Women of color transformed the Boston City Council in the last municipal election by claiming six of the 13 seats. Now some of them are upending campaign traditions by banding together to run in the next council contest.
Three-term Councilor Michelle Wu and newcomer Alejandra St. Guillen — both in the competition for four at-large council seats — will share Dudley Square campaign headquarters with first-term Councilor Kim Janey, who’s running for reelection as a district councilor representing Roxbury.
To Wu, the most established of the three and the top vote-getter in the citywide council race, the move is not just about sharing campaign costs and aligning with political allies. It’s about supporting St. Guillen, a friend, mentor, and like-minded woman in public service — even if that means supporting a rival in her own race.
“I’ve been trying to get her to run for office for a decade now,” Wu said of St. Guillen, who previously led the statewide Latino advocacy organization ¿Oiste? where Wu served as an intern when she was learning to speak Spanish.
“I’m all in,” said Wu.
Such camaraderie, hard to find in past City Council competitions, could be a sign of the times as more women running for office try to lift one another up to foster their growing success at the ballot box.
“There’s so much said about having more women in politics and what that means,” said St. Guillen. “This is how it looks different. We can come together and support one another and have a space that’s open to the community.”
By that, she means the trio hope to make the campaign office a community hub and tap into the kind of grass-roots energy that helped to vault another woman of color, Ayanna Pressley, from City Council to Congress last fall.
St. Guillen, 42, was an activist for years and recently worked as director of the city’s Office for Immigrant Advancement. Janey long pushed for equity and school reform as senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.
“This could be the power troika going forward,” said Lawrence DiCara, a former city councilor and close observer of city politics, noting the diversity of the Asian-American, Latina, and African-American trio. “You could see different kinds of coalitions going forward.”
However, the council dynamics could be a bit uncomfortable for Wu, DiCara said, as she tries to advance a newcomer over her fellow incumbents. The three other incumbent at-large councilors — Annissa Essaibi-George, Michael Flaherty, and Althea Garrison — are all running for reelection. A gain for St. Guillen would mean one of their losses.
“It makes the conversation around the water cooler awkward,” DiCara said. “You actually are competing with the people you work with on a day-to-day basis.”
The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance noted that candidate cost-sharing is permitted so long as one campaign doesn’t carry the others and expenses are appropriately itemized. If one committee uses a larger portion of the space, for instance, it must pay proportionately greater rent.
But the boost for a new candidate such as St. Guillen — to campaign beside Wu, an experienced ally — is not merely logistical.
“It’s been such a privilege to have her support,” said St. Guillen. “Just knowing that she believes in me and wants to see me on the council — sometimes that’s what you need.”
Though this is believed to be the first triple-offensive in a Boston City Council race, it’s not the only partnership in recent council memory. Pressley was considered vulnerable after her first term and in 2011 teamed up to campaign with fellow at-large Councilor John Connolly, a white, well-funded West Roxbury candidate with comparably less appeal in diverse neighborhoods. Pressley ended up topping the field, with Connolly right behind her. And when Flaherty ran for mayor in 2009, he forged an unheard-of political marriage with then-Councilor Sam Yoon, promising to name Yoon “deputy mayor” if he won.
Wu, who lives in Roslindale, is well-positioned for reelection based on her past wins. But the Dudley Square neighborhood where she’ll be putting down campaign roots is not her strongest turf. The new campaign office is situated within a precinct — and adjacent to three others — where she lost out to Pressley.
“Maybe if Michelle as an Asian woman can top the ticket in the core of the black community, that’s sort of a message for the future,” DiCara said. “But it’s a calculated risk.”
The three-way female alliance could edge out another woman, however. Most vulnerable is Garrison, who lives in the Dudley Square area and whose distant fifth-place finish in 2017 originally left her off the City Council; she was elevated only after Pressley won a seat in Congress last fall.
Garrison expressed confidence in her chances of reelection. “I’ll do quite well,” she said. “I’m not worried about the primary coming up.”
Likewise, Essaibi-George said she’s cautiously optimistic about reelection and will stay focused on her own race, though she said, “It’s very cool to see that the three of them have done that together.
“This is not survivor island,” she said. “We can play that allegiance game, and the press will have some fun with it, but in the end, it’s about representing the people of Boston and doing the work for them every single day in the city.”