A last look at Boston’s 2015 city election

The whys and hows of City Council exits and entrances

FOR DECADES, AMERICANS who thought they could predict elections have been reminded of the famous photograph of Harry Truman holding up the early-edition headline from the Chicago Tribune in 1948: “Dewey defeats Truman.” Now that a new Boston City Council has been inaugurated, and remembering that Monday morning quarterbacking is as welcome in city politics as it is in professional football, here are a few observations about last fall’s election in Boston.

Why Steve Murphy Lost

Steve Murphy, ousted from the at-large council seat he held for nearly 20 years, needed to roll up a big vote in neighborhoods in Hyde Park and to get large numbers of votes in South Boston, sections of Dorchester along the water, and West Roxbury. He did not do so. The truth of the matter is that every year there are fewer Wacko Hurleys making it to the polls (Hurley, who died last year at age 85, was the long-time organizer of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade). It’s not so much that Murphy has changed; he is a solid, centrist, Irish Catholic Democrat. It is that the city has changed, and perhaps changed more dramatically than any of us might have imagined.

At-large incumbents Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu, and newcomer Annissa Essaibi George who bumped off Murphy, all ran well in many neighborhoods of the city. Murphy and at-large incumbent Michael Flaherty did well in other neighborhoods, with Flaherty doing well enough to win reelection. For a host of reasons, Murphy was unable to get enough people like him out to vote.

Why Andrea Campbell Won

It is a truism of campaigns that to win, a candidate has to get his or her supporters to show up to vote. In last year’s Boston city election, Andrea Campbell, a first-time candidate who ousted veteran district councilor Charles Yancey, did that remarkably well.

Campbell succeeded in getting over 7,000 people out to vote in District 4, which covers large sections of Dorchester and Mattapan and is heavily populated by children and by immigrants who are not citizens. That was an extraordinary achievement, and it’s why she was able to knock off a 32-year incumbent. Looking at selective precincts, it appears that many of those who came out to vote for her did not vote for the Murphy in the contest for four at-large council seats, another likely factor in his loss.

How Boston is Changing

The four most conservative wards in Boston are 6 and 7 in South Boston, 16 in Dorchester, and 20 in West Roxbury. They accounted for more than 29 percent of the vote in the 1973 City Council election—a similar low-turnout, off-year election—but only generated 26 percent of the vote in last year’s council race. This effective switch of 1,600 votes from neighborhoods where Murphy traditionally fared well to those where he usually lagged is important. The population of the city is moving back to downtown neighborhoods and away from the neighborhoods where political power was centered in the post-World War II era, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. This marks a change from the pattern that was prevalent for much of the 20th century. Many of the largest voting precincts in terms of total votes, not percentage turnout, are now not in traditional electoral powerhouses, but in downtown neighborhoods. This includes the waterfront and the precinct which includes Bay Village. Along with Dorchester precincts in Savin Hill, Adams Village, and Cedar Grove, and the Readville neighborhood of Hyde Park, they were the heaviest voting precincts in the city in November. That would have been unheard of a generation ago.

Were every person eligible to register to vote in Boston on the voting rolls, the number of those who could vote would be 400,000. Yet only 50,000 people voted in November’s city election. This coming fall—a presidential year, five times that number, or about 250,000, will vote for president. What that means is that many of the people who are newer to the Boston—both affluent older people and educated younger people—will stand in line in the cold and the dark to vote, most of them for a Democrat who is likely to win Massachusetts almost 2-to-1, but they choose to not vote in local elections.

Meet the Author

Lawrence S. DiCara, a former president of the Boston City Council, is a partner at Nixon Peabody in Boston.