James Hennigan III, a West Roxbury insurance agency owner, and Sean Ryan, a Jamaica Plain resident and school music director, have joined the race for the local District 6 Boston City Council seat that John Tobin will leave at the end of the month.
JP resident Matt O’Malley previously announced his candidacy for the seat.
District 6 covers JP, West Roxbury and parts of Mission Hill and Roslindale. Tobin, who has held the seat for almost a decade, unexpectedly announced his resignation this week as he takes a new community-relations job at Northeastern University. A special election to fill the seat will be held sometime this fall.
James Hennigan III is a member of one of JP’s most prominent political families. His father, James Hennigan Jr., was once an influential state senator. His grandfather, James Hennigan, is the namesake for the local Hennigan Elementary School. And his sister, JP resident Maura Hennigan, is the current clerk of Suffolk County criminal courts and the former holder of the District 6 seat, who fended off Tobin’s early challenges.
“I know both neighborhoods in this district better than probably anyone who’s possibly going to run,” said Hennigan about his candidacy in a Gazette phone interview this week, referring to the main JP/West Roxbury area.
Hennigan grew up in JP’s Moss Hill area, and has lived in West Roxbury for over 23 years. He ran for state representative there unsuccessfully 15 years ago. He now runs the family’s James W. Hennigan Insurance Agency, and said he would continue to do so if he wins office.
Hennigan has served on the board of the West Roxbury YMCA for 15 years and is current its chair as the organization works to build a new facility. He is also a longtime worker on the Salvation Army’s annual Christmas fund-raising campaign and coaches youth softball.
“People know that I’m dedicated to the community,” he said, calling the city councilor job “a natural fit.”
He called basic constituent services and attending—and volunteering at—neighborhood events as the core parts of the job that he would love.
“[Residents] need the right type of councilor who’s going to do those things,” he said.
“I think volunteering is one of the most important things you can do in the community,” Hennigan said, noting that JP and West Roxbury have high volunteerism rates. “People care about what’s happening,” he said.
Recent attempts by the administration of Mayor Thomas Menino to close or pull city workers out of some branch libraries and community centers have been big issues on Tobin’s plate. Hennigan said that he is a “big advocate of finding any way” to keep such facilities open. They are especially important for making sure that youths aren’t “out there on a corner” in their free time, Hennigan said.
“The reality is, budgets are being cut,” Hennigan said. “But this is where my call for volunteering will help.”
Tobin was set to chair a committee that would review the city charter for possible changes to Boston’s form of government. “That would probably be a good thing,” Hennigan said.
One quasi-government agency often mentioned as a possible candidate for city charter reform is the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Hennigan said he has no specific thoughts about the BRA now, but would support residents if they had concerns. He also noted that he successfully “battled” the development of a forested area in West Roxbury alongside neighbors.
“I’m not anti-development at all,” Hennigan said. “But when you take green space away, it’s gone forever.”
Ryan, a JP native who lives on Lamartine Street, ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the City Council last fall on a largely libertarian platform. In an interview this week at the Gazette office, Ryan said he does not want to “define” himself by that sort of ideological label. But he remains committed to a business model of government: “The best service possible at the lowest cost possible.”
“I like decentralized government,” Ryan said. “I like as much local control as possible.”
A classically trained pianist and orchestral conductor, Ryan is now the ensembles director at Boston Latin School. That makes him the only candidate so far who can match Tobin’s professional background in the arts. Tobin also owns and manages comedy clubs and was known for his support of the arts.
Ryan is campaigning on what he calls the “Three S’s”—“schools, services and safety.”
“I think [Boston Public] schools are the elephant in the room,” Ryan said, noting that the school department is the biggest chunk of the city budget.
Referring to Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) ongoing reorganization process, Ryan questioned “why we need another five-year plan when the prior five-year plan failed. We have to think about what’s best for kids.”
He calls for a “decentralized approach” that avoids a one-size-fits-all type of schooling. That includes charter schools.
“I’m not so much in favor of charter schools as I’m opposed to a cap on them,” Ryan said. He added that he supports anything that increases the “amount of competition between schools” and their teachers and administrators, because that will benefit the “consumers of the service.”
Becoming a member of the Boston Teachers Union has not changed Ryan’s thinking. “I consider myself to be pro-union,” he said, explaining that he likes collective bargaining but does not like union-versus-city wars that do not focus on delivering services.
Unlike Tobin, Ryan said he would have voted down the recent Boston firefighters pay raise deal. “I think the economic climate we’re in makes it impossible to afford,” he said.
As for city services, that means “doing more with less,” Ryan said. The Menino administration has claimed that is exactly what it is doing with the branch libraries and community centers. But, Ryan said, he is not persuaded.
“There’s certainly no reason we have to be cutting Boston Public Library branches,” he said, noting that money could found in many places, such as by cutting BPS busing. “I think we shouldn’t be closing libraries. We shouldn’t be closing community centers.”
But Ryan also supports an overall review of those systems. “We also have to consider, what incentives do libraries have to change and respond to how people are using libraries?” he said. “It’s always good to look at how businesses raise money,” he said, offering as one example, “Libraries could also sell books.”
On public safety issues, Ryan last year proposed some radical changes, such as the legalization of recreational drugs and having police officers carry business cards rather than guns to improve community relations. This week, Ryan backed away from such advocacy as “not what I want to talk about,” but questioned drug and gun policies and said policing should focus more on major crime.
“It’s a conversation we should be having,” Ryan said of getting police to deemphasize drug-related arrests, adding that he would be a “voice” for that on the City Council. “If you look a little bit down the road, [drug legalization] is an issue whose time is coming.”
“I don’t see guns as the source of our problems with violence,” Ryan said. It is more about why people use them, he said, noting that most street violence comes from gangs that are “private self-defense units” for people who are not protected by the government, especially if they are engaged in black-market dealing of materials banned by the government.
The city charter review Tobin was to conduct is “certainly a good idea,” Ryan said, adding that he is especially interested in “how we, as a city, can be more independent from the state.”
With less local aid coming from the state, “Boston needs to find its own way,” Ryan said. He also criticized the “home-rule petition” system that requires state legislative approval for virtually any significant change in Boston.
The BRA, which is often mentioned in the charter reform discussion, is not one of his main issues, Ryan said. But, he added, the BRA needs to go.
“It doesn’t serve the purpose it was intended to serve,” Ryan said of the BRA. “Here’s the thing about government. It always gets bigger. It never gets smaller.”
Ryan noted that development in the city appears to be down, yet the number of BRA employees remains the same. “What are they doing now?” he asked.
Ryan also repeated his call from last year for a simplification of the city zoning codes to ease development and construction. The current complexity makes the system “politically controlled instead of economically controlled,” he said.