Arroyo Focuses On Achievement Gap, Poverty In Mayoral Bid

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Felix Arroyo campaigning in Brighton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Felix Arroyo campaigning in Brighton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At-Large City Councilor Felix Arroyo is one of the 12 candidates running for mayor of Boston. He was first elected four years ago. At 34 years old, he's the youngest candidate and the only Latino in the race.

He came into our studios earlier this week as part of WBUR's series of interviews with the candidates.

Arroyo is the son of immigrants, born in the South End, raised in Hyde Park. And when he told us why he wanted to be Boston's next mayor, he talked about his parents, including his father, who was Boston's first Latino city councilor.


Felix Arroyo: My story really doesn't begin with me. I always begin with my parents, who moved to Boston as adults with my older sister looking for opportunities in life. They weren't speaking very much English and they needed help. So when I was born, I was brought home to a subsidized affordable housing unit in the South End, as you just mentioned. From there, we moved to Hyde Park and that's where I was raised and they bought a home there. But it wasn't without some difficult nights, Anthony. There were many nights where the oven was our source of heat.

But my parents, who were really the best teachers I've ever had, taught us something there. And they taught us that it's never going to be about how much money you have; in fact, it will always be about how many people's lives are better because you existed. That's the lesson I try to follow — as an organizer for janitors who were making $9 an hour. Now, they're making $16 an hour.

And as mayor, my vision is one where everyone in Boston — regardless of if you came here as adults like my parents or you're a lifelong Bostonian like me — no matter who you are, what neighborhood you're from, you have access to opportunities. We do that, Anthony, by being very serious about tackling poverty. We do that by being serious about closing the achievement gap, which I believe is the civil rights issue of our time.

Anthony Brooks: I want to ask you, you mentioned your family. Your father was the Boston's first Latino city councilor. You grew up around City Hall. What did you learn watching your dad in City Hall?

I told you English is his second language. And he taught us something very interesting. And that is, that he said: When you define yourself as successful, when you say "you," don't use the singular term of the word "you," use its plural term and always define your success based on the success of your community and those around you. I think it takes an English Language Learner to catch on that you, the same exact word is both singular and plural, because you have to learn it. But the lesson is --

That's really charming, though.

Yeah, the lesson's very clear, and it's something he would say all the time.

Yeah. Well, you could say "yous," but I guess it wouldn't be quite right.

That would offend all of my English teachers in the Boston Public Schools

And for good reason, but that's a great story. You know, there's been a lot of talk in this mayoral race right now about the new Boston. So as a young Latino, how important is that in your view?

You know, I'm very proud of who I am and where I come from. The fact that I am bilingual has always really, frankly, been an advantage to me. And I would love for more Bostonians to be bilingual. In fact, it's why I'm moving as part of how we close the achievement gap in our schools, to include more dual-language schools where students really graduate being bilingual.

But really what this campaign has focused on is around the role we have got to play to ensure that we don't live in two Bostons. I touched on it earlier, but one in five Bostonians live under the federal poverty line — that's $23,000 for a family of four. One in five.

So what's the most important thing a mayor could do to tackle that poverty challenge?

It starts with creating good jobs. And so this week, the Boston City Council will be voting on legislation that I wrote that I call "Invest in Boston." The idea around it is that we should only invest in banks that invest in Boston. Our city has $1 billion of banking services in deposits, but we don't ask if they lend to small businesses in our neighborhood, if they lend to potential homeowners, if they refinance people's loans who are paying balloon interest rates at 12 percent today. Are they part of the foreclosure solution or the crisis? We don't ask any of those questions.

My legislation says, if you want to do business with the city and our $1 billion worth of business, then you will tell us what you're doing in our neighborhoods, and we will only do business with banks that invest in our neighborhoods. That's one way to ensure the creation of good jobs and ensure the investment in all communities.

We have to close the achievement gap and work on our public schools.

Well, let's — you mention closing that achievement gap. You've called for doubling down on public education. What does that mean? Does that mean a doubling of the budget or doubling down on the commitment? Describe what that looks like.

My commitment as the next mayor of the city is to the 57,000 students that use our Boston Public Schools. I want to bring universal preschool so that everyone in Boston who wants their child in a preschool seat can have that in Boston Public Schools. I want to extend the school day. I want to extend the school day so that we can have arts and theater and music and dance and phys ed and sports in every school.

So let me ask you about charter schools. A lot of people would argue they've shown great promise for some students. There have been recent studies from MIT, The Boston Foundation that have shows they're getting good results. You're not in favor of lifting the cap on charter schools. Why not?

Yes, they educate some children well, but by-and-large, they don't educate children who are English Language Learners or special education students well. Retention --

But aren't they serving sort of as laboratories for new ideas —

Yes, and we have got to learn from each other. So I am not proposing, Anthony, closing any charter schools. It's not so much whether or not to have charter schools, it's that we have charter schools. But I also understand that I have got to educate every child in the Boston Public Schools. Those children who don't speak English, which are close to 50 percent of the students in the Boston Public Schools who speak another language that is not English at home. Students with special needs, which is a little over 25 percent identified as special needs in our school.

Your critics have suggested that you might be too close to the teachers union on this issue. The Boston Teachers Union has endorsed you. Does that explain why you're opposed to lifting the cap and can voters trust you to be both fair and firm with the teachers union?

Yes, absolutely. One, as the son, the brother and the husband of teachers, I am proud to have the support of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to educating our children in this race.

I have experience bargaining contracts already. Not so long ago, there was a real tumultuous time between the city and the Boston Fire Department. There was a decision by an arbitrator that some believed was unaffordable to the city. What did I do about it? Myself and two city councilors sat in a room with the firefighters and we walked out of there with a deal that saved the city $40 million. And I will bring that experience to City Hall as the next mayor.

As you know, The Boston Globe this week announced their mayoral endorsements. They picked John Connolly and John Barros. The paper noted a strong field of candidates, and they included you in that. But they wrote this: "At 34, Arroyo isn't the fully developed political figure that he's likely to become. He may well be mayoral timber, but for a future election." How do you respond to that?

They also wrote some very kind things in that editorial including my commitment towards ending poverty in our city and my work towards those living in the working class --

No, and they included you, they said you're part of a strong field of candidates. But the suggest is: you're just not ready yet.

You know, my answer to that is that, Anthony, I have over a decade of experience in Boston as an organizer and as a public servant, as your city councilor here in the city. I stand by my record, I'm proud of it and in fact I know I'm ready to be mayor and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to serve as mayor of the city of Boston.

I want to ask you about 20 years of Mayor Thomas Menino. What's his legacy?

You know, one thing that we've all learned from the mayor, that I most certainly learned as a city councilor, is that a minute in a neighborhood is a minute well spent. And he believes that you have got to be accessible. That means that people can talk to you, they can touch you. I've always admired that on our mayor that he always made himself present and available. And myself as a city councilor, I've behaved that way and as mayor I'll continue to behave that way.

Last question, Felix Arroyo. You've done lots of interviews on policy and politics, including this one, but I want to know something about you that maybe has not been talked about in the newspapers before, something that most people most might not know about Felix Arroyo, something a little surprising.

Oh, you want me to give you — normally you would have the surprising fact and I'd have to respond to it.

No, you give us the surprising fact.

One is just sort of an interesting tidbit in that I'm a huge history buff. I love history. I'm fascinated with it. I love history so much that I have a subscription to the Biblical Archeology Review, which it's ancient history in particular that I love --

So that's right next to your bed at home?

Yes, oh absolutely.

So the Biblical Archeological Review. Felix Arroyo, is there a particular lesson that you got from that about how to be mayor?

Very often great ideas, come from other places, come from other cultures, come from other periods of time, and that's why I embrace different cultures do much. It's why I'm such a strong proponent of immigration reform. It's just, our differences make us stronger and learning from each other will only make us better.

This segment aired on September 19, 2013.


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