Downtown View:City Council Blahs

So last Tuesday, I go to vote in the city council preliminary election.

I think I’m pretty smart, but not smart enough I guess. There was no election—at least in my precinct. My district city councilor had no opposition. There were not enough candidates running at-large to hold a preliminary election anywhere.

“For an at-large preliminary election, there must be at least at least nine candidates,” said Elections Department chair Dion Irish. The preliminary winnows the field down to the eight candidates who will be listed on the ballot for the four at-large seats in the general election. This year only five candidates are running at-large, including incumbents Michael Flaherty, Stephen Murphy, Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu. The fifth candidate is Annissa Essaibi-George, a teacher and Dorchester shop owner. No winnowing needed.

Two city councilors, Frank Baker and Timothy McCarthy, faced only one challenger, Donnie Palmer and Jean-Claude Sanon respectively. So these districts did not need a preliminary election either.

Only two district councilors, Charles Yancey and Tito Jackson, had two or more challengers.  So in their districts the preliminary was held and reduced the number of candidates to two. Yancey came in a far second behind newcomer Andrea Campbell but will face her in November. Jackson will face Charles Clemons Jr., who came in a distant second.

According to Irish, the turnout was only seven percent of the 78,000 eligible to vote in the two districts, plus me.

Walking home after my failed voting attempt I wondered why there was so little interest this year in running for the city council, no to mention voting.

The official barriers are low. Candidates must be 18 years old and registered to vote. District candidates must have lived in their district for a year. At-large candidates have to live in Boston at the time they apply for nomination papers, which was May 11. They had to fill them out and return them by May 19.

At-large candidates had to gather at least 1,500 registered voters’ signatures. District candidates had to submit at least 200. These were due on June 23. Candidates who wanted to withdraw had to do so by June 30.

Pretty straightforward. Since you now know how to do it, you too could run. Two years ago, with a heavily contested mayoral race, there were plenty of city council candidates. What’s this year’s problem?

Demographics, reduced local news coverage, expanded opportunity for minorities, fewer kids and air conditioning, said attorney Larry DiCara, a city councilor from 1972 through 1981. These factors have reduced interest in local elections.

The people who consistently vote, he observed, are older folks, public employees and political junkies (like him and me.) But the city’s population is bifurcated, he said, between poorer residents, who tend not to vote, and up and coming, well educated or wealthy residents who tend to vote only in presidential elections.

Mayoral elections might also attract some of those people. About 140,000 voters turned out for the last mayoral election, DiCara noted. But 255,000 voted in the presidential election the year before. “That’s more than 100,000 people who vote only once every four years,” he said.

Another factor in a declining interest in the city council is an unfamiliarity with city politics. “The reality is that young people understand national issues, but don’t understand what is going on down the street,” he said. Part of the reason might be that more Bostonians are from somewhere else, rather than having grown up here.

When DiCara grew up in Boston in the 1950s, “working in campaigns was part of what you did.”

Reinforcing the unfamiliarity are the news outlets. When DiCara was on the city council, he remembers the city’s newspapers each had three or four reporters covering City Hall at all times, and the radio and television stations were on hand, enjoying what was then a new building with enough electricity and lighting to run their microphones and cameras—not true at old City Hall.

Such coverage meant that Boston residents knew the city councilors and what they did. How many of the 13 city councilors can you name?

No longer is politics the only way up for smart young people. DiCara remembers when Catholics, not to mention other minorities, were unwelcome in the city’s law firms. “But now, if you’re a bright young person like Deval Patrick, you go to work for Hill and Barlow,” he said. “You don’t necessarily aspire to be in local politics.”

As for air conditioning? DiCara said that in the hot summer months of his youth, everyone sat on stoops because it was cooler there. They knew their neighbors and spent time discussing local matters. Now people are inside, isolated from the others on their block.

Fewer kids is another isolating factor. People often get to know neighbors through their kids, and the number of kids in the city has been declining.

We could hold elections on weekends, provide free air time for candidates, and try other methods to attract voters and candidates. “But I don’t know if there is away to make people care about what’s going on down the street,” DiCara concluded.

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