This week, Bostonians can celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday by seeing District Attorney Rachael Rollins speak at 12th Baptist Church, or Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley at Temple Israel. It won’t be hard to find Sheriff Steve Tompkins either, or City Council President Andrea Campbell.

It’s been just 10 years since Pressley became the first black woman ever elected to Boston’s City Council, but suddenly the city is taking huge strides in making its representatives in government truly represent the diversity of its people.

That desire for more new, diverse representation burst through in last September’s primary election, when Boston Democrats poured out to vote for Pressley and Rollins, as well as state representative newcomers including Nika Elgardo and Jon Santiago.

Activists and organizers say that the same energy is carrying forward, as Boston turns toward its 2019 municipal election— particularly the selection of the city’s four at-large city counselors.

With Pressley gone, perennial candidate Althea Garrison has taken her seat for the remainder of the two-year term — her reward for a fifth-place finish in 2017’s lightly-contested race.

Garrison, a black LGBTQ woman, is expected to seek re-election along with the other three: Annissa Essaibi George, Michael Flaherty, and Michelle Wu.

Seven challengers have already thrown their hats in to challenge those four incumbents; not one is a straight, white man.
It’s an impressive, diverse group, which could get even more competitive as more candidates may announce in the next two months.

Nobody has any idea what the result could be. If turnout reverts to the typical, low-interest affair of past City Council elections, there could easily be no black at-large councilor next year. If last September’s energy repeats, there could just as easily be no white at-large councilor.

And underneath the simple number-counting by skin color, lies the much more contentious question of what representation really means in Boston today.

A strong field of challengers
The seven announced challengers are:

  • Domingos DaRosa, a black man of Cape Verdean descent, a youth activist who ran for at-large council in 2017;
  • David Halbert, a black man who has worked for Boston city councilors and in other public service positions;
  • Julia Mejia, a black Latina born in the Dominican Republic, founder of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network;
  • Jeff Ross, a gay white attorney who ran for an at-large seat in 2013;
  • Alejandra St. Guillen, a lesbian Latina, who has served as director of Boston’s Office of Immigrant Advancement;
  • Amanda Smart, a white woman, who consults with a nonprofit;
  • Taushawn Tinsley, a black man with Caribbean-American roots, who teaches in the Boston Public School system.

Most of them were already interested in running for office before last September, but there is no doubt that the surprising results from that primary has provided momentum for candidates of color to launch campaigns.

“Ayanna winning helped give me the audacity to feel that I could do it too,” says Mejia.

“There’s a level of excitement, in the general community as well as people who have been around politics for a while,” says St. Guillen.

“You look at what happened last fall, when people got excited,” Halbert says; “you saw that there is a constituency and an opportunity.”

Those candidates are finding it easier — so far — to find funding, staff, and volunteers than many candidates of color have in the past. There is a sense in Boston political circles that those candidates can win, and people always want to be part of a winning campaign.

And most of these are not political naifs; they have been around campaigns, have extensive political networks, and know how to launch a serious, professional effort.

To be sure, none of them are casting themselves as a candidate just for people like themselves — a possible, but difficult path to victory in a race where 15 percent of the total votes cast could be enough to win one of the four seats.

Instead, as Pressley did last year, the candidates are stressing how their personal and professional experiences will help them serve all of Boston — but at the same time, recognizing that diverse representation in public office matters as well.
And, that a good candidate offering that representation can motivate people to turn out to vote.

Not just the ones who will be represented, either. Boston voters are apparently capable of getting excited for diversity that doesn’t look like themselves.

That was certainly true for Lydia Edwards, who won white sections of Charlestown and East Boston on her way to winning a district City Council seat.

And it showed in the 2018 primary. According to an analysis by MassINC Polling Group, about one-quarter of the voters in September’s Democratic Congressional primary between Pressley and Michael Capuano had not voted in any previous primaries in the past five years. But they weren’t disproportionately black. They were more likely to be young, female, and Hispanic.

“What Lydia and Ayanna did to change the electorate for themselves,” Tinsley says, “it’s up to the candidates [this year] to figure out how to do that for themselves.”

“There’s an atmosphere in the city,” DaRosa says. “We’re looking to see what happens in the next election to see if it is a movement.”

Who represents whom?
The 13 members of the Boston City Council are already more diverse than ever before, whether judged by race, gender, heritage, or background.

There are six women; four members are black, one is Asian-American, one is of Arab descent, and one is Jewish.

One of the white Irish men, Tim McCarthy, is not running for re-election. His district of Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Roslindale is majority-minority and could easily be won by Ricardo Arroyo or another candidate of color. The Allston-Brighton district represented by Mark Ciommo is another considered ripe for a minority candidate if Ciommo chooses to retire.

Of course, representation means different things to different people. So far — given the prior homogeneity of Boston’s elected officials — gains of anyone other than white Irish-American or Italian-American men have been taken as an increase in representation.

That’s changing.

Most glaringly, the gains in black representation have not been mirrored with Boston’s Hispanic population. There are no Hispanics on the current City Council. The city’s most powerful elected Latino, House Ways & Means chair Jeffrey Sanchez, was just voted out of his Jamaica Plain state representative seat.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm in the Hispanic community for Ayanna Pressley,” says St. Guillen. “But we need to be represented as well.”

The absence of black men on the Council has generated considerable discussion, since Tito Jackson left his district seat to run, unsuccessfully, for mayor in 2017.

And, while LGBTQ status seems almost passe in Boston politics these days, that community remains under-represented in local elected office. Either Ross or St. Guillen would be Boston’s first openly gay city councilor since district councilor David Scondras 25 years ago; and the first ever elected to city-wide office.

“It’s representation not just by race, but class also,” says Mejia. Growing up, she lived in subsidized housing, stood in food pantry lines, and even dodged immigration officials. “People recognize that they have one of their own running.”

St. Guillen, daughter of an immigrant, also points to that background as part of her potential to represent others in Boston. So does Tinsley, whose mother came from Jamaica.

“Immigrant issues have become an important part of how we talk about issues, from schools to housing,” Tinsley says. “There are a lot of different ways that people find their representation.”

Women’s world
Then there’s the other big question about these recent elections. Is it possible that they have been more about gender, with race and other factors secondary at best?

Women dominated Democratic Party elections in 2018 nationally, and Massachusetts might have simply been ahead of that curve with Attorney General Maura Healey, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and Auditor Suzanne Bump.

The past few years have seen women win elections for Middlesex County District Attorney and the 3rd congressional district northwest of Boston. Then Pressley, Rollins, Campbell, Edwards, Elugardo — there does seem to be a pattern of women winning Democratic primaries in and around Boston.

Certainly these have been very talented politicians, who have run strong campaigns and earned their victories. But it does seem as though — at least for this moment — women are a big part of the representation that Boston-area voters are looking for. The rest might be gravy.