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Boston City Council candidates hit the streets for open seats

Howard Manly
Boston City Council candidates hit the streets for open seats
Standing above the first two letters of her name on the campaign banner, At-Large City Council candidate Michelle Wu joins supporters in Dudley Square.

District 5 candidate Ava Callendar pauses for a moment during the recent Haitian-American parade in Mattapan. Callendar’s grandmother is the former State Rep. Willie Mae Allen and her cousin is U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.)

Michelle Wu started her bid to become an at-large Boston city councilor about a year ago, and since then, she has knocked on doors throughout the city, attended meetings and public forums and organized her army of volunteers.

With less than two weeks left remaining before the Sept. 24 primary, she almost sighed in relief. Wu, a first-time candidate, knows what can transform a dream into an actual elected office.

“Its entirely about the ground game,” she said. “With such a large pool of candidates, that is what will put someone into office.”

With most of the attention focused on the 12 candidates running to replace long-standing Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the contest for city council has taken a back seat. Elections are underway for four at-large council seats, but with two popular incumbents, Council President Steve Murphy and Ayanna Pressley, campaigning to retain their seats, only two slots are open. But there are 17 other candidates running.

Two of those candidates have already been elected to the Boston City Council in the past. Michael F. Flaherty, a former council president who gave up his seat to run against Menino for mayor in 2009 and failed to regain the seat in 2011, is one of them. Gareth Saunders held a district seat representing much of Roxbury in the late 1990s and is also running.

As a result, Wu said, as much as she would like to focus on fund raising and developing position papers, she has focused on her field efforts from the very beginning.

It is a lesson she learned during her time with the campaign of former Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren. Wu, one of Warren’s law students, directed Warren’s statewide outreach to communities of color.

By all accounts, Warren’s upset win over incumbent U.S. Sen. Scott Brown was the result of one of the most extensive get-out-the-vote efforts in recent history.

An attorney by profession, Wu has focused her efforts on the South End, where she lives, and West Roxbury, where her mother now lives. Fund raising is important, but turnout is key, and with such a large slate of candidates and several open seats, city election officials are anticipating a larger turnout than in recent elections.

Turnout varied in the last 2011 municipal election, from 27.9 percent in West Roxbury’s Ward 20 to 19.5 percent in Roxbury’s Ward 12 and just 11.5 percent in Ward Five, which includes the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Overall, turnout across the city was 18.1.

But in addition to the at-large race, several other City Council races have the potential to be quite lively. The District Two race is a rematch between incumbent councilor Bill Linehan and Chinatown’s Suzanne Lee, who narrowly lost in 2011 by 97 votes. Lee, a former school principal, has been running ever since in the district that includes Chinatown and South Boston.

Linehan has been politicking too, and during the City Council’s recent redistricting process, tried unsuccessfully to eliminate a pro-Lee ward from District Two, which has been held by a Southie politician since the days of James Kelley. The contested area — Ward Four, Precinct Three — consisted of about nine blocks and roughly 1,520 people. In the 2011 municipal election, voters there backed Lee by a five-to-one ratio.

Wu says she is hoping for the best turnout, which partly explains why she has focused on a grassroots campaign of the type that not only saw Warren win, but also Deval Patrick and Pressley, the City Council’s first female of color, who topped the at-large ticket in a historic 2011 election with more than 35,000 votes.

But based on her interactions with potential voters, Wu says many are “overwhelmed” and almost fatigued by several recent special elections.

District Five candidate Ava Callendar adds another word to Boston electorate — “confused.”

When Councilor Rob Consalvo launched a bid for mayor, his seat representing District Five attracted nine different candidates.

Further complicating matters is last year’s city redistricting map. It stripped away parts of Mattapan from District Four — longtime city councilor and mayoral candidate Charles Yancey’s seat — and added them to nearby District Five, making it significantly more diverse. More than 70 percent of residents in District Five will be voters of color, and almost 50 percent of the voting-age population will be black.

Those sorts of numbers should help Callendar’s campaign. Consalvo won the District Five seat in 2011 with a little more than 6,000 votes and he was virtually unopposed. In the last two months alone, Callendar says she has met at least 2,000 potential voters in the new district. “It really comes down to who can reach out to the most voters,” she says.

But, she quickly added, she has spent a lot of time explaining just who can vote in District Five. “A lot of residents are confused about the new district boundaries,” she said. “A lot of folks in the old District Five didn’t know that they are now a part of District Four.”

Once that is cleared up, Callendar says she can talk about the issues and why she believes she is the one to represent the new district.

For Callendar, politics is in her DNA. She was raised by her grandmother, the former State Rep. Willie Mae Allen. “She took me everywhere when I was a little girl,” Callendar says. “So I started in politics really, really early.”

Hanging out with her grandmother led Callendar to become politically active as a teenager. She served on several political task forces and youth councils as a high school student at Boston Latin Academy. She continued her political work after she graduated from Johnson C. Smith College, a historically black college in North Carolina, by working for her cousin, the esteemed U.S. Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn, (D-S.C.), the man President Barack Obama once said is, “one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens.”

Callendar is now attending New England Law School and has worked as a victim’s advocate for Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley.

Like Wu, she hopes to increase the diversity of City Council members. More importantly, she says, she wants to increase constituent services and give her district a reliable voice.

“I don’t want to be a city councilor that only sits in their office,” Callendar says. “I want to be out with the people, listening to their concerns and making city government more responsive to their needs.”