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Broadening the pie

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Broadening the pie
on to his progressive base (Photo: Yawu Miller)

At-Large City Councilor Felix Arroyo has built relationships across the city — while still holding

For City Councilor Felix Arroyo, opportunity recently came in the form of a vacated office in City Hall.

When City Council’s central staff moved into a larger office, they left behind an empty room the councilors wanted to use as a meeting space. Arroyo argued for naming the room after Thomas Atkins, the first African American to serve on the council.

He teamed up with Council President Stephen Murphy, drafted a resolution and got a unanimous vote for the designation during the April 6 council meeting. It was the first time a room in City Hall was named for a person of color.

“This is a rare opportunity to recognize a person who has made history here in Boston,” Arroyo said during the meeting. “Councilor Thomas Atkins was a civil rights trailblazer and a champion of social and economic justice.”

The naming of a meeting room is a largely symbolic act, but in the world of city politics, the small acts can be as important as the large ones. And in his first year and a half in office, Arroyo has used the same combination of windows of opportunity, collaboration and good timing to score some significant wins.

One such opportunity came last year when Mayor Thomas Menino announced plans to close local branch libraries in response to a tight city budget. The plan elicited fierce resistance from activists across the city. Arroyo joined forces with People of Boston for a Better Library to fight the closures and ultimately worked with the Boston Delegation of the state Legislature to secure additional funding for the city’s library branches.

“A lot of city councilors, frankly, were afraid of bucking the mayor,” said Kelly Bates, a Roslindale resident active in the fight against library closures. “[Arroyo] saw an issue that was relevant to people’s lives and provided leadership.”

In addition to the benefit of saving libraries from closures or reduced hours, Arroyo’s foray into the issue garnered him new friends.

“I found myself getting to know communities I didn’t know well,” he said. “I was able to work with colleagues who were facing branch closures.”

That exposure to voters in the far corners of the city can’t hurt, especially in an election year where Arroyo and the council’s other three at-large members are vying against former top vote-getter Michael Flaherty, who is seeking to regain the seat he gave up two years ago when he ran for mayor.

Arroyo will also face councilors Ayanna Pressley, Stephen Murphy and John Connolly.

Each of the at-large councilors will be challenged to make the case to voters that the issues they championed were relevant to the lives of voters, a task made all the more difficult by a relative lack of coverage of local issues in the news media.

“I see him at a lot of community meetings,” says political activist Sarah Ann Shaw of Arroyo. “I know he’s a hard worker. But the issues he’s working on don’t get the same kind of space in the media as Connolly with the expired food.”

For Arroyo and other councilors, word of their accomplishments will most likely reach the majority of the voters in the form of a mailer.  In the pamphlet he has mailed to supporters, Arroyo touts includes his work on the library funding, forming a city-wide coalition to work on asthma and helping organize youth groups to fight for more funding for summer jobs.

Arroyo’s work on the youth jobs issue underscores his willingness to pay attention to constituencies — even those too young to vote — whom other councilors have traditionally ignored, according to Mswati Hanks, a youth coordinator for Maverick Landing Community Services in East Boston.

“That he was able to get a large number of youth organizations in the same room was an achievement in itself,” said Hanks, who served on the Youth Agenda Council Arroyo formed.

The skills Arroyo used to get often competing groups to work together for a common goal were honed during his days working as political director for SEIU Local 615, Arroyo says. He drew on the same diplomatic skills when he led the council in ironing out the firefighter’s contract and working with the mayor to restore funding for 1,000 of the summer jobs cut from the budget last year.

“What I’ve learned is that agreement is overrated,” Arroyo says. “It’s really a quest for understanding. If you can come to an understanding of what people’s beliefs are and why they believe them, you can work together.”

Working together with different constituencies and elected officials is part of Arroyo’s philosophy he calls collaborative politics. Most, if not all, of his legislative initiative involve affected constituencies and other elected officials.

“At the end of the day, our political realities don’t matter to voters,” Arroyo says. “Voters want to know you’re working on their behalf to make Boston a better city. It’s important to remember that when you walk into this building.”

Not all of Arroyo’s initiatives have hit pay dirt. His proposal to require the city to deposit its more than $1 billion in cash in banks that invest in local communities has sparked interest among many of his fellow councilors, but hasn’t yet pierced through the city’s cozy relationship with the large national banks, which hold the lion’s share of municipal deposits.

Under Arroyo’s proposal, banks that make loans to local businesses — most of which are based in Boston — would get the deposits.

“Right now we’re not even asking what level of investment banks have in our city,” he says. “The banks that do the most investment in our city should get that money.”

In gathering support for the initiative, Arroyo visited chambers of commerce, “Main Streets” organizations and other business groups across the city, soliciting input from business owners and business boosters. All the while, he made sure to check in with the district councilors who represent the business areas, soliciting their support.

Despite those efforts, Arroyo’s relationship with a core constituency — progressives — was put to the test last year when he voted with the council on its near-unanimous decision to strip former Councilor Chuck Turner of his seat following his conviction on federal corruption charges in a trial many saw as deeply flawed.

Arroyo says he hopes voters will judge him by his whole record, not just a single vote.

“It was a hard vote for me to cast, but in the end I did what I felt was right.”

Whether that costs him votes this year is yet to be determined, according to Bates.

“People say they’re disappointed in him,” she says. “But I haven’t heard anyone say they won’t vote for him.”

Even if the issue does cost Arroyo votes, it won’t likely disadvantage him over his competitors. All the other incumbent at-large councilors voted the same way.

Ultimately, Arroyo will depend on the same base of black, Latino, progressive white and Asian voters on whom the three black councilors depend. It’s the voting base that helped put his father, Felix D. Arroyo in office and it may well work for the younger Arroyo again.

“There’s a strong black/brown partnership in Boston,” Arroyo says. “Our leaders work well together. Our organizations work well together. When we take on issues, we do it together.”