Boston voters will be choosing a new City Council this year. No Mayor, however, which means that voter participation might be very small. In the last non-Mayor election, 2015, barely 72,000 voters cast a ballot. I have a feeling that this year the number will be quite higher, if only because at least 75,000 new residents—new since 2010, at least — call Boston home. Whether that number causes total participation to ramp up sharply, this time, such an enormous population increase portends big district line changes to the nine districts at the next re-district mapping in 2022.
I’ll get to that situation later. Meantime let’s look at the first five of the nine district Councillors, their prospects for re-election, and the impact of enormous demographic change.
District One : Charlestown, East Boston, and the North End – population expansion here has pretty much spread itself equably across every portion; but the type of voter new to the district is markedly unlike the “traditional” voters who once dominated the City’s premier Italian-ancestry constituency. Young professionals, most from other states and so completely foreign to Boston’s “traditional” ethnic voter customs, make up maybe 25 percent of the District; Hispanic voters, immigrants mostly, tally maybe another 25 percent. It took many election cycles for these voters to reach critical mass, but they did so in 2017, electing the District’s first Councillor not of Italian ancestry. Lydia Edwards defeated an opponent with an illustrious, four-generation ancestry of elected office in the North End; she assembled a diverse coalition and has maintained it by working very hard on the issues that matter in District one and by attending to the District almost block by block. She looks solid for re-election, assuming she even attracts a challenger. None has surfaced yet.
District Two: as originally created, back in 1982, there was no choice here but to link two very different neighborhoods – South Boston and the South End – that really didn’t belong in the same district because they abut one another. At the time, the South End was very much outvoted by Boston’s most politically energized portion, the South Boston of Irish immigrant legend. (that “Southie” also was home also to substantial Lithuanian, Albanian, and Italian denizens was rarely noted) Today, “Southie” is the part that is outvoted, because within the borders of District two an entirely new neighborhood – Seaport and Downtown – has grown up (literally up : it’s the City’s Skyscraper quarter) and today counts some 50,000 residents. Although the current Councillor, Ed Flynn, a son of former Mayor Ray Flynn, is probably safe right now from serious challenge – in 2017, as a newcomer, he defeated a well-funded and connected South Ender by 56 to 44 percent – he is a quintessential Southie homeboy, and probably takes some comfort knowing that at the next Council re-districting his District will lose most of its non-South Boston precincts. More on this matter later.
District Three : there hasn’t been much population growth in this east-Dorchester district, but there has been significant demographic change – the area’s activists are almost all progressives, and ethnic immigrants abound, where in 1982 they didn’t. Despite the new tone, however, the district’s voting and political enjoyment remain firmly in the hands of “traditionalists” – scions of the area’s Irish-immigrant families, who have dominated Dorchester politics for 100 years. The current Councillor is Frank Baker, one of twelve children of just such a traditional family, the Bakers of Crescent Avenue in the Little House corner of the District. He’s precisely the sort of elected that we created this District to elect, and, like his many predecessors – some of whom still live and work in District Three — he works his District at street level and seems to love doing so. All very Dorchester.
Will Baker face a serious challenge ? He could well. The vote power in his district lies to his south, in the Neponset and Cedar Grove parts, which outnumber his upper Dorchester neighborhood two to one. Despite that disadvantage, he won the seat, several elections ago, by about five to four over a strong Cedar Grove opponent. Baker hasn’t faced a serious challenge since, even though in his district there’s an aspiring “pol” practically in every block. We’ll see.
District Four : we created this District – and District Three – on a racial basis, because the then Black Political task Force wanted two Black majority districts, and as the Task Force was headed by a most well respected leader (Doris Bunte), we had to say yes. It was the only race-based decision we made about the map, whose fundamental goal was to empower neighborhoods, not ethnicities. Dorchester thus became divided, from north to south, essentially along Dorchester Avenue, the Washington Street precincts being District Four, along with the rest of Mattapan out to Wood Avenue. The racial division still holds, even as District Four today has become almost entirely English-speaking Caribbean, where in 1982 it was an African-American district.
Incumbent Andrea Campbell shocked the city in 2015 by defeating the man (Charles Yancey) who had represented District Four since its creation. She raised over $ 200,000 — much of it via her Princeton University connections — and ended up overwhelming Yancey, 59 to 41 percent. She has stumbled on a few occasions with respect to controversial issues, but it’s hard to see any election weakness in her District, even though she’ll likely face challengers in a District where underdog challenge has always been on offer.
District Five : this is the District whose incumbent Councillor seems most seriously threatened by demographic change. In 1982 this was an easy to assemble combination of Hyde Park, Readville, and Roslindale – at that time all equally working-class, traditional-voter neighborhoods. Maybe 40 percent of the voters were of Italian ancestry, another 45 percent of Irish origin; most of the remaining 15 percent was Jewish. Today, all that has changed. At least 60 percent of the District’s voters are Haitian or English-speaking Caribbean American, and much of the Caucasian vote is newcomers who moved into Roslindale from Jamaica Plain as the Plain’s house prices and rents have moved higher than what most can afford.
District Five enjoyed its big moment in 1993, when its then Councillor, Tom Menino, once a protege of State Senator (and three time Mayor hopeful) Joe Timilty, became acting Mayor when then Mayor Ray Flynn was appointed Ambassador to the Vatican. Five’s run continued, as its next Councillor, Dan Conley, eventually went on to become Suffolk District Attorney. After Conley came Rob Consalvo, who achieved enormous popularity in the District. In 2013 he ran for mayor, and while finishing in the bottom half of the 12 candidate field, topped the ticket in District Five. (Today Consalvo works as a division chief in mayor Walsh’s administration and maintains solid street popularity in his Readville-Fairmount Hill neighborhood.)
Were the present Councillor, Tim McCarthy, of Readville, not extremely diligent at street level – as he knows he must be – and also an incumbent, he would probably not be able to win today’s District five. As it is, he has a serious challenger already, Ricardo Arroyo – son and brother of well-known City Councillors. (brother Felix Arroyo ran for Mayor in 2013 and finished in upper half of the 12-candidate field.) I think McCarthy will come out ahead, probably by five to four –it doesn’t hurt that he has Readville’s 750 off-year votes almost to himself — but the day is approaching when District Five will elect a candidate of Haitian or Hispanic ancestry. Redistricting might play a role here. The movement of 75,000 new residents into Downtown means that the outer Districts will face major shifts northward, prying them a bit loose from the neighborhood basis on which they were formed.
Almost certainly, this election will be the last such Council-only race. By 2023 there will be new Districts, drastically redrawn, in order to represent the 75,000 new Boston residents we have now, not to mention perhaps another 40,000 by 2022. The re-districting done in that year may even change the number of Districts from nine to eleven in order to maintain the preset 70,00 resident District size, and this change may well be accompanied by an elected School Committee, which Boston has not had since 1993. (I certainly favor the elected Committee and am working on an innovative district map and apportionment right now.)
An eleven-member Council would allow for the creation of an entirely Downtown-Seaport District as well as more particular recognition of various cultural communities that still lack political power. One example that comes to mind is the region of Hyde square – Egleston Square – Fort Hill/Roxbury – Lower Roxbury : approximately these precincts (for map wonks) : ward 9 precincts 3 through 5; Ward 8 precincts 3 through 7; Ward 10 precincts 6 through 9; Ward 19 precinct 1; ward 11, precincts one through 5; Ward 7 precinct 10. Add this prospective District to the Downtown-Seaport One (Ward 3 precincts one through 8 and Ward 6 Precinct One) and you’re back at 70,000 person Districts formed on a neighborhood basis.
But that’s for the 2022 Council’s mapamkers. I had my chance working for the 1982 council.
In the next installment I’ll look at Districts Six through Nine and also offer an eleven-district map for the 2022 council to refer to, as of course they wIll, right ?
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere