The natural

A gifted campaigner, but short on money, Arroyo banks on the power of a grassroots movement

Subway stations are full of voters. They’re also pretty terrible places to talk to voters. The folks spilling in and out of an MBTA station are normally in a hurry to get somewhere else, and most commuters don’t look forward to weaving around guys holding green and yellow campaign signs.

Felix Arroyo knows all this. He’s relentless about hanging around outside subway stations anyway. That’s because, for Arroyo, the at-large Boston city councilor and mayoral hopeful, there’s no other way to campaign than getting in front of voters and reminding them he’s around, and looking for their support.

As Arroyo chases the mayor’s office, he’s knocking on doors and hustling around coffee shops and block parties and T stations. He’s running a lean, meagerly-funded grassroots campaign that’s relying heavily on volunteer sweat and one-on-one conversations with voters. This is the way he’s operated for the past decade, first as an aide to former city councilor Chuck Turner, and then as a union organizer for SEIU, and later as a politician running citywide. This might be enough to make Arroyo mayor. Or it might not. But Arroyo is running for mayor the only way he knows how to run.

“This campaign is built on the belief that you win through the grassroots,” Arroyo says. “It’s the best way to win, and the best way to govern. Government works best when it works with you, not above you. We focus an awful lot on canvassing, on actually having a conversation with voters, actually listening to them, and then inviting them to be part of it.”

Arroyo is one of the most natural politicians in the crowded field of would-be successors to Mayor Tom Menino. The son of a retired public school teacher and a former Boston city councilor, Arroyo has a broad, easy smile, and a lightning-quick handshake. His high-profile campaign strategist, Doug Rubin, signed on with Arroyo because, Rubin told CommonWealth, Arroyo has “the biggest potential to be great at this.” When he’s talking policy, Arroyo rattles off clear, concise, disciplined talking points — a skill that political newcomers John Barros and Bill Walczak have found is not nearly as easy to pull off as it sounds. Arroyo’s canned talking points usually don’t feel like canned talking points, though, because he wraps them in personal, deeply felt stories, stories about his wife the schoolteacher, about his parents, about living in Villa Victoria in the South End. He answers questions with hands that fly around in constant motion, but seldom breaks eye contact. He speaks softly but intensely — the strongest near-whisper you’ve ever heard — peppering his sentences with words he emphasizes not by raising his voice, but by slowing it down and making it softer still.

Years of practice have honed Arroyo’s T station campaigning technique. He knows most of the folks rushing past him don’t want to stop and chat. It’s enough for him to stand there in the crowd, campaign button on his shirt, signs and literature by his side. He doesn’t try to glad-hand them as they sweep by. He smiles and waves, wishes them a good evening, and only goes in for a handshake or a hug when a voter makes the first move.

Arroyo likes to work T stations this way for at least an hour at a time, but on this warm August evening, he barely has time for half that. Arroyo is running late, and he still has three events ahead of him. He’d meant to dash over to the Jackson Square Orange Line station right after a debate at the Boston Globe, but he’d gotten hung up with a gaggle of reporters, columnists, and editors. He has time to wave at a few trainloads of commuters, then it’s off to an event with his old youth baseball team, the South End Astros, and then to a young professionals fundraiser downtown.

His campaign SUV rolls into Jackson and Arroyo hops out, slips a pink tie over his head, and tightens it up. It’s still knotted from when he’d slipped it off outside the Globe. The paper was enforcing a strict no-ties policy at its debate, so he’d had to lose his tie, which he actually doesn’t mind wearing, and stuff himself into a jacket he avoids wearing whenever possible. Now the jacket comes off outside the T station, and Arroyo rolls up his sleeves and goes to work, waving, smiling, and greeting voters in English and Spanish.

The crowd Arroyo meets at Jackson Square is amazingly diverse — a jumbled mix of young and old, white, black, and Hispanic. The Jackson station serves two public housing developments, a heavily Puerto Rican and Dominican stretch of Centre Street, and the racially mixed Fort Hill section of Roxbury. It’s a microcosm of the crowd Arroyo is counting on turning out in September’s mayoral preliminary election.

Much of the talk around Arroyo’s candidacy has centered on his potential to become Boston’s first Hispanic mayor. If he’s going to succeed, though, Arroyo will need to reach far beyond the city’s Hispanic enclaves in Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, and East Boston. Boston is a majority-minority city where white voters still hold a strong numerical advantage. Fifty-five percent of the city’s voting-age citizens are white; that figure is less than 11 percent for Hispanic Bostonians. And Arroyo has a strong history of drumming up votes across racial and ethnic boundaries.

In his 2011 city council race, Arroyo pulled in large numbers of votes from predominantly white precincts, black precincts, and Hispanic precincts. He did as well in pockets of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury as he did in the South End. He topped the ticket in the North End and in Allston-Brighton. This is why, in the early days of the mayoral race, Arroyo’s rivals quietly feared he’d catch fire and storm into November. At 34, he’s the youngest candidate in the race, but one who’s not used to standing in line and biding his time; his first months on the city council saw him brokering a contract between the Menino administration and the city’s firefighters, and mounting a successful campaign to save four neighborhood libraries from closing. On paper, a Puerto Rican union organizer who had experience running citywide, had ties to Roxbury through Chuck Turner, and also played very well with white liberals in Jamaica Plain and Roslindale, looked tough to beat.

The race hasn’t played out like that, though. Most observers and polls put Arroyo in a crowded second tier of candidates, all of whom are scrambling to knock out one of the race’s two presumed frontrunners, John Connolly and Marty Walsh. Arroyo doesn’t just have to catch fire in the weeks leading up to September’s preliminary vote. He also has to leapfrog four or five better-financed candidates in the process. Many of those candidates are playing similar angles. Barros and Walsh, for instance, are eating into his support among Jamaica Plain liberals. Connolly, Walsh, and Rob Consalvo are all working their own grassroots ground game, and they’ve all put more than four times more cash in their campaign accounts than Arroyo has. Labor has been more difficult than originally envisioned. Walsh, always strong with the hardhat wing of the labor movement, swooped in and won the endorsement of the local hotel workers union earlier this month; UNITE HERE Local 26 shares a similar political and demographic profile as Arroyo’s old union, SEIU Local 615, and its endorsement was a huge coup for Walsh.

Meet the Author

Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

Arroyo sees the polls that put him behind much of the field. He knows how to read a campaign finance report. He knows political watchers gravitate to money and polls because they’re tangible. But he argues that, in a race where huge chunks of the electorate remain undecided, money and polls measure the wrong things. “We measure voter contacts, doors knocked, phone calls made,” he says. “We focus entirely on raising human capital. A conversation at the doorstep beats a [television] commercial every day. We’ll raise enough to run the campaign we want to run. This is a volunteer-based campaign. We truly intend to prove this is how you win.”

Homepage photo by cityyear and published under a Creative Commons license.