Can the Boston City Council save Boston politics?
Not long ago, that would have been a tongue-in-cheek question. But if you want to see how much this city is changing, and where it’s going, the City Council races are a perfect place to take the pulse.
Over the past decade, the council has steadily become more progressive and more inclusive than at any time in its recent history. That process figures to only accelerate after this year’s races are decided.
High-energy races are being waged from Beacon Hill to Hyde Park. And they come at an interesting time in City Hall, when the historically powerless council has tried, with some success, to push the mayor on a range of issues, from education to climate change. The preliminary election is Sept. 24, with the final on November 5. This year’s campaign features the deepest and most talented field of contenders in many years.
Clearly, being a Boston city councilor is a more attractive job than it used to be. That owes a great deal, obviously, to Ayanna Pressley’s ascent from city councilor to nationally prominent congresswoman. Nothing will make a job enticing like the idea that it can actually lead to bigger things. Whatever its charms, the council hadn’t been much of a springboard, but that could be changing.
But there’s more to the shift. Councilors don’t hang around in office as long as they once did, which means more realistic opportunities for newcomers to win. (Three seats are opening up this year.) And the council has come to be seen as a viable place to talk about policy, in contrast to its old image as politicians who mostly fixed potholes.
As the city’s electorate continues to evolve, the races have become far less parochial. Not long ago, virtually all city councilors had grown up in the neighborhoods they represented. Someone who grew up in the South End couldn’t have hoped to run a competitive race in East Boston. Those days are gone. We’ve had a council president from Chicago, (Michelle Wu). Charlestown and East Boston are represented by a black woman from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Lydia Edwards.)
The old assumptions about who can win are dead and buried, and potential candidates have taken notice.
“They’re smart and they’ve done their homework,” said former city councilor Michael J. McCormack, who’s watched these races for decades. “You don’t have to have lived on the same street for 25 years. If you work hard, you can win.”
So the four incumbent at-large councilors — Wu, Michael Flaherty, Annissa Essaibi-George, and Althea Garrison, who replaced Pressley — are all running for reelection. But at least some of them are likely to be pushed hard by an energetic slate of challengers, including Alejandra St. Guillen, Julia Mejia, Erin Murphy, David Halbert and Priscilla Flint-Banks.
Most of the district incumbents face little or no opposition. But the three open district races are seriously competitive, with multiple candidates who could do the job. Kenzie Bok and Jen Nassour in the District 8, Ricardo Arroyo in District 5, and Craig Cashman in District 9 are all standouts. That list is by no means comprehensive.
They’ve been meeting voters who are anxious about the traditional issues of schools and transportation, as well as the soaring cost of living in Boston. As always, quality-of-life matters have dominated the conversation.
“Affordability is huge,” Bok told me. “There’s an existential struggle over whether we are going to be able to keep our community of Bostonians in Boston.”
By design, the City Council doesn’t have much power, per se. But in the right hands, it can wield influence. Perhaps that soft power has been scoffed at for too long. The current council is already testing its ability to push for change, and that’s probably not about to change.
Let’s hope voters are taking notice.