The New Boston Is Running, But Is It Voting?

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At a stand of vegetables wilting in the midday heat, Hiep Nguyen is working Maverick Square for votes.

"I just wanted to take advantage of a nice day to swing by and say 'hi' to businesses and residents of East Boston," Hiep greets the seller.

White shirt and tie, earnest and eager at 27, he's a long shot to win, but he's already an American success story.

"My family and I came here to Boston with nothing and the city extended its hands to us," Hiep says. The son of a South Vietnamese army veteran sent to a re-education camp after the war, Hiep, his parents and nine siblings were lifted out of Vietnam and moved into a housing project in Southie in 1991.

He went to Latin Academy, then to Bentley College, got a master's degree and joined a top firm as a certified public accountant. He now heads the Vietnamese American Civic Association.

And he happens to have one of the coolest names for a candidate possible. "Hip Win," it's pronounced.

"That's the slogan: Help Hip Win," Hiep says. But of course you've got to get people to be able to pronounce it. "I get different variations growing up," he says, good-naturedly.

Getting people to remember your name, or even a variation, in a huge field is hard, but the chances people can pronounce your name are better now in the New Boston, where the minority equals the majority. Hiep estimates there are somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000 Vietnamese immigrants in Boston.

Back in 1992, just a year after Hiep and his family arrived in Boston, the roguish, long-serving and late Boston City Councilor Dapper O'Neill took disapproving note of the changing character of Dorchester. He commented that it looked like "Saigon, for Chrissakes."

Hiep Nguyen is the first Vietnamese American to be running for a seat on the same city council.

Over in Eastie, the New Boston features Guatemalans and El Salvadorans. "Hi, how you doing?" Hiep approaches a potential voter, preparing to launch into his routine, before he's cut off — "No speak English."

"Me llamo Hiep Nguyen," Hiep tries again, down the street. "I'm running for public office. Can I just leave this with you? OK, thanks."

This year, the race for city council reflects the face of the New Boston as never before. Fifteen candidates, most of them young and accomplished, vying for four seats at large.

"You have six white candidates, six African-American — six black candidates, two Latinos candidates and one Asian," Sanon says. "I think it will generate a lot of excitement and I hope that the turnout for this election would be higher than the last election."

In the same field of candidates, Jean-Claude Sanon is trying to be the first Haitian American to be elected to city council.

In Jamaica Plain, Tomas Gonzales is canvassing the same neighborhood where he grew up. He hopes to become the second Latino city councilor and the first born and raised in Boston.

And in a backyard in Dorchester, Ayanna Pressley is making her case for becoming the first woman of color elected to the city council.

"I'm running for the Boston City Council at large because I think it's important that government reflect the constituency that it represent," Pressley says. "We need inter-generational, gender, ethnic and cultural diversity and inclusion on every level of our government."

Pressley lights up rooms and backyards with a high-beam personal narrative. The girl from a tough neighborhood whose mother struggled to send her to private school, while her father was in and out of prison for addiction. She came to Boston University, excelled, went to work for Congressman Kennedy and then for Sen. Kerry.

And auspiciously, her story starts in Chicago. "You know there's something in the water," Pressley says, laughing. "There's something in the water. You know, drink the Hope Kool-Aid, I don't know what to say."

Irrepressibly upbeat, Pressley says this is the New Boston she knows: an encounter in Jamaica Plain where: "one of my supporters, Chinese American, was talking to a Latino voter about my candidacy. So it was a Chinese supporter, speaking Spanish to a Latino voter about a black woman running for the Boston city council."

For the New Boston to be represented by city government, the New Boston has to turn out to vote. But when it comes to city elections, it's been a no-show.

So it's not the New Boston, but the old electorate that decides who governs.

"They are the traditional middle class, lower middle class," says former City Councilor and former mayoral candidate Larry DiCara. He says it's also the Catholics, the Irish and the Italians, its South Boston and West Roxbury who consistently vote.

"These are folks who are older, most of the time they are property owners," DiCara goes on, "in many cases, they are elderly people in subsidized housing, where they're easy to find and the polling place is often in the building."

Cops, firemen, teachers, city employees — they all turn out consistently. Not so, the New Boston. When Deval Patrick ran an historic race for governor in 2006, 56 percent of Boston's registered voters turned out. And when Barack Obama ran in 2008, turnout was 62 percent.

But in the year in between, in the elections for city council in 2007, the turnout was only 13.6 percent. And the last three mayor's races have attracted a dismal turnout of no more than 36 percent.

"In the minority communities, the big difference from a generation ago is that many of the people living in the traditional minority communities are not citizens," DiCara says. "One person in six — the census estimates — who lives in the city is not an American citizen."

Consider the Vietnamese community from which Hiep Nguyen is running for city council, estimated to number 40,000. Hiep figures, "optimistically speaking," no more than 10 percent of that population is registered to vote, and few of that population are here illegally.

Some of the worst non-voting of all in the city of Boston belongs to the most affluent and educated --  to Beacon Hill and Back Bay and Commonwealth Avenue.

DiCara and others say those voters don't need government for jobs, don't send their kids to public schools and don't care about Little League parks. All the more reason why the poor and minorities should be voting in city elections, but consistently they have not.

"I think the New Boston is represented in the city council race probably more than I've ever seen," says Tomas Gonzalez, who has run before and has worked in the Menino administration. Gonzalez believes there will be a strong turnout this year because candidates from the New Boston need to find new voters.

"You'll see probably a lot more diversity on the city council's turnout than you will anywhere else," he says. "We're probably going to be bigger drivers of the turnout than the mayor's race, in my opinion, because we have smaller segments of the population that have never wanted to come out, and we're drawing them out."

Despite all the talk, if voters don't turn out for a field like this one, City Hall will continue to be the face of the Old Boston and the New Boston may come to mean a city in which people of all colors are uninterested in local government.

This program aired on August 26, 2009.

Headshot of David Boeri

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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