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Boston’s local election cycle toggles between higher turnout years, with campaigns for City Council and Mayor, and “off years,” with only a race for the council. But 2023 is shaping up to be one of the “way off” years, when a dearth of expected at-large vacancies and candidates can flatten the curve on voter turnout.
As late as July 4, all four at-large incumbents had to be counted as possibly running for re-election. That changed on July 5, when Michael F. Flaherty, the top at-large vote-getter two years ago, announced that he would not seek another term.
The opening left by Flaherty created more opportunity for the sole remaining candidate from South Boston, Bridget Nee-Walsh, and for Henry Santana, a former aide to Mayor Michelle Wu who announced his campaign in April. But, with only eight candidates still running at-large, a citywide preliminary election would not be required.
That also happened in 2007, when a local measure made it possible to skip the preliminary vote for a field of nine at-large candidates. In 2015, with a field of eight at-large candidates, the preliminary round was skipped automatically. In both years, voter turnout for the final election was about 13.6 percent. That was at least three percentage points below the figures for “off-year” elections in 2011 and 2019, when a bigger field running at-large resulted in a citywide preliminary election. Even in those years, the turnout was down from where it had been in 2003 and 1999, when turnouts slightly exceeded 24 percent.
In line with population growth, the number of Boston’s registered voters has been climbing, with more than 442,000 in the last city election in 2021. If that were multiplied by the same turnout percentage as in the lower “off years” in 2007 and 2015, the result would be about 60,000 voters—well below the number in years with presidential elections. A former city councillor and longtime election observer, Larry DiCara, predicts this year’s turnout will run between 75,000 and 80,000.
According to DiCara, “realistically, only five people are campaigning” for the four at-large seats. In addition to Santana and Nee-Walsh are the three incumbents: a second term councillor, Julia Mejia, and two first-term members, Ruthzee Louijeune and Erin Murphy.
Campaign finance reports show a yawning gap between figures for the top five candidates and the rest of the field. The top fund-raiser between May and the end of September this year was Murphy, followed by Louijeune, Mejia, Santana and Nee-Walsh, who raised the bulk of her recent money after Flaherty’s announcement.
A native of the Dominican Republic who currently lives in Dorchester, Santana has endorsements from Wu and Councillor Louijeune, along with some state legislators and district councilors, past and present. He’s also backed by the Boston Teachers Union, Right to the City, and Dorchester’s Ward 15 Democratic Committee. Like all three at-large incumbents, he lists multiple labor endorsements, including those from service workers, Unite Here Local 26, the Boston Teachers Union and the Greater Boston Labor Council.
A Local 7 Ironworker and owner of a South Boston business, Nee-Walsh has endorsements from several unions in the building trades, as well as unions representing Boston police and firefighters. In her first try for the council, in 2021, she finished in 7th place.
The only at-large candidate endorsed by both of Boston’s daily newspapers, Murphy highlights her support of recovery programs by listing an endorsement from the President of the Gavin Foundation, John McGahan. Her campaign contributors include former Boston mayor Marty Walsh ($1,000) and the former speaker of the Mass. House of Representatives, Tom Finneran. But she also has support from the building trades and unions representing Boston police, firefighters and emergency medical responders.
Julia Mejia, who finished in second place in 2021, has endorsements from the Boston Teachers Union (BTU), Right to the City, Ward 15 Democratic Committee. In line with the tone of her pre-election appearances, her campaign website showcases endorsements from activists and nonprofit leaders.
Louijeune’s website also lists endorsements from unions representing service workers, nurses, hotel and restaurant workers, Boston teachers, trade unions, the Mass. Nurses Assn. and Right to the City. In addition to the recent endorsement by Ward 15 Democrats in Dorchester, her website lists support from four other Democratic ward committees. Her PAC contributors include labor unions and the Mass. Women’s Political Caucus.
The other at-large candidates, running for the first time, are Clifton Braithwaite, Shawn Nelson and Catherine Vitale.
Nelson and Vitale, who both live in Dorchester, have both made news in recent years for a series of protests against vaccination mandates, often making their point with bullhorns. Last year, Nelson was arrested during one protest that disrupted a mayoral coffee hour at Ronan Park.
Of the two protest candidates, Vitale has raised more money, including a donation from another anti-vaccination candidate who ran for state representative and received 6.4 percent of the vote. Her largest reported donations, $1,000 in cash and another by check, were from Louis Murray, a 2016 delegate for President-elect Donald Trump and a member of the National Catholic Advisory Committee for Trump/Pence.
In his campaign finance reports, the other at-large candidate, Clifton Braithwaite of Mattapan, itemized only $350 in donations from four individuals.
Voters will also choose new councillors this year in two districts covering parts of Dorchester and Mattapan.
In District 3, covering the South Bay area and the eastern side of Dorchester from the Polish Triangle to Lower Mills, six-term councillor Frank Baker announced earlier this year that he would not run for re-election. In the preliminary round, seven candidates ran for the seat, with John M. FitzGerald and Joel G. Richards emerging as finalists.
FitzGerald received 43.07 percent of the vote, more than double the share captured by Richards.
The son of Kevin Fitzgerald, who was a longtime state representative originally from Mission Hill, FitzGerald has worked at different positions for the city over the past 17 years, most recently overseeing management of property owned by the Boston Planning and Development Authority (BPDA). He has also served as the president of the community center in Mission Hill and raised money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Richards has been a teacher in the Boston Public schools for 15 years, along with being a pastor. The founder of Dorchester’s Juneteenth celebration, he serves on the board for Little Saigon and has served as president of Fields Corner Main Street. His supporters include the Boston Teachers Union, SEIU Local 1199, Right to the City and the Ward 15 Democratic Committee.
FitzGerald has an even larger advantage in funding, by a ratio of more than three-to-one. Since May, his campaign has raised almost $203,000, more than any other candidate for the council over the same period, including those running at-large. Donors who previously held office include former Boston mayor Marty Walsh, former councillors Mark Ciommo, William Linehan and John Tobin, and former Suffolk County Sheriff Richard Rouse.
Along with money from contractors, developers and trade unions, the campaign has contributions from police and firefighter unions, Unite Here Local 26, the Boston Carmen’s Union, as well as an endorsement from the Greater Boston Labor Council.
Part of Mattapan lies in District 5, where Enrique Pepén and Jose Ruiz are competing to replace Ricardo N. Arroyo, the incumbent councillor who was eliminated in the preliminary election. Most of the district consists of precincts in Hyde Park, Readville and Roslindale. The race is also the closest thing on this year’s ballot to a head-on proxy war between two Boston mayors.
In September, Pepén received more than 40 percent of the vote, with Ruiz getting almost 31 percent. After starting as an intern for former city councillor Tito Jackson, Pepén went on to work for former US Rep. Joe Kennedy III, and later as head of Mayor Wu’s Office of Neighborhood Services. Currently a Roslindale resident, he’s endorsed by Wu, Kennedy, Louijeune, Jackson and State Rep. Russell Holmes. The labor support listed on his campaign’s website includes trade unions, Unite Here Local 26, BTU, and three SEIU locals.
A native of Puerto Rico who lives in Readville, Ruiz is a retired police officer who also partnered with the Boston Red Sox Foundation to run youth baseball and softball programs. His backers include former mayor Marty Walsh, former Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross, City Councilors Ed Flynn, Frank Baker and Erin Murphy. He’s also supported by Boston police and firefighter unions, and the gun control and gun safety advocates Moms Demand Action.
Through September 30, Ruiz has been the district’s leader in campaign fundraising, with $68,870.46. Pepén has raised $50,800.70.
In recent months, none of this year’s candidates for City Council can match the $320,000 reported since August 28 by the Forward Boston Independent Expenditure PAC, most of whose money comes from Jim Davis, the chairman of New Balance and a longtime Republican donor who lives in Newton. In 2021, his PAC committed an even larger amount in support of the runner-up for mayor, Annissa Essaibi George.
In this year’s election, Forward Boston has spent money in support of Murphy, Nee-Walsh, FitzGerald and Ruiz. In the preliminary election the PAC supported both challengers to Councilor Kendra Lara in District 6 (West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain). Through October 23, Forward Boston has spent more than $102,000—almost nine times the $12,000 spent this year through the month of September by the BTU PAC.
In a year without a glut of campaign signs in most of the city, Forward Boston has been reaching voters in other ways, whether in polling, text messages, phone calls, or on social media. If the trawl for voter engagement is less widely cast and less outwardly visible, it can sometimes be more precisely targeted.
Regardless which candidates win on November 7, the preliminary election has already brought change with the defeat of two incumbents—Arroyo and Lara. Combined with the departures of Baker and Flaherty, the stage is set for a change of tone, if not a dramatic shift of balance between the political left and right. DiCara says he hopes for a turn from “the unpleasantness,” marked by friction between councilors, to an “aggiornamento,” a term associated with the spirit of renewal ushered into the Catholic Church more than sixty years ago by Pope John XXIII.
DiCara predicts the voters in the final round will be less driven by ideology than the character of an individual campaign—and that new faces on the council will, for the most part, be “team players.” That could mean changing the curve in a different way: “The middle,” he says, “will expand.”