseat Yancey. The challengers include Jovan Lacet, Terrance Williams, and Andrea Joy Campbell.

Campbell appears to be in a strong position: She has $31,000 in her campaign account, which is three times more than the incumbent.

But Yancey might have the strongest incumbency on the council.

He has held his seat since the district was created in 1984 and is running for his 17th term. He has heard chatter in his district about two more potential candidates vying for his seat.

"I always have challengers," Yancey said.


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com.