In a comparison of Boston’s three at-large city councillors running for re-election, a single vote tells different stories about their senses of political mission and the limits of their power.
Early this month, on Oct. 4, the Council voted, 7-5, to approve $3.4 million in federal grants for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). Formed in the wake of attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, BRIC and similar fusion centers around the country were supposed to help combat terrorism, with more information sharing among local, state, and federal agencies. Since that time, the Boston Police Department has given more emphasis to the BRIC as a tool for public safety,
pinpointing “areas of crime, shootings, and gang violence,” and helping to identify “major players and ex-offenders returning to our neighborhoods.”
In their early years, fusion centers around the country came under fire for surveillance of non-violent activists. Locally, in 2007, BRIC filed an intelligence report on an event whose organizers included Felix D. Arroyo, at the time an at-large city councillor and father of the current District 5 councillor, Ricardo N. Arroyo.
In more recent years, the BRIC has come under fire for its gang database. Designed as a tool to fight violent crime, the database has been criticized for racial profiling. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled the BRIC had acted wrongfully in listing an immigrant and student at East Boston High School as an “active and verified” member of the violent, transnational MS-13 gang. The court found the database was flawed by reliance on an “erratic point system” and “unsubstantiated inferences.”
At the time of the court decision, in January 2022, Boston Police officials were already saying the BRIC ‘s operations had changed and that more names were removed from the database than added. On Oct. 4, an earlier opponent of the funding authorization, Mayor Michelle Wu, called for approval, citing changes in BPD regulations and new oversight put in place by a city ordinance. But the center’s handling of the database remains under investigation by State Attorney General Andrea Campbell.
At a hearing in late September, Councillor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune asked for more information about BRIC, including its standards for reasonable suspicion, as well as collection and sharing of data. She said the information she received the morning of the vote on Oct. 4 was incomplete.
At the hearing, Councillor At-Large Michael F. Flaherty noted that the vote was only on whether to approve the grant money, with no chance to directly change how it would be used. But, in an interview last week, Louijeune said her decision to vote “no” was “really about accountability and transparency” – that these were less at issue in her support for more police power to remove tents around Massachusetts Avenue, Melnea Cass Boulevard, and Atkinson Street.
“But when it comes to BRIC and the gang database,” she said, “there’s just too much information, too much from past councils, from court cases, that that trust isn’t yet there.” She went on to say that “it is not up for us at the City Council to be a rubber stamp, especially when constituents bring us their concerns.”
For Councillor At-Large Erin Murphy, the trust was already there before the start of the Oct. 4 meeting and declared in a post that day on X (formerly Twitter). The next day on X, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which is supporting Murphy, hailed the seven councillors supporting the grants “who put public safety first.” In a later interview, she said, “So, by default, it makes our schools and our parks and our streets safer, our neighborhoods safer.”
In September, the council had referred funding measures to a public hearing. This followed the anniversary of September 11, but also incidents of crime during the summer that involved groups of young people and alleged assaults on police, the shooting of eight people during the “J’ouvert” festival, and mounting concerns about crime and drug traffic around Atkinson Street.
The day before the vote, Fox News reported a “stall” on law enforcement funding “as violent crime, especially among youth, has surged.” BPD statistics tell a somewhat different story: an increase in homicides (up by three) through Oct. 15 and an 8.7 percent increase in robbery and attempted robbery. There were two more fatal shootings than during the same period in 2022, but non-fatal shootings were down by 11 percent. A MassINC public opinion survey in April produced another crime metric: 68 percent of Boston Public School parents felt extremely or somewhat concerned about safety.
When councillors made their decision on Oct. 4, the voting was along racial lines, with seven white members in support. That was already expected when Councillor At-Large Julia Mejia spoke at the meeting.
“It is interesting,” she said, “that we are yet again following on a vote that will again uplift the deep racial divide that exists here in the City of Boston, that exists here in the City Council, that continues to haunt us and how we lead.”
Mejia argued that the vote should have been held off to get more comments by other entities, including the city’s Office of Black Male Advancement. On her X feed that day, she posted a clip with her comments, adding “The fight for racial justice continues…”
Regular City Council elections in years without a race for mayor typically attract fewer voters. For the last “off-year” final election, in 2019, Boston’s voter turnout was 16.53 percent. That year, 15 candidates ran for the 4 councillor at-large seats in the preliminary balloting, when one of them – held by Althea Garrison – was considered by many to be up for grabs.
This year, there were only 8 candidates in September, not enough to require a preliminary election that might have generated more visibility. There was an at-large seat being vacated, by Flaherty, but his decision wasn’t announced until July 5. That was one day before a campaign feed was started on X for a second at-large campaign by Bridget Nee-Walsh, but more than two months after an at-large campaign had been announced by Henry Santana.
When the new council takes office in January, it will have no more than three of the members elected in 2019. The three at-large incumbents re-elected that year had previously served a combined total of 13 terms. Running for re-election this year are one councillor in her second term and two in their first. Of the 13 councillors elected 4 years ago, 6 have already left – 3 of them for other elected offices, and 4 others who either lost in the preliminary election or decided not to run again.
The 2019 vote resulted in the first city council with a majority whose members were people of color. Among the newcomers was Mejia, who clinched fourth place by a margin of one vote. In that same election, Ricardo N. Arroyo become the first Latino councilor in District 5 (Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan). Two years later, Kendra Lara made a similar breakthrough in District 6 (West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain).
Next month’s election will not increase the current Latino representation on the council, but the competition includes two Latino candidates running at-large (Mejia and Santana) and two running as finalists in District 5, Enrique Pepén and Jose Ruiz.
According to Luis F. Jiménez, associate professor and director of the International Relations Undergraduate Major in the Department of Political Science at UMass Boston, the mix of candidates will affect turnout. “The literature has shown that people in general, and Latinos in particular, are mobilized when people that look like them are on the ballot,” he wrote. “And we have seen in the past decade that the Latino vote has been steadily growing both at the local and state levels. I would expect that to continue with this election. In low voter turnout elections like this one, this is critical because any additional motivation that can get people to the polls can make the difference.”
As a councillor, Mejia has called for giving that base more clout, whether by letting non-citizens vote in local elections, or creating a city Office of Latino and Caribbean Affairs, or codifying the current Office of Immigrant Advancement. On housing, she has called for much higher commitments on set-asides by developers for affordable units and a tax on displacement. She was the co-sponsor of a home rule petition to reinstate an elected school committee – a change overwhelmingly supported by Boston voters in 2021. The measure was passed by the council, with Louijeune in support and Murphy opposed, but it was vetoed by Mayor Wu.
A 54-year-old Dorchester resident and former “Rock the Vote” reporter for MTV, Mejia said she began to act as an advocate when she was 9 years old, standing up for her mother at a local welfare office when, she said, a caseworker was being “incredibly mean.”
When she talked about the experience at a forum organized by students at Boston University, she told them, “First, you have to speak truth, because speaking truth to power is the most courageous thing you can ever do. And what they expect you to do is to be tame, to be submissive, to be mild. But, you know, we don’t have any more time to hope and pray that you’re going to do right on whatever cause that you’re fighting for. You have to rage against the machine.”
A 53-year-old Dorchester resident, Murphy ran a strong but unsuccessful campaign in 2019 before winning her first at large term in 2021. She traces her roots in community advocacy to her grandfather, Richard J. Murphy, who led a campaign to convert a landfill along the Neponset River for use by the community. He was later honored by the naming of a public K-8 school in Dorchester’s Neponset area.
Murphy’s mother, Ann Walsh, was founder of a group that, in 1999, supported a reverse-discrimination lawsuit challenging race-based student assignment in the Boston Public Schools. Last year, Walsh was among the challengers to a City Council redistricting plan—later revised—that shifted three predominantly white precincts from the predominantly white District 3 to the neighboring, predominantly Black District 4.
A teacher in the Boston Public Schools for twenty years, Murphy said her transition to electoral politics came after she spent time working as a coordinator to help parents trying to get more services for students with special needs.
“And I realized that I was really happy with my job, that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher anymore,” she explained, “but I knew that a lot of my families and parents needed more than just me teaching their kids how to read and write, that they needed somebody who listened and was willing to find out who could help them.”
In June, Murphy voted against BPS budget plan, arguing that more money should have been included for sports and arts, after-school programs, and social and emotional supports.
“What is our return on investment when 94 percent of the students at Madison Park High aren’t reading on grade level,” she said, “when we have a 42 percent absentee rate every day chronic, when over 20,000 students every day do not show up to our Boston public schools?”
On housing, Murphy said there weren’t enough new units large enough for families with children, too many hurdles to new development, but also problems associated with new growth and rising prices. And she has noted a range of needs, from her youngest children, ages 24 and 25, to homeless students, new immigrants, and people needed treatment and supportive housing.
“We have to make sure we’re not just putting all of our efforts to one group,” she said, “that we’re making sure that everyone feels like their housing needs are being addressed and listened to, and the concerns we have to just have answers for them.”
A 37-year-old Hyde Park resident, Louijeune is the youngest sitting at-large councillor. A champion of affordable housing production and multi-modal transportation, she says she sometimes uses an electric scooter for trips close to her neighborhood or when going to “open streets” events around the city.
Her parents, Robert and Marie Louijeune, were immigrants from Haiti. Her father’s first job in the US was at a Store 24, and her mother’s was at a McDonald’s, though her father played a very active role in his children’s education in the BPS. The councillor said they also made their home a place of welcome and support for fellow immigrants.
“I grew up in Mattapan, and I did not know what a locked door was, because people would come over all the time for food,” she recalled. “We’d be the temporary place for refuge and shelter for those in need… I have this fancy resume of Harvard and Columbia and Latin School and all of that, but my reason for being in public service and me knowing how I treat people, and how I relate to people, and how I think about being a good neighbor, all comes from my parents and what they modeled for me.”
In the 2021 election, Louijeune picked up votes in parts of the city beyond Hyde Park and Mattapan, finishing third in Ward 20 (West Roxbury and part of Roslindale), where she trailed only Flaherty and Murphy. She credits the result in part to her years at Boston Latin, where she made friends and contacts from around the city.
Louijeine also looked beyond neighborhood lines earlier this year, trying to bridge the council’s acrimonious divide over redistricting. She credits the effort with a 10-2 vote for her own map, about which different sides made concessions.
“We had to find a way to agree,” she explained. “I’m proud of the work that we were able to do as a council,” she said, “to get us to a place where we could have maps, and we could have districts, and have an election.”
Voters can cast ballots ahead of Nov. 7 final
Early voting ahead of the Nov. 7 final municipal election starts on Sat., Oct. 28 and Sun., Oct. 29 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at select locations, including Mildred Ave Community Center in Mattapan and the Richard J. Murphy School in Dorchester. Early voting will also be held on Tues., Oct. 31, at Florian Hall on Hallet Street and the Perkins Community Center on Talbot Avenue from noon to 8 p.m. And voters can also go to City Hall from Oct. 30 to Nov. 3 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. See boston.gov/early-voting for a full list of locations, dates, and hours.