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Activists look to future after Arroyo's defeat

Yawu Miller | 8/7/2009, 6:48 a.m.

The mood at Slade’s Bar and Grill in Roxbury turned from tense to somber last Tuesday night as the vote tallies pouring in from precincts across the city confirmed Felix Arroyo’s fifth-place finish in this year’s race for the four at-large seats on Boston’s City Council.

Arroyo’s defeat dealt a crushing blow to both the Team Unity black-Latino-Asian voting bloc on the council and the growing political movement activists of color have built over the last five years.

“This sets us back,” said Giovanna Negretti, executive director of ¿Oíste?, the Massachusetts Latino political organization. “[Arroyo’s] position on the City Council was a symbol of the changing times. He represented the new diversity in Boston.”

When the dust settled, Arroyo was 3,421 votes behind challenger John Connolly, who secured an at-large seat on the council with 21,980 votes. The other three incumbents retained their seats, with Michael Flaherty gaining the highest number of votes (25,847), Stephen Murphy placing second (23,641) and Sam Yoon finishing third (23,210).

Taking the stage at Slade’s, Arroyo sounded a hopeful note as he thanked the gathering of mostly black and Latino campaign volunteers, many of whom have been with him since his first bid for the council in 2001.

“When I leave the council I will leave with dignity and with my hope for a better Boston,” he said, accompanied by his fiancée, Selene Acosta. “The future is still here and it’s ours. I may not be on the council, but the council needs your attention.”

This year’s low-turnout election stood in stark contrast to 2005, when both Arroyo and Yoon secured at-large seats, enlarging the Team Unity bloc and seemingly making real the promise that blacks, Latinos and Asians can work together to increase their political power.

But that council election coincided with a mayoral campaign, an arrangement that generally drives higher turnout. In a so-called off-year election, turnout in communities of color and among progressives is generally lower.

Compounding the problem of low turnout was the City Council’s decision to forgo preliminary balloting in the at-large race, despite having a field of nine candidates. In 2003, the last off-year election, Arroyo placed fifth in the preliminary, but was able to use his poor showing to rally campaign volunteers for a second-place finish in the final election.

The lack of a preliminary, coupled with the absence of big-spending challengers like 2003 contenders Patricia White and Matt O’Malley, may have contributed to the lack of media coverage of the race.

Overall, just 13.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots last Tuesday, with turnout dipping into the single digits in many precincts in communities of color and reaching as high as 25 percent in the predominantly white precincts in West Roxbury, where Connolly benefited from the home court advantage.

District 7 Councilor and Team Unity member Chuck Turner, who campaigned hard against challenger Carlos Henriquez, won big with 81 percent of the vote. But turnout in Ward 12, which makes up most of Turner’s council district, was just 14 percent.

Arroyo’s defeat could significantly weaken Team Unity at a time when its members were just beginning to use coalitions to more effectively push for legislation. The councilors were instrumental in electing Councilor Maureen Feeney to the presidency of the body.

Seven votes are needed to secure a majority on the council. A bloc of four votes can dominate a coalition of seven. But three cannot.

Now many question whether Team Unity will be as effective as it was with four members.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to affordable housing, school choice, jobs for youth — the vote splits along lines of race and ethnicity,” noted Caprice Taylor Mendez, executive director of the Boston chapter of Emerge, an organization formed to help women win elections.

Taylor Mendez notes that the 13-member City Council now has just two African American councilors, one Asian, one woman and no Latinos.

“This puts the responsibility on the current city councilors,” she said. “How are they going to look at these issues that are important to people of color?”

At Slade’s last week, Turner sounded optimistic.
“What this does is challenge us to continue to build our base even stronger,” he said. “We have to learn from this situation so we can continue to move forward. One loss does not spell what our future will be.”

Negretti, who heads an initiative that trains activists of color to run campaigns for elected office, said the onus is on the next generation to fill the void left by Arroyo.

“There are a lot of young, new people of color who are getting ready to run in 2009,” she said. “This is not the end.”

Although Arroyo said he did not know whether he would run for office again, he may find himself back in City Hall soon. Murphy may be under consideration for a job in the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick, who threw a fundraiser for him last month.

Should Murphy exit, Arroyo — the fifth-place finisher — would rotate back into the council in the same way he did in 2002 after then-Councilor Francis “Mickey” Roach vacated his seat for a state job.

But for now, Arroyo seems set on leaving office. At Slade’s, he spoke with an air of finality as he thanked the Team Unity volunteers for their support, which made him the first Latino elected to the City Council.

“The fact that I have had the opportunity to serve you is so beautiful,” he said. “That doesn’t go away. I shall treasure that forever.”