City Councilor Felix Arroyo, a Jamaica Plain resident and longtime local favorite, lost his seat in the Nov. 6 election. Taking his place as an at-large city councilor will be first-time office-holder John Connolly, a West Roxbury attorney and son of a former Massachusetts secretary of state.
“Felix is a civil rights pioneer in Boston and a social justice leader on every issue,” Connolly told the Gazette. “I hope in some small way I can continue his work on social justice issues, though I can never be the icon and giant he is in the city.”
That was the only shake-up in an election that left all other incumbents in place. They include Michael Flaherty, Steve Murphy and Sam Yoon in the citywide “at-large” seats; Chuck Turner, who beat a challenger for Egleston Square’s District 7 seat; and John Tobin and Mike Ross, who ran unopposed for their seats in the local Districts 6 and 8, respectively.
Voter turnout was terrible, unofficially estimated at about 13 percent citywide. It was a major reversal of increasing voter participation in recent years, including in JP.
Still, there appears to be exaggeration in a flurry of media analysis claiming Arroyo’s loss as a sign of a huge demographic shift in voting. Connolly, who is white, is frequently described as having “ousted” Arroyo, though the at-large seats go to the top four vote-getters, not a head-to-head winner. Likewise, another popular minority incumbent, Yoon, retained his seat comfortably.
Widely overlooked is that the results for the top vote-getters were very close, with Arroyo finishing only 6 points behind first-place finisher Flaherty despite having raised virtually no money for the race. Also, Arroyo finished in fifth place and can move up to take a seat if one of the four incumbents leave office mid-term—as Murphy remains widely rumored to be attempting. That is how Arroyo got on the council in the first place back in 2003.
Meanwhile, many observers say Arroyo sunk himself with lethargic campaigning that left him with about $1,000 in his war chest—less than 1 percent of what even many district councilors had in the bank. Late on Election Day, his campaign issued an e-mail that read like a message in a bottle from a sinking ship, beginning, “We are in danger!” It was too little, too late.
Arroyo was Boston’s first—and so far, only—Latino city councilor, with his sometimes impressive vote totals viewed as a sign of a racially diverse and politically progressive “New Boston.” His loss narrows the membership of “Team Unity,” a self-proclaimed caucus of liberal-leaning, minority council members, including Turner.
Arroyo and Turner did not return Gazette phone calls for this article.
Another lesson of Arroyo’s loss is that Boston incumbents may seem invulnerable, but they aren’t always so. Progressive activists frequently complain about incumbent protection, but losing a progressive incumbent is not usually what they have in mind.
While expressing joy at winning, Connolly also appeared stressed by the perception that he knocked off Arroyo. Connolly has also taken heat for his last-minute flurry of anonymous campaign ads attacking Murphy for seeking other jobs. Clearly, if Connolly had any incumbent in his sights, it was Murphy.
Connolly pledged outreach to all communities in Boston, including JP’s Latin Quarter.
“My first job was as a teacher of at-risk Latino youth,” Connolly noted. “I’ve worked in a community that was predominately Latino.” He added that he will brush up on his old conversational Spanish, though he still easily remembers the Spanish for, “Your son isn’t doing his homework.”
Among Connolly’s proposal on the campaign trail were year-round youth programs and a boost in affordable housing.
Connolly also said he looks forward to working with Tobin, who also lives in West Roxbury and supported Connolly’s campaign.
Tobin said Connolly will be a “terrific ally” on the council at a time when youth violence and education are crucial issues.
“John’s a teacher,” he said. “He worked with high-risk kids. He understands that stuff.”
Pundits are blaming several factors for low turnout, including the Mayor’s Office not being on the ballot this year, and the cold, rainy Election Day weather.
“The people who deserve the most blame are the electorate. It’s voter apathy,” said Tobin, who had the luxury of mostly observing this year’s election.
But he also had sharp criticism of perhaps the biggest factor: the city’s decision to kill the September preliminary election for the at-large race. That decision, pitched as saving the Boston Election Department money, led to far fewer candidate forums than usual and appeared to throw off the rhythm of media coverage. The cancellation wasn’t even publicly announced until months after the decision was final.
Low turnout appeared to become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the morning of Election Day, the Boston Globe’s web site, Boston.com, referred to the city election only with a small headline linking to an opinion column. The next morning, it featured a large story about low turnout and “a tide of voter apathy.”
The election cancellation was proposed by Murphy and was highly controversial, though a council majority—along with the mayor and the state legislature—approved the idea. Arroyo refused to vote on the proposal, calling it improper for incumbents even to discuss altering election procedures during a campaign. Some City Hall insiders privately called the proposal the “Murphy Protection Act” under the idea that lower campaign attention helps incumbents.
“It went exactly as planned, I suppose, and that’s why I voted against it,” said Tobin, referring to the “Murphy Protection” idea. Saving city money “was not Reason 1 or 1A” for the cancellation, Tobin said. “It was done out of strategy.”
“I definitely think it was a big contributor to Felix’s defeat and to a lower turnout,” Tobin said. “Felix is a candidate who needs the preliminary…to generate excitement. There was none of it.”