Boston city council races reflect change – and tradition

Preliminary election for two open seats offered surprises

THEODORE H. WHITE WROTE many years ago that the life of a city is like a ballet.  Anybody who has studied the American city, specifically the City of Boston, understands that there are rapid demographic changes underway.  Boston is no longer mentioned in the same paragraph with Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland and other cities that have lost 40, 50, or 60 percent of their populations since their peak after World War II. Boston bottomed out in the 1970s and is in the midst of a significant resurgence and a significant increase in population.

With new people living in the city, it is inevitable that there will be new people being elected to office in Boston, in some cases, people of very different backgrounds than had been elected previously.

The results of the low-turnout preliminary election in Boston last month – just 55,000 people, or 14 percent of the electorate, showed up to vote – highlighted both a changing city and one where long-time residents turned out in greater numbers than other Bostonians. There are three open district city council seats, two of which – Districts 1 and 2 – included candidates with very different profiles. Both District 1, which covers East Boston, Charlestown and the North End, and District 2, which covers South Boston, the South End, Bay Village, and Chinatown, are diverse districts made up of very different neighborhoods.

The results, which narrowed the field in both races to two finalists for the November election, reflected the crosscurrents in Boston politics, with one race underscoring big changes and the other reaffirming the power of traditional voting blocs.

In District 1, East Boston resident Lydia Edwards, a black attorney relatively new to Boston, surprised most everyone with her strong showing, placing second, but only 81 votes behind Stephen Passacantilli, a lifelong North End resident and the heir to several generations of players in city politics. In District 2, Ed Flynn of South Boston, son of former mayor Ray Flynn, surprised most everyone with his overwhelming margin of victory over second-place finisher Michael Kelley, a one-time aide to former mayor Tom Menino, who hails from Bay Village. Flynn got 5,085 votes to Kelley’s 2,860.

Prior to the preliminary election, we studied changes in turnout in Districts 1 and 2 between 1983 and 2013 in an effort to better gauge the landscape for this year’s election. In both 1983 and 2013, turnout was higher than normal because there was an open race for mayor; a lower turnout is anticipated in next month’s final election of approximately 100,000 voters, owing both to the lack of an open race for mayor and because many newer voters in Boston only vote in quadrennial elections for president.

We were particularly interested in the share of votes coming from the various neighborhoods that make up the two council districts, and any shift in these shares over time. In District 2, the share of votes coming from South Boston precincts went from 61 percent in the final election in 1983 to 49 percent in the 2013 election, with a corresponding increase in the share coming from the neighborhoods outside South Boston. That suggested a potential waning of clout from Southie, long a high-voting political powerhouse in local races.

Notwithstanding these historical trends, in last month’s preliminary election, in many of the 16 precincts where turnout was high, mainly in South Boston, Flynn prevailed, often with margins of 3-1 over Kelley. In the eight precincts where Kelley prevailed, the turnout was abysmal.

In seven of the precincts where Flynn prevailed, all in South Boston, turnout exceeded 20 percent, with one of them, the City Point area (Ward 7, precinct 1), recording a turnout of 33 percent!  In the areas where Kelley prevailed, in downtown Boston, the South End, the Seaport, and Bay Village, turnout only exceeded 20 percent in one precinct, while one precinct recorded turnout in the single digits.

In contrast to the trend we’ve seen of declining voter clout from South Boston, which went from accounting for 61 percent of the District 2 vote in 1983 to 49 percent in 2013, Southie precincts, all of which were carried by Flynn, accounted for 57 percent of the district vote in last month’s preliminary. Will these patterns persist when overall turnout doubles in November? If they do, it would likely be good news for Flynn.

In District 1, comparing the 1983 and 2013 elections, the percentage of votes from Charlestown precincts (Ward 2) increased, while the share coming from East Boston (Ward 1) and the North End (Ward 3) decreased. Higher voting Charlestown is now the battleground in the final election for the District 1 seat. In September, Edwards edged Pasacantilli by 63 votes there, winning four precincts while he won three. The real story, however, was how well Edwards fared in her home ward in East Boston, long an Italian-American stronghold, but now a melting pot of diversity. Edwards garnered 1,824 votes there to Passacantilli’s 1,273.

An even more interesting statistic is how few people voted in the North End, which has been home to heavy voting precincts in most every election for decades. Will this change in November? To win, Passacantilli must increase voter turnout in his North End base – just as Ed Flynn did in South Boston in September. Passacantilli’s victory equation must include a higher turnout in the neighborhood where people know his family well rather than a turnout comparable to the rest of the district, as has been the case in recent years. If he can’t do that, Edwards has a real chance to reverse the order of finish from September and claim the seat.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author
Forty years ago, one of us (L.S.D), Ray Flynn, and Passacantilli’s grandfather, Fred Langone, were three of the nine candidates elected to the then nine-member Boston City Council. A few weeks later, Flynn and Langone voted to elect City Councilor DiCara president of the body. Had the three councilors sat to make predictions for the future at that time, it’s doubtful that those would have included Ray’s son and Fred’s grandson appearing on the ballot for Boston City Council 40 years later. It’s also doubtful that any of the members of that City Council could have predicted how very different Boston would be in 2017.

Lawrence S. DiCara is a partner at Nixon Peabody and former president of the Boston City Council. Vincenzo Malo is a sophomore at Duke University and a resident of Leominster.