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For Arroyo, A Focus On The Public Square

This article is more than 7 years old.
Felix Arroyo campaigning in Brighton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Felix Arroyo campaigning in Brighton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It's 8:00 in the morning and the sun is just peeking over the low-slung commercial district on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain.

City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, one of 12 candidates for mayor, is greeting passersby outside a J.P. Licks cafe with a high-octane coffee and an easygoing smile. "Are you voting yet?" he playfully asks a student walking to elementary school.

But if the candidate is approaching dozens of voters — and future voters — there are several approaching him, too. And their message is remarkably consistent.

"I want to thank you for supporting the public schools," says Patricia Kinsella, a former teacher now working in the administrative ranks.

"It sounds like you wrote my education plan," Arroyo replies, with a grin. And indeed it does. In a campaign that's seen several candidates come out in support of more charter schools and what critics call a corporate approach to education reform, Arroyo has taken a decidedly different tack.

He's one of a handful of candidates who opposes lifting the cap on charter schools. And he warns against the "demonization" of teachers in traditional schools.

But his education rhetoric is just part of a broader worldview. Arroyo — the son of activists, the husband of a teacher, a former union organizer — is running as the candidate of the public square.

He says he's for public schools, public parks and public safety. "I believe we should invest," he says, "in the public good."

At 34, then, Arroyo is a young man making an old, liberal argument: that government can bind a society and provide real opportunity for the least fortunate.

It is an argument rooted in his own story.

'That's Evil'

Arroyo's parents, Felix D. and Elsa Montano, came to Boston from Puerto Rico in the late-1970s and settled into Villa Victoria, a public housing complex in the South End.

The family moved out when Arroyo was young. But he has put Villa Victoria near the center of his campaign. He held his official kick-off at the development. And he mentions it frequently on the stump: government, he says, was there to help his family when they needed it.

A house in Hyde Park was a step up for the Arroyos. But life there was not always easy.

"We had some tough nights where the oven was the source of heat," says Arroyo, one of five children.

The family boiled water, sometimes, for a warm bath.

Arroyo's mother was a Boston Public Schools teacher. His father won election to the School Committee and later the City Council — the first Latino to serve on the panel. And the family was always engaged in some sort of activism — affordable housing, public education, public health.

The kids frequently came along. "Felix grew up in meetings," says his father, who still speaks English with a thick Puerto Rican accent.

The message to the children, the elder Arroyo says, was clear: "You are not an island, you are part of a society." And the imperative was to challenge authority: "To go beyond trust, to question and do things."

Arroyo graduated from an alternative high school, Another Course to College, and went on to attend the UMass Boston, working three jobs. He didn't finish, but later earned a master's degree in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University.

There was no question, Arroyo says, about whether he'd be involved in public service in his professional life. He worked for a time as an aide to fiery City Councilor Chuck Turner. And for four years he served as a union organizer with SEIU Local 615.

He helped to organize security guards there. And he worked with janitors on contract improvements. The wage hikes were important. But Arroyo says he watched janitors cry when they learned they'd get health care coverage for their families for the first time.

Imagine working until 1:30 in the morning cleaning toilets, Arroyo says sitting inside the J.P. Licks, and not having insurance when your kid gets sick. "That's evil," he says. "To me, that's actually evil."

Peter Rider, assistant district leader with what is now known as SEIU 32BJ New England District 615, says he was struck by Arroyo's effort to empower members.

"He really took the approach not that, 'Oh, I'm the expert and I'm going to speak for you,' but let me work with you to let you be the spokesperson," he says.

Arroyo went on to win two elections as a city councilor at-large. From his City Hall perch, he helped broker an agreement between the mayor and the firefighters in a nasty contract dispute. And he pushed to protect several libraries from closure.

That work has earned him the endorsement of the union representing library workers. He's also got the backing of his old SEIU local, which is deploying dozens of members to knock on doors and teaming with the nonprofit Oiste to register Latino voters.

And his biggest labor endorsement could be just around the corner. The Boston Teachers Union's executive committee and political advisory committee gave a preliminary nod to Arroyo and another candidate, City Councilor Rob Consalvo, on Monday night.

The union membership is set to vote on endorsements Wednesday.

The Labor Race

Still, Arroyo's campaign has been defined in part by who isn't supporting him.

State Rep. Marty Walsh, who left his post as head of the Boston Building Trades to run for mayor, has far outpaced Arroyo when it comes to labor endorsements and donations.

Walsh has pulled in $1.3 million since he launched his campaign in April, about one-quarter of it coming from labor, while Arroyo has raised just $260,000 total.

That includes $13,500 from the union he once worked for and a smattering of small donations from other unions and labor leaders.

Rider, of SEIU, chalks up Walsh's advantage with the unions to his long-running personal relationships with labor leaders. And some unions, he says, may have made a strategic decision about supporting a candidate with richer fundraising networks.

But Brian Lang, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, says political viability was not a consideration when the union decided to back Walsh. Arroyo, he says, is a figure of integrity. But Walsh had the edge on experience.

That concern about age — Arroyo is the youngest candidate in the race — has dogged the mayoral hopeful since he announced his candidacy.

But his father, among other supporters, suggests the critique is misplaced: Arroyo has been immersed in activism since he was an infant.

The Ground Game

Arroyo says he was never under any illusions that he would raise significant sums. And his focus, from the start of the mayoral race, has been on running a grassroots campaign.

"I'm an organizer by training," he says, "and truly believe that by asking people to be part of the process — that's where extraordinary things happen."

His foot soldiers are janitors, teachers and a cadre of loyalists like David Weinstein, a semi-retired boat captain from Jamaica Plain who worked on the elder Arroyo's campaigns too.

"He hates injustice in his soul," Weinstein says of the younger Arroyo. "You can see it."

Volunteers knocked on 4,560 doors last week and 20,000 in the last month, according to the campaign. And the aim, Arroyo says, is not a simple literature drop — but a full conversation.

"That's the only way to really create buy-in," he says.

His message: an assault on the achievement gap separating white students from blacks and Latinos and a plan offering "pathways out of poverty."

Arroyo has pushed his "Invest in Boston" ordinance, which would require the city to deposit only with banks that make a certain number of loans to small businesses and would-be homeowners.

The rest of his platform — a call for universal preschool and better job training, for instance — finds echo in plenty of other mayoral campaigns.

But he's hoping his biography — and an abiding faith in the public sector — can set him apart.

"My entire campaign," he says, "is focused on making a Boston where everyone has an opportunity — including families like mine, that lived in subsidized housing."

Earlier Profiles:

This program aired on September 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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