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A missed opportunity

A missed opportunity

With 55 percent of voting age population, District 3 minority residents had a chance to increase diversity on the City Council during the recent preliminary election. It didn’t happen.

Residents of color in parts of Dorchester and Mattapan missed a political opportunity in the preliminary election for the open seat on the City Council representing District 3.

The retirement of longtime Councilor Maureen Feeney created a chance to expand minority representation on the council without taking on an incumbent. The vacancy attracted a field of seven candidates — five white men and two black women.

From the results of the Sept. 27 preliminary, it is hard to tell that the voting age population in the District 3, which takes in the eastern part of Dorchester and a sliver of Mattapan, is 55 percent minority.

The top finishers who will face each other in the Nov. 8 runoff, Frank Baker and John O’Toole, drew strong support from their own neighborhoods, where turnout was relatively heavy among the white voters who predominate in both areas. Baker, from Savin Hill, lead the field with 32 percent, followed by O’Toole, from Cedar Grove, with 26 percent, according to the city’s unofficial count.

The two black candidates combined for a paltry 8 percent share of the vote, finishing fifth and sixth. Mary-dith E. Tuitt, chief of staff to state Rep. Gloria Fox, received slightly more than 300 votes; Stephanie Everett, former deputy chief of staff to state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, attracted fewer than 300 votes.

Both Tuitt of Dorchester and Everett of Mattapan were unable to raise enough funds to run competitive campaigns and build name recognition. Late in the campaign, Tuitt papered the diverse Fields Corner area with her campaign signs.

Although minority residents make up more than half the district’s voting age population, their percentage of registered voters is less than half, partly because of the numbers of Cape Verdean, Vietnamese and other immigrants who are not naturalized citizens.

Still, minority voters could have determined the outcome if their turnout had matched that in white neighborhoods

With no mayoral contest on the ballot in the off-year preliminary, there was less awareness among District 3 voters of the city council race, despite the large field.

 The limited minority engagement with the race was apparent the week before the election, when five of the candidates participated in the last forum of the preliminary campaign. The focus was on health, an issue of concern in the city’s minority communities, and the moderator was Michael Curry, president of the Boston NAACP.

Yet there were only a handful of African Americans in the audience of 60 at Harbor Health Services on Morton Street in Dorchester.

The two top candidates who emerged in the subsequent preliminary election acknowledged the district’s diversity.

“It is probably the best reflection of the city that you can find in a particular district, from Lower Mills to Savin Hill and everything in between. I think each and every ethnic group is represented,” said O’Toole, 47. “As I went through the district, I realized that everybody wants the same thing. They want good schools, safe streets, good city services and they want Dorchester to remain and grow as a better place to live.”

In 1999, O’Toole joined other parents in filing a lawsuit to eliminate race as a factor in student assignments in Boston public schools. The lawsuit was settled, with the city modifying its policy but maintaining race as one factor in student assignments.

During the campaign, O’Toole described the purpose of the lawsuit and his reason for getting involved differently than the Boston Globe did when it was filed. He also said he was proud of his role in the case.

In response to a survey of candidates by the Dorchester Reporter, O’Toole wrote: “When my son Jack was entering kindergarten, he was not given an assignment to any school in the City of Boston. We were forced to send him to a private school in Quincy, I filed a lawsuit against the City of Boston called ‘Boston’s Children First.’”

He added: “The purpose of this lawsuit was to force Boston Public Schools to fix an antiquated assignment policy and modernize to a more family friendly and neighborhood oriented one.”

US District Court records describe the lawsuit as a request for “a preliminary injunction seeking to eliminate the use of race as a factor in assigning students to individual schools at any stage of education.” If fully successful, the suit would have eliminated one of the last remnants of the 1974 federal court order to desegregate Boston’s schools.

A June 22, 1999 front-page article in the Boston Globe quoted O’Toole’s wife Rose as saying her 4-year-old son was denied his first choice of a kindergarten because he is white. “It is unfair for my son to be denied anything because of his race,” Rose O’Toole said. She, her husband and their son John Jr. were among plaintiffs.

 At the health forum, Baker, 43, said “yes, it’s a diverse district” and promised to be a “strong, independent voice” in City Hall, a veiled reference to O’Toole enjoying the indirect support of Mayor Menino. Baker answered several questions about health issues by confessing he did not know much about them but would advocate for whatever District 3 residents asked him to do.

In another council race, a minority challenger bested the incumbent. Suzanne Lee of Chinatown led a three-candidate field in District 2 with 39 percent, followed by Councilor Bill Linehan of South Boston with 35 percent. Lee’s first-place finish was fueled by strong support in Chinatown and the South End.

Linehan split much of the South Boston vote with the third candidate, Robert Ferrera, who is also from the neighborhood.

Lee and Linehan will meet in the Nov. 8 runoff. In the preliminary election, 65 percent of voters did not support Linehan, a dangerous signal for any incumbent.

If turnout remains about the same, Lee’s prospects for capturing the seat will depend how many Ferrera voters in South Boston gravitate back to Linehan and how many were motivated by anti-incumbent or anti-Linehan sentiments.

The voting age population in District 2 is 31 percent minority.

If residents of color in this majority-minority city are to achieve parity in council representation, it will requiring fielding strong candidates like Lee in Chinatown-South End-South Boston (District 2), Dorchester-Mattapan (District 3) and Roslindale-Hyde Park-Mattapan (District 5). The voting age population in District 5 is 51 percent minority.

Currently, there are four councilors of color out of 13, or 31 percent. Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley hold at-large seats. Charles Yancey represents District 4 and Tito Jackson represents District 7. All four councilors are running for re-election Nov. 8.