And they’re off: Boston mayoral candidates seek nomination signatures at polling places

The crowd descended on Boston City Hall shortly after sunrise: Scores of campaign operatives, political newcomers, and perennial candidates running for mayor and city council.

Office supply stores sold out of clipboards. Grown men nearly sprinted across City Hall Plaza with a brown bundle of paperwork — their candidate’s nomination papers — tucked under their arms like footballs.

Forget the primary for US Senate. It’s signature day in the most wide-open Boston election in a generation.

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Today marked the first opportunity for candidates to collect signatures for mayoral and city council hopefuls seeking a spot on the fall ballot. By happenstance, the US Senate primary election fell on the same day city candidates could start the scramble.

Twenty-four people have applied for nomination papers to run for mayor. Each candidate must gather signatures of 3,000 registered voters to make the ballot. That means the field will collectively be hunting for 72,000 different signatures. Only the first campaign to submit a particular voter’s signature gets to count it.

Adding to the crush is 48 people running for City Council and scrounging for their own signatures.

“Boston hasn’t had this many clipboards per capita in a long time,” said Patrick Keaney, who works for the mayoral campaign of Councilor Felix G. Arroyo and noted that office stores had sold out of clipboards. “We had to go to Somerville.”

The first operatives arrived at Boston City Hall at 6:30 a.m. Mike McDevitt, who is working for the mayoral campaign of state Representative Martin J. Walsh, occupied the head of the line. McDevitt signed in at 7 a.m. Clifton Braithwaite shook his head in regret as he stood at the counter in the Election Department, fiddling with his cellphone while it was plugged into an outlet.

“I would have been first, but I went to the wrong door,” said Braithwaite, who came on behalf of Mimi E. Turchinetz, a candidate for the City Council seat representing District 5, which includes Hyde Park and parts of Mattapan.

The reception area at the waiting room at the Election Department looked like a waiting room at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Impatient people paced. Others sat and read newspapers or stared at the screens of smartphones. Many drank coffee. One crunched loudly on an apple. Another arrived with an empty shopping cart.

Election Department employees greeted Althea Garrison by name because the perennial candidate runs in most elections. Mayoral candidate Charles Clemons appeared to have the largest contingent at City Hall. Clemons, a co-founder of radio station TOUCH 106.1 FM, arrived with more than a half-dozen people and a photographer documenting the scene. Other campaigns sent only one or two representatives to grab the signature papers.

“I’m armed with multiple clipboards,” said Delfredia Dancy, who came for the campaign of Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state representative from Dorchester who later served in the administrations of Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

One mayoral candidate, Lee Buckley, vowed that Boston would have four more newspapers when she became mayor. [Full disclosure: Buckley was speaking to a newspaper reporter when she made the promise.]

Another mayoral candidate, Divo Rodrigues Monteiro, came by himself and immediately got lucky. Monteiro found a spot on Cambridge Street with a meter and parked his 2003 Toyota Camry. He put two hours on the meter and made the short walk to City Hall.

“I’m trying to build momentum,” Monteiro said, noting that he ran for state representative in 2010. “I’m going to see how [signature gathering] goes. I don’t know, maybe I’ll switch to [run for] City Council.”

At 9 a.m. the Election Department officially opened the municipal election season.

Representatives from roughly the first dozen campaigns were brought into a room. Another 60 people milled about in the lobby, waiting their turn. Campaigns were required to listen to the dos and don’ts of signature gathering before they were handed nomination papers.

The first wave of political operatives left at 9:37 a.m.

McDevitt, from the Walsh campaign, led the pack, walking quickly with a five-inch thick bundle of brown paperwork tucked under his arm. A few steps behind followed Adam Webster from the mayoral campaign of City Councilor John R. Connolly. Webster had his brown bundle of paperwork under his left arm as he barked into a cellphone in his right hand.

“I’m coming out at Government Center,” Webster said. “You’re on Cambridge Street?”

McDevitt and Webster reached City Hall Plaza at the same moment. Both men took large strides, almost sprinting across the brick expanse. They hustled past two people holding a poster: “Charles Clemons for Mayor”

Webster reached a waiting car – a Subaru with a Connolly for mayor sticker on the trunk. The Subaru sped off to distribute signature papers to volunteers waiting at the polls.