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Adrian Walker

The quietest council race

Email|Print| Text size + By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / November 6, 2007

David Ortiz - the community organizer, not the slugger - is one of the people who are surprised by the lack of interest in the City Council election today.

Ortiz is a member of MassVote, an organization that registers voters and tries to persuade them to go to the polls. It doesn't twist arms for particular candidates; it just encourages people to vote.

Today, its staff may have its hands full.

Ortiz saw as much firsthand over the weekend, as he worked city neighborhoods, knocking on doors.

"I just don't understand why it's so quiet," he said yesterday. "It's critical. There's some people who could lose their seats."

Welcome to the quietest City Council race of modern times. Signs began to spring up a few weeks ago and there was a flurry of activity of late, but this election year has had the weakest pulse of perhaps the last two decades.

A City Council election without a mayoral race to draw attention is traditionally an insiders' exercise. But with no September preliminary to introduce voters to the candidates, scant media attention, and few burning issues, this could end up in a class by itself.

Geraldine Cuddyer, the city's elections commissioner, yesterday predicted a 30 percent turnout. Reaching that level would shock just about anyone involved, and even Cuddyer described herself as an optimist.

Fortunately, Ortiz and a small army of true believers remain undeterred. Under a program called the Civic Education Initiative, a coalition of community groups has spent the past several cycles trying to pump up the vote, especially in communities of color.

Underwritten by the Boston Foundation, 10 groups get $30,000 to go out and register voters. The premise is that groups with deep neighborhood roots will be more successful at reaching residents than outsiders would be.

Compared with the weak voting record of the rest of the city, they have succeeded. In Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and East Boston, voting has risen substantially above the city average.

Of course, it helps to have candidates on the ballot who can get loyal voters off the sofa. Whether the goal has been to "save" Felix Arroyo's council seat, elect Andrea Cabral sheriff of Suffolk County, or join the Deval Patrick landslide last year, the case for getting voters out has been easier to make in recent years.

Whether that will hold today is anyone's guess, though I hope it will.

The incumbents, most of them, have responded the only way they know: by simply appealing to their traditional supporters and hoping they will furnish a push across the finish line.

"Last year, my precinct ran out of ballots," Councilor Sam Yoon told me. "That's the kind of turnout we had. I'd hate for 2007 to be the year it all came to a screeching halt."

One candidate was sure to find the low road. That turned out to be challenger John Connolly, who has acknowledged being behind at least some of the anonymous fliers taking shots at incumbent Stephen Murphy. Granted, Murphy has spent an inordinate amount of his last term looking into other career options. But, John, leaders attach their names to their opinions.

It's pretty sad when an anonymous drop stands to become the most memorable act in a campaign.

While it is tempting to blame the low-key council for at least part of the public's apparent apathy, that wouldn't be entirely fair. A certain fourth-term mayor draws so much of the oxygen in city politics that there isn't much left over. People just don't pay enough attention to the City Council to feel invested in who serves on it.

That's too bad, because on a range of issues, from neighborhood violence to property taxes, the council holds the most significant platform, other than the mayor's. The council has a limited ability to act, but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. Nine nervous candidates are waiting to see if voters today reach the same conclusion.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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