One of the candidates is a housing and social justice advocate, a Harvard College graduate with a PhD in political thought and intellectual history from one of England’s most prestigious universities. The other is chief executive of a political action coalition to support women in government, a lawyer, single mom of three girls, and former chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
The surprise matchup between 30-year-old Kenzie Bok and 48-year-old Jennifer Nassour in the Boston City Council district that stretches from Beacon Hill to Mission Hill may be the most unusual local contest next month.
It pits two impressive candidates from opposing political parties in a nonpartisan Boston race, each one promising to tackle local issues such as parking and traffic, the lack of a school in the district, and soaring housing costs.
Nassour’s party affiliation might raise the most eyebrows. It’s been 40 years since Boston voters directly elected a member of the GOP to the City Council.
But Nassour, who has the endorsement of Governor Charlie Baker, says party affiliations shouldn’t matter in a nonpartisan race, calling herself a social progressive who has often been at odds with her own party: She supports abortion rights and gay marriage. She says she would maintain that independence on the council.
“I’m not someone who will play along to get along,” she said.
For Nassour, being a councilor means “taking pride in the community, knowing you care about people in the neighborhood.
“Someone who’s willing to fight for their neighborhood, that’s who should be on the council,” she said.
Bok, who won 50 percent of the vote and all but four precincts in last month’s preliminary election and grew up in Bay Village, boasts endorsements from much of the city’s political establishment, including Attorney General Maura Healey and the district’s outgoing councilor, Josh Zakim. She frames herself as an advocate committed to economic equity.
For her, the work is about shaping and enacting policies, particularly on housing, to lift up the residents who have been cast aside by Boston’s booming economy. She recalls returning from her Marshall Scholarship studies in England in 2015, where she specialized in John Rawls and his “A Theory of Justice,” to find her hometown had been changing, that “the city was just way less affordable” for those who already lived here.
She summarized her own political theory in simple terms: Boston, as a community, will never move forward if its own residents can no longer afford to live here.
These are platforms the candidates hope will resonate with voters from the West End to Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, to the Fenway and Mission Hill. The district is perhaps Boston’s most socioeconomically diverse, with political interests that range from historic preservation of brownstones to painting new crosswalks.
Though Bok handily won the preliminary election, voters here are not beholden to voting the party line: Baker did well in the area in his 2018 defeat of Democrat Jay Gonzalez, winning nearly half of the area’s 22 precincts, mostly in the Back Bay and Fenway.
Hélène Vincent, a political newcomer who placed third in the preliminary election, said both candidates will need to engage an electorate in the district that has historically felt “underrepresented and unheard.”
In the district, “people felt their trust had been broken with elected officials who don’t show up,” she said.
For Bok, community work is in her bloodline. At 18, she was a third-generation member of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee, the party’s local organizing group; her grandfather was a neighborhood and housing advocate who cofounded the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. She grew up among activists, and Bay Village, historically a close-knit enclave of young professionals, Chinese elders, and an extension of the South End’s gay and lesbian community, represented to her what city life should be: a diverse community of residents looking out for each other.
As an undergrad, Bok was president of the Harvard Institute of Politics — a resume bullet she shares with presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg — and she interned for national political groups, including former President Barack Obama’s campaign.
Once back in Boston from England, Bok went to work campaigning for the Community Preservation Act, a surtax that generates funds for specific community programs such as affordable housing. Boston voters passed it in 2016. She later worked on budget matters for City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, and then for the Boston Housing Authority.
Bok speaks in philosophical, academic terms of moral justice and social mobility, but she decided to run for the council after realizing she couldn’t sit writing “history papers on the sidelines” as an academic at a time that the city needs grass-roots activism.
“There’s a huge opportunity in the district to talk about these issues that define the city,” she said, adding that, even in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, residents are concerned about soaring housing costs.
Nassour has heard it from neighbors, as well, on daily walks with her family’s two labradoodles. She grew up in Queens, N.Y., and worked as a legislative aide in Albany when she was in graduate school. She ultimately got her master’s degree in political science from what is now Long Island University and earned a law degree from St. John’s University. Through the years, she got by with a job as a waitress and $1 bagel-and-cheese sandwiches. In Massachusetts, she raised her family in Charlestown before settling in the Back Bay, where she has lived the past 11 years. She runs a nonprofit group that works to increase the number of women in public office.
Her values were forged in struggles outside of politics, however. When she was 10 years old, she found her father collapsed, suffering from what would be a fatal heart attack. She called 911, but the operator wouldn’t listen to her, telling her instead to put an adult on the phone. The experience taught her to treat people with dignity, never to dismiss them.
After her father’s death, she and her brother were latchkey kids, tending to themselves while a single mother worked to raise them. Her brother, who she said battled medical misdiagnoses and incorrect prescriptions growing up, died of a drug overdose in his 20s while she was in law school.
She learned long ago that “I could never take anything for granted . . . If you want something, you need to fight for it.”
That would be her approach on the City Council, she said. Not on big-headline, national issues, but on local affairs, such as cleaner parks and street signs.
“I’ll look at the context of how we fix problems, rather than jumping on a bandwagon,” Nassour said.
Bok said she looks to join a council that has empowered itself in recent years, fighting off a reputation as a weak branch of city government. She learned years ago, working on budget matters, that a collective council could flex its political muscle and advocate citywide change — if it wants to.
“It was a clear example of how the capacity of the council can increase, if you just have council ambition,” she said. “The council can grow, you have space to grow.”