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JOHN O’TOOLE’S fingerprints can be found on nearly every major civic improvement in Dorchester: the Neponset River bike path, the Irish heritage festival, greater access to neighborhood schools, anti-crime partnerships with the Boston Police, and support for a Cape Verdean health center. He makes a convincing case that his volunteer activities, focusing on neighborhood stability, have served as effective training for the District 3 City Council seat.

Voters would be wise to focus on the candidates’ experience when choosing a new district councilor. But there are plenty of distractions. The election has been billed as a proxy fight between Mayor Menino’s candidate — O’Toole — and state Representative Martin Walsh’s candidate - Frank Baker. It has been characterized, too, as a battle between two powerful geographic sections of Dorchester — Baker’s Savin Hill and O’Toole’s Cedar Grove. There’s more than a grain of truth to these views. But such sideshows don’t give a true picture of the candidates.


Baker, a former employee in the city’s printing department, has been active in local political campaigns. But his civic resume is thin compared to O’Toole’s. Baker, 44, is passionate about some issues, such as youth sports and accessible drug treatment. But he isn’t especially knowledgeable about development, public education, and other challenging issues. O’Toole, a 47-year-old plumber turned real estate agent, has seen more of the civic and business worlds.

Political ambitions boiled over in the spring when longtime District 3 city councilor Maureen Feeney announced that she wouldn’t seek reelection. Baker and O’Toole emerged from a crowded September primary. Since then, tempers have gotten the better of some of the candidates’ supporters. Rumors are flowing from Columbia Road to Lower Mills. They dwell on past mistakes by both men: Baker pleaded guilty to marijuana possession in 1993; O’Toole failed to pay $22,000 in income taxes to state and federal government.


Each candidate has gained insights from their struggles. But it is O’Toole who has given so freely of his time to improve the lives of his neighbors. That should count for a lot in Dorchester, where politicians are still seen as lifelines in a tough economy.