The rapid evolution of the Boston City Council will intensify this year, ensured by the announcements that three of the nine district councilors will not seek re-election.

Mark Ciommo, who represents Allston-Brighton, revealed his decision last Monday, two weeks after Josh Zakim of the Back Bay. Tim McCarthy of Hyde Park made his announcement in January.

Three other district councilors hung it up two years ago: Sal LaMattina of East Boston, Bill Linehan of South Boston, and Tito Jackson of Roxbury. They were succeeded by Lydia Edwards, Ed Flynn, and Kim Janey respectively.

With at-large councilor Ayanna Pressley’s recent departure for Washington, thanks to her victorious congressional campaign, it adds up to more than half the 13-member body replaced in a two-year span.

Matt O’Malley of Jamaica Plain, if he wins re-election this Fall, will be the Dean of the Council, having first won election less than 10 years ago. He, Frank Baker of Dorchester, and at-large councilor Michael Flaherty will be the only members whose tenure pre-dates the 2013 election of Marty Walsh as mayor. (Flaherty left the Council to run against Tom Menino in 2009, and returned to it in January 2014.)

The shakeup coincides with a renewed sense of relevance for the often-ignored body.
The Council has asserted itself on lobbying reform, Airbnb regulation, marijuana regulation, and plastic bag use. It has used hearings to draw attention to diversity, law enforcement, and education issues. Members have used their bully pulpit even beyond city-government purview, as with Michelle Wu’s advocacy for MBTA riders.

That strength comes, in part, because Walsh is not Menino. Some say that’s a strength of the mayor’s: Walsh is far more willing to collaborate, and even clash with the Council, where Menino forced compliance. Others see it as a result of Walsh’s inability to sway elections and get allies elected.

Meanwhile, Pressley’s ascension to Congress reinvigorated the image of the Council as a political stepping-stone to higher office—a once-assumed truth that had faded badly, punctuated by Walsh, a state representative, winning the 2013 mayoral election.

Now Boston’s City Hall watchers see bright political futures for several councilors; particularly Andrea Campbell, Lydia Edwards, and Wu, all in their mid-30s.

At least two dozen candidates are planning to campaign for seats on the Council this year, and more could emerge before the May 13 deadline to pull papers. Many candidates have been raising money and campaigning for months, but the races begin in earnest this month.

Open seats, interesting candidates, a rejuvenated Council, and the Trump-fueled political energy witnessed in Boston’s 2018 elections could add up to the most interesting off-year municipal election the city has seen in years.

Changing City; Changing Council

The shake-up of the Boston City Council in some ways mirrors the changes taking place in Boston itself. The city has been growing, gentrifying, and diversifying; the barriers between neighborhoods and tribal groups have been breaking down.

Power has changed in Boston as well. It’s less top-down, and more dispersed.
Even the city’s notorious tribal segregations and self-interests are giving way to cross-neighborhood alliances and recognition of common interests.

As a result, the path to the City Council has changed. No longer, it seems, can a candidate claim a seat by maximizing turnout among a base of voters. Ed Flynn appealed far beyond the old Irish-Americans of South Boston to win the District 2 seat in 2017. Lydia Edwards earned votes among traditional Italian families of East Boston as part of her winning coalition in District 1 the same year.

The Council is now stocked with members who can see, and connect, across the barriers. They have progressive instincts, but also appreciation for those losing their place in the changing city. They tackle the big, city-wide issues, but also the shoe-leather constituent services. They bring an independent, outsider vibe, but also have experience working within the system.

They are also, increasingly, women and racial minorities.

It’s hard not to notice that the three councilors departing—Ciommo, McCarthy, and Zakim—are among the dwindling number of white men on the Council.

So far, few straight, white men are rushing forward to vie for a place on the Council.
In the at-large race, the diverse set of candidates I wrote about in January have been joined by a few more hopefuls.

The District 8 race to succeed Zakim looks like it might come down to three strong women candidates: Kristen Mobilia, who challenged Zakim in 2017; activist Hélène Vincent, who has already raised more than $60,000; and Kenzie Bok, well-connected senior advisor for policy and planning at the Boston Housing Authority.

The field for Ciommo’s Allston-Brighton seat is probably not set yet, but the three candidates so far include a woman and a black man.

The most interesting test, however, might come in District 5. Covering Hyde Park and Roslindale, it is a majority-minority district by population. But low turnout among its immigrant and black working-class residents, and strong loyalties to Hyde Park’s own Tom Menino, have helped keep the seat in the hands of former Menino aides Rob Consalvo and McCarthy.

A strong slate of candidates has stepped up to run; so far, there is not a white man among them. There’s Ricardo Arroyo, son and brother of former Boston City Councilors,; McCarthy’s education advisor Maria Farrell; Jean-Claude Sanon and Mimi Turchinetz, who both ran strong campaigns for the seat in 2013; community organizer Cecily Graham; City Hall staffer Alkia Powell; and Haitian-American activist Yves Mary Jean.

Eyes Toward 2021

All of this takes place in the looming shadow of the election cycle that begins as soon as the City Council ballots are counted this November: the 2021 mayoral race.

People in an around City Hall say that Walsh has been telling people he is running for re-election, to seek a third term. Not everybody believes him.

If he does run, Walsh is a formidable force. He has some $4.5 million in his war chest, and the ability to raise millions more. He demolished Tito Jackson in 2017, taking nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Yet he is unlikely to coast next time. The energy that swept Pressley and Rachael Rollins into office last year is available for the right leader to mobilize. Many expect Wu to challenge Walsh. In the last municipal election Wu topped the city-wide, at-large ticket with about 65,000 votes, or a bit more than 24 percent of the ballots cast. But if not Wu, the city is increasingly brimming with smart, accomplished, inspirational people who might.

And of course if Walsh chooses to not seek a third term, the cast of candidates could easily surpass the twelve who ran for the open seat in 2013.

That included five sitting city councilors. A 2021 version would likely include at least three: Andrea Campbell, Matt O’Malley, and Wu. Almost all the others would at least consider it.

The lure of the mayor’s office means that those incumbent councilors want to use these 2019 elections to put potential allies in those available seats—allies who could then help sway mayoral votes in their districts in two years.

Allies, as well, who can help vote someone into the Council presidency—whose occupant would ascend to the mayor’s office if Walsh resigns prior to the 2021 election, perhaps for a job in a Democratic Presidency early that year.

Close observers will be watching for signs all year, and there will be whispers about which ambitious Boston pol’s friends are donating to, or volunteering for, a particular Council candidate.

That much, at least, hasn’t yet changed about City Hall politics.