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Boston's at-large city council race: another guide for the perplexed

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  September 19, 2013 06:37 PM

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It’s been a struggle for the 19 at-large candidates for Boston City Council to gain notice during the highly competitive mayor’s race. But voters should be paying attention: the council’s four at-large seats are often stepping-stones to higher office, and this year’s field includes some intriguing candidates.

Two incumbents are running for reelection, while the other two — Felix Arroyo and John Connolly — are giving up their seats to run for mayor. Out of the whole field, the top eight vote-getters from Tuesday’s preliminary will move on to the Nov. 5 final, when the final four will be chosen.

Since the candidates have fewer direct constituent-service duties than their nine district council colleagues, it’s fair to judge them on their knowledge of citywide issues. With this in mind, below is a list of who the candidates are, what they’ve done, and what they stand for. Voters can cast ballots for up to four of these candidates on their ballot Tuesday:

Rather oddly, Frank Addivinola Jr. of downtown Boston is mounting simultaneous campaigns for an at-large council seat and the GOP nomination in the 5th Congressional District — an area that doesn’t include Boston. Addivinola describes himself as a fiscal conservative who is eager to bring his experience in science and business to improve the quality of life for Bostonians. Expanding the supply of moderately priced housing is among his key goals.

Former special-education teacher and Roxbury resident Chris Conroy sees the council as a tool for community engagement — and he feels councilors should be more focused on helping Bostonians then getting re-elected. That’s why he’s put forward proposals to increase councilors terms to 4 years. However, any move in this direction would require the mayor’s signature, a prospect so unlikely that it raises questions as to why he would focus his campaign on something so unattainable. He also says meaningful school reform has to come from the bottom up, and that schools should connect to job programs for 18 to 24 year olds.

The council will go through a big turnover this election cycle, and some argue that voters should look for previous experience as well as fresh ideas when choosing who to vote for. Former councilor-at-large and 2009 mayoral finalist Michael Flaherty would certainly agree, and he wants to be the steady hand on the tiller that guides the new council forward. Policy-wise, one of the Southie native’s public safety plans is to improve afterschool and youth employment programs to give kids a chance to avoid a life of crime. He also believes that Boston should return to an elected school committee — a policy that was rejected by voters with bad memories of the dysfunctional school committee of the 1970s and 1980s. Flaherty also supports separating planning from the BRA.

Philip Frattaroli is a North End native who grew up in an apartment above his family’s restaurant and today runs an eatery of his own. One of his key concerns is the bureaucratic barriers faced by those seeking business licenses in Boston. Frattaroli, who is an attorney, also stands out as one of a few at-large candidates who isn’t eyeing charter change as a way to give the council more clout. The current strong-mayor system, he says, is efficient and leaves plenty of room for a assertive councilor like himself to make his presence known.

Former state representative, longtime Dorchester resident, and perennial gadfly Althea Garrison feels that City Hall needs to focus on transparency. She says she would not just be a rubber stamp for the new mayor. She also wants to see more police actually walking the beat as opposed to patrolling in cars — in part, she said, because they're too fat.

Annissa Essaibi George is a neighborhood dynamo whose energy and crime-fighting exploits are well known in her native Dorchester. She lacks name recognition outside her base, which is a hurdle in a citywide election. The weight of her life experience alone — high school teacher, small business owner, and mother of four — turns heads, however. Her unquestioning support for the Boston Teachers Union may give pause to voters who believe the union is standing in the way of a longer school day.

Jack F. Kelly of Charlestown stunned some audience members at a Wednesday debate in Roxbury when he said that he used to buy heroin nearby to support his habit. Kelly, who is in recovery, has pulled himself up over the past decade while working as a neighborhood services coordinator for the Menino administration and a public health worker for Mass General Hospital. He’s skeptical of recent proposals to reduce parking-space requirements in new developments, fearing it would lead to a shortage of spaces that would squeeze families that rely on cars.

Boston certainly needs more affordable housing, says real estate attorney and South Boston resident Keith Kenyon, but he feels that encouraging the growth of middle income housing is equally important. His plan to use the council to move people from renting to buying homes is related to this idea. He also wants more voke-tech programs in public high schools to connect recent graduates with jobs.

Martin Keogh — a West Roxbury resident and attorney — has focused his campaign on answering one question: How can the city improve life in the neighborhoods? His safety plan revolves around better community policing — even if that means moving officers to more dangerous districts. He wants all Boston kids to be able to go to quality schools in their neighborhood. He’d work with developers to bring some of these changes about.

Incumbent at-large City Council president Stephen Murphy of Hyde Park stresses the need for stability at a time when at least four new councilors will be coming on board. Since his election in 1997, Murphy has chaired all of the council’s sensitive committees — most notably Ways and Means. Some predicted Murphy would be a throwback to old, insular Boston. But he changed along with the city, even leading efforts to find honest work for men and women who return to their Boston neighborhoods after leaving prison.

Catherine O’Neill of Dorchester has enjoyed a varied career in city services, arts, media, and development. Still, she describes herself as less interested in policy matters and more interested in listening to the individual concerns of Bostonians and marshalling city resources on their behalf. O’Neill is a supporter of Boston’s appointed school board, which is designed to take the politics out of education policy. At a recent debate, however, she complained about the fact that the principal of a charter school sat on the school committee, arguing it was unfair to district schools.

Incumbent at-large councilor Ayanna Pressley — who was the first women of color to serve on the council — has devoted her last two terms to advocating for women and young girls, and she founded the standing committee on women and healthy communities to serve this purpose. This conviction comes directly from her personal experience as a survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault later in life. The Dorchester resident has also led an effort to let Boston, rather than the state Legislature, control the number of liquor licenses in the city. She also wants to encourage housing development on city-owned land and the use of innovative solutions such as communal urban gardens to improve nutrition in poorer neighborhoods.

Jeff Ross of the South End is a longtime political activist who, if elected, would be the first openly gay candidate elected to an at-large council seat. Ross, who practices immigration law, has made public safety a central issue in his campaign with calls for better efforts to trace and prevent illegal firearms from entering the city. He lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for a Cambridge state Senate seat in 2007.

Former District 7 councilor and air force veteran Gareth Saunders feels the city is too generous with universities and hospitals, and wants to see them pay larger PILOT payments to the city. The Dorchester resident also wants education reform to focus on the quality of school buildings as well as the strength of the education kids receive. To this end, he has proposed an 8-year building modernization plan for schools.

While working for Mayor Menino’s Circle of Promise Initiative, Mission Hill resident Ramon Soto learned that many students at the Orchard Garden School didn’t have winter coats — so he organized a partnership between the school and a local Goodwill to ensure that all students had access to decent winter clothing. Soto would like to replicate this success, and sees the City Council as a vehicle for this sort of constituent service. He also stands for an appointed school committee, but would push for the council to get a veto on appointees — a power that some fear would inject too much politics into the committee’s work.

Seamus Whelan of West Roxbury is a self-described nurse, trade unionist, and socialist who believes that “corporate interests’’ stand in the way of improving public education and working conditions for many Bostonians. This Irish immigrant says he wants to “set an example’’ for Bostonians who are ready to stand up for the restoration of an elected school committee and a single payer health system.

On his website, East Boston resident Francisco White says he “wants to be a voice for the marginalized,” and this commitment to social justice pervades his entire campaign. He is formerly homeless and openly gay, and these life experiences inform his views that Boston needs more diversity in City Hall as well as a policy that ensures that one third of all units in new housing developments are affordable. But he’s also for an elected school committee and abolishing the BRA entirely, both policies in which the cure may be far worse than the disease.

Douglas Wohn of Jamaica Plain is an architect who is running on a platform of encouraging greener buildings in Boston. He wants to decouple the planning and development functions at the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a way to ensure that good planning precedes development. Wohn, who works for the city’s inspectional services department, offers an insider’s look at municipal functions.

Michelle Wu of the South End is widely perceived as the class of the field based on her Harvard Law School pedigree, her successful efforts inside the Menino administration to reform outmoded business licensing procedures, and strong endorsements from liberal legislators. Wu’s resistance to raising the cap on charter schools reveals some naivete regarding the struggles to improve public education in Boston. And she has been overly guarded, at times, during the campaign. Still, Wu has generated more buzz around her candidacy than any of the at-large candidates.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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