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For The 'New Boston,' Concern That Opportunity To Reshape City Council Might Slip Away

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For champions of the “new Boston” — younger, more diverse — there was a moment of real anxiety a few weeks after Mayor Thomas Menino announced he would not seek re-election.

The early slate of candidates to replace him looked a lot like the old Boston, after all: white, male and with plenty of experience in politics.

The angst has receded in recent weeks with the emergence of several serious minority candidates for the post: City Councilor Felix Arroyo, former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative executive director John Barros.

But now that the final deadline to sign up for nomination papers for local office has passed, another concern is rippling through the network of activists and organizers at the leading edge of the new politics.

Whither a Boston City Council currently dominated by white men?

With five of the council’s 13 members pursuing mayoral bids, the city’s self-styled progressives have a once-in-a-generation chance to change the face of that panel — building a pipeline of minority and female politicians who can run for mayor or Congress down the road.

There are, to be sure, several women and minorities among the 67 people who have pulled papers to run for council. And at least two — at-large candidate Michelle Wu and Second District candidate Suzanne Lee, who narrowly lost a challenge to Councilor Bill Linehan two years ago — are already considered contenders.

But collecting the signatures required to get on the ballot — 200 for a district council seat and 1,500 for a citywide, at-large seat — is no small challenge. And more important, observers say, several of the most promising women and minorities weighing candidacies decided not to run — raising the distinct possibility of an opportunity missed.

“I would love to see a council that is more diverse and more representative of the city that we live in,” said Kim Janey, a politically connected children’s advocate and founder of the Historic Moreland Street Neighborhood Association in Roxbury. But “a lot of those names — I’m not sure will get there.”

Janey says she is particularly concerned that, with Arroyo's departure to run for mayor, the council may be left with no Latino representation after the November election.

Among the would-be candidates who passed on a run this year: Kelly Bates, executive director of Access Strategies Fund, which seeks to build political engagement in low-income and minority communities; Marta Rivera, a service delivery manager with The Boston Foundation’s StreetSafe Boston initiative, which aims to cut down on gang violence; and Gloribell Mota, an organizer with Neighbors United for a Better East Boston.

All three are single mothers. And all three say they faced significant hurdles to running for council. Arranging child care is a real concern; taking months off to run for office is a significant financial hardship.

“I’m a single mom of two, one that I’m trying to put into college next year — and struggling to figure that out,” said Mota, who considered an at-large bid. “Those are real things.”

Bates says the city loses when single mothers can’t find a way to run for office. “I was saying to someone the other day that the tragedy of all this is… you end up not having women with kids in the school system… on the council,” she said.

At the moment, nine of 13 city councilors are white men. And there is only one woman, Ayanna Pressley, on the panel.

“It’s a very progressive city,” said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Cambridge-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which advocates for greater women’s political participation. “It’s a very progressive state. But our politics doesn’t necessarily represent that.”

Without women in positions of power, Kimmell adds, it’s a struggle to get the sort of policies in place — pay equity, paid family leave, greater workplace flexibility — that would allow more women and low-income people to run for office.

Whatever the structural obstacles, the on-the-ground impact in this majority-minority city is real.

Rivera says she seriously considered running for the Eighth District seat held by councilor-turned-mayoral-candidate Michael Ross. But a fire took down the Mission Hill home she was renting. And her relocation outside the district raised concerns about her eligibility to run for the seat.

Rivera’s absence should make it easier for one of two white men from storied Boston families — Gregory Timilty or Josh Zakim — to win the seat. Seven other potential candidates have pulled papers, too.

Political observers say Bates — who is biracial, of black and Irish-English descent — would have been a strong candidate in the race to succeed Hyde Park City Councilor Rob Consalvo, who is running for mayor.

Consalvo’s Fifth District is shifting; after last year’s redistricting process, which added several Mattapan precincts, over half the voting-age population is black.

With Bates on the sideline, the race is hard to predict. Ten candidates have taken out nomination papers — white men, minorities and women among them.

The most prominent perches on the City Council are the four at-large seats. At the moment, two are held by minorities — Pressley, who is black, and Arroyo, who is Latino — and two by white men, John Connolly and City Council President Stephen Murphy.

Arroyo and Connolly are both running for mayor. If Wu wins one open seat and former City Councilor Michael Flaherty takes the other, the racial balance for the at-large seats would hold steady: two held by white politicians and two by minorities.

A Wu victory would add a second woman to the ranks of at-large councilors.

The Second District, which includes South Boston and parts of the South End and downtown, represents a solid opportunity to add to the diversity of the council.

A South Boston man has held the seat since the city moved to geographically defined districts in the 1980s — first James Kelly and then Linehan.

But Chinatown’s Lee, a former school principal, lost to Linehan by just 97 votes in 2011. And her supporters are hopeful that she can topple the incumbent in November.

If Lee falls short, though, or represents — in victory — the only net gain in minority representation on the council, it will be difficult to declare a major change in the face of the panel.

It is, of course, entirely possible that below-the-radar minority, female or gay candidates who have pulled papers will surge in the coming months.

But Tim Schofield, an openly gay lawyer who has run for city council and the state Legislature, says they may have trouble getting traction — among the activists who power campaigns and the public that consumes them.

“It is exciting to see the diversity of the candidates running for city council,” he said, “but I think it is going to be difficult for any candidate to break out with all the focus on the mayor’s race. In any other year, the diversity of the field would be the story — but this isn’t any other year.”

Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in Chinatown, says it’s a “shame” that more promising women and minority candidates weren’t able to run. But with all the open council seats, she says, the campaign still provides an opportunity for the new Boston to make its presence felt — to press the candidates, whatever they look like, to consider its views.

“No matter what, the council is going to have major change,” she said. “And it’s up to communities to get organized and make sure the new council reflects our priorities.”

This program aired on May 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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