Politics is personal for JP candidate Arroyo

October 23, 2009
By

John Ruch

Felix G. Arroyo, the Jamaica Plain resident running for an at-large Boston City Council seat, likes to talk about politics in the form of personal stories. As a former union organizer for some of the city’s most thankless jobs, and as a son of a popular former city councilor, he’s got a lot of them.

So here’s a story about him. Meeting with the Gazette for an interview earlier this month, he led the way to a restaurant where he had never been before, the Galway House, and ordered up a plate of honey fried chicken.

An unfamiliar environment and eat-with-your-hands food must be high on any political campaign’s danger list. But Arroyo fit in immediately, joking happily with the server and mixing frequent laughter with serious tales of Boston’s inequalities. He seemed comfortable with himself, with strangers and even with being grilled by a reporter.

“I’m having a good time,” Arroyo said, explaining how he thinks about the race philosophically. If he wins, he organizes people citywide. If he loses, he goes back to union organizing and helps people on that level.

It comes down, he said, to a lesson he learned from his father: “Politics is temporary. What’s important is what you do there and the lives you affect.”

That’s not to say Arroyo isn’t taking the campaign seriously. His ground campaign earned him more than 25,000 votes in the September preliminary election, an impressive total for any candidate.

He also has his own understanding of politics. From 2000 to 2004, he served as an aide to District 7 City Councilor Chuck Turner, where he saw the importance of constituent services and how they are unequal among different neighborhoods. “I learned there that class matters,” he said.

Then came organizing, most recently his work campaigning for the “public option” in federal health care reform at the JP office of Northeast Action.

But his father, Felix D. Arroyo, still looms large in the younger Arroyo’s political life—even if it’s not in the way most people think. The elder Arroyo was a popular liberal figure and the city’s first Latino councilor, serving from 2003 to 2008.

“The misperception is I’m following my father into politics, but the reality is, teaching is the family tradition,” Arroyo said, noting that his father, mother Elsa Montano and several other relatives were teachers.

“Both my parents see themselves as public servants,” he said, saying that the influential message from them was, “Those who have are expected to give.”

“We’re both progressive. We’re more similar than not,” Arroyo said of his father and himself. “Our styles may be different. He saw himself as an advocate. I see myself more as an organizer.”

Arroyo is pitching “collaborative” politics rather than “crusading” politics—a grassroots organizing model. His cell phone ringtone is the theme from “Knight Rider,” the 1980s TV series about a roaming hero with a superpowered car, but that’s about as close as Arroyo gets to being a lone wolf.

He intends to set his governing agenda with regular community roundtable meetings. Asked if he really thinks residents want to do the extra work of going to meetings, he said it’s an important option to offer them. All residents care about their lives, and if they feel disengaged from government, it’s because they are indeed left out, he said.

Pointing to the widely criticized 13 percent voter turnout in the 2007 city election, Arroyo said, “That’s not, ‘Shame on the voters.’ That’s a statement from voters.”

Grassroots public service wasn’t always so attractive to Arroyo. While working three jobs to pay for college, he said, he grew bitter and rebellious over his well-educated parents’ decision to take lower-paying public service jobs. He started taking business classes to become a stockbroker. But then he got to the standard section on controlling labor costs.

“It kind of freaked me out. I don’t want to make money on the basis of controlling labor,” he said.

But even in those days, he had the organizing instincts. While working as a busboy, he once led all of his fellow workers into the boss’s office to demand more money. When the Gazette noted that is just like union organizing, Arroyo laughed and said, “I didn’t know that’s what I was doing then.”

Growing up in Hyde Park and attending Boston Public Schools (BPS) added a working-class touch to Arroyo’s progressive philosophies. In BPS, “like prison,” he learned that “if you get bumped, you have to bump back,” he said—adding that was valuable training for some of the behind-the-scenes political hardball he has encountered in the race.

Arroyo moved to Wachusett Street in JP, across from the St. Andrew’s church, in 2001. He served on the board of Jamaica Plain Communty Centers, and began coaching youth baseball. He named his team the Angels “because I want the kids to see themselves that way,” he said.

He also won an elected seat on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, most recently serving as its vice-chair. He said he was impressed by how hard its volunteer members work, even though, “No one’s naming a library for these folks.” He said the council service gave him a practical understanding of such issues as affordable housing. “I try very hard to not just live in theory,” he said.

Arroyo’s wife, Jasmine Acevedo, chose public service as well. Her work as a BPS teacher is the basis for one of Arroyo’s most astonishing campaign-trail stories. On her first day as a BPS teacher, Acevedo was presented with a literally empty classroom.

“I was with her,” Arroyo said. “There were no books, no bookshelves…There were no tables or chairs. And students were coming in two weeks.” He and Acevedo spent $5,000 furnishing the classroom, even buying the books required by the school curriculum.

“I’m happy to show you the credit card bill, because I’m still paying for it,” he said.

How can a school system with an $800 million budget and a high per-pupil spending rate offer nothing but an empty classroom? Arroyo said that is one of the questions he aims to answer with the City Council’s auditing powers.

Government transparency is one of Arroyo’s big concerns. “Make sure you’re the window-washer, so people can see what’s going on inside,” he said of a city councilor’s role in City Hall.

But he also expressed concern about the idea raised by some mayoral candidates this year of simply putting all city records on the Internet. “It’s an academic, elitist position to take,” he said, noting that many people don’t have home Internet access and may not understand raw official documents.

He said that there needs to be more open hard-copy versions of documents, and more information that makes sense of them. Web-based transparency can create a “two-class system” that leaves many people even more shut out than before, he said.

That ties into his call for more diversity in government, especially the police force. “It’s not happening enough now,” he said of increased diversity. He added that “diversity” to him also means gender, sexual orientation and income level.

“I think race does matter still. But it’s mostly about class, economic class,” he said.

Like many candidates this year, Arroyo is calling for the controversial Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to be replaced with separate planning and development agencies. He said that real estate development in the city is too often “forced down people’s throat” by the BRA.

He said that BRA officials hold “what they consider a community meeting. What it is, is them pushing their talking points.” He said planning processes should be about residents collaborating to create a common goal—“not that you describe the goal and convince [people] it is common, a.k.a., BRA style.”

Arroyo said his first proposals in office would relate to affordable housing. He believes there is enough money in the existing budget to immediately put hundreds of vacant Boston Housing Authority units back into business.

He also would introduce an ordinance requiring that banks, after a mortgage foreclosure on a residence, keep any current tenants in place during its sale. The current eviction policy is “heartless,” he said. Tenants should have the right of first refusal on purchasing the building, too, he said.

Asked about past proposals to require landlords to have “cause,” or a good reason, to evict a tenant, Arroyo said he supports the concept, and believes the majority of good landlords could provide a model. “I believe people deserve a place to live,” he said.

Arroyo’s stump speech contains many references to JP’s Dixwell Street, one of the rougher patches of Egleston Square.

“Good people live there,” he said. “I talk about that street because it really is a street I spend a lot of time on.”

It’s a street where some of the young baseball players he coaches live, where he drops them off after games in a place, he tells candidate forum audiences, “you wouldn’t want to live in, right here in Jamaica Plain.”

He said he doesn’t mean to single the street out. He points to Jackson Square’s Walden Street, which was home to another of his longtime youth players, Sergio Ibanez. Ibanez, who had a full scholarship to UMass, was killed in Roslindale last year in what police suspect was a case of mistaken identity. Ibanez’s father’s bodega in Egleston Square closed around the same time. But his mother is starting a scholarship fund to help other youths.

“I think an awful lot about that family,” Arroyo said. “Their reality in Boston is different from the reality a lot of people have.”

Arroyo described how JP gives him a perspective on the whole city, where “you have million-dollar homes and people making $10,000, all in the same neighborhood.”

“It tells you how much work we have to do,” he said.