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Too little, too late?
With two weeks left till the preliminary city election, at-large councilor Felix Arroyo finally gets serious about campaigning for re-election

FELIX ARROYO is energetic but earnest. The collar of his blue-striped oxford is open and his jacket hangs from a hook in his small City Hall office. He leans forward across the bare table and talks about neighborhood planning and development; increasing parent participation in education; improving the distribution of services throughout the city; removing lead from the water and dioxin from the air. Clearly, these are serious issues for a member of this city’s august council, and clearly Felix Arroyo, from Hyde Park, is a serious city councilor. At least, that’s what he is now, with an election coming and a lot of press saying he’s in danger of losing his job less than a year after getting it.

But during our interview, that solemn bearing keeps slipping off him like a little boy's Sunday-school blazer. One can almost hear his son, Felix Arroyo Jr. (an aide to District Seven councilor Chuck Turner), who is listening at the office doorway, mentally willing his father back on message. Talking about education — his specialty as former president of the Boston School Committee — Arroyo leans back and waxes philosophical about teaching students Boston’s diverse history as a way to "affect the unity of the city," an example he believes will spread outward, into the suburbs if not the entire nation.

Arroyo, who finished a distant fifth in the four-seat at-large race two years ago, got handed the council seat like a late Christmas present last January when former at-large councilor Mickey Roache left to become Suffolk County register of deeds. He should have been working his tail off for re-election from the start, but instead seems to have been too fascinated with his new toy. He announced a bizarre hunger strike (skipping breakfast every other Friday) to protest the war in Iraq (see "Fast Track," This Just In, April 4). He crusaded against canines crapping on Deer Island, not because it bothered any living constituents (at least not compared with the vast quantities of human waste pumped into the island’s sewage-treatment plant), but because it apparently bothered the souls of inmates long ago incarcerated there. And in one of the boldest wastes of the council’s time in recent memory, Arroyo distracted the body from the city budget process to consider a resolution honoring the Dixie Chicks for their courage in insulting President Bush. (When the Chicks performed at the FleetCenter in June, Arroyo and Turner arranged for them to receive a certificate of congratulations for speaking out against the Iraq war — before the council had voted on the resolution. Less than a week later, the rest of the council quashed the precipitously awarded honor.)

Unapologetic about his actions or the broad, idealistic scope of his views, Arroyo nonetheless is showing a more serious, city-focused side as he nears election time. He’d better. At-large incumbents Stephen Murphy, Michael Flaherty, and Maura Hennigan come into the race with a bigger base of support, which could leave Arroyo struggling for survival against a formidable group of challengers. Patricia White and Matt O’Malley are also running strong campaigns (see "Running Start," News and Features, September 12), while two candidates of color, Roy Owens and Jacqueline Payne-Thompson, are vying for votes among potential Arroyo supporters. With only nine months of incumbency to lean on, and a whole city to campaign for, Arroyo needs to work hard.

AT A RALLY last Friday sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists Network, Arroyo stood in front of 50 or so die-hard leftists on the roof deck of Sophia’s in the Fenway. He wore the blazer and tie he had donned to wave at Boylston Street traffic just prior to this event, but with this crowd he dropped the worldly grown-up demeanor. He wore a wide grin, joked easily, and spoke of "the moral, the ethical, the right thing to do."

US Congressman Barney Frank stood next to Arroyo, and State Senator Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge spoke on his behalf. Both defend Arroyo’s big-picture idealism. "The idea that his kind of social advocacy doesn’t have a place in municipal politics I think is wrong," Frank said the previous day by phone from his Washington office.

"There is value in pushing an issue, even if you’re not going to win that issue," Barrios said at Friday’s event. He cited Arroyo’s attempt to declare a home-rule exemption for Boston from the state’s new English-immersion-education law. "You can at least force people onto the record on an issue like that."

Arroyo’s endorsers, including Citizens for Participation in Political Action (CPPAX), the Greater Boston chapter of the National Organization for Women, and several local unions, seem to back him in spite of, rather than because of, his accomplishments in his first months on the council. They think his heart is in the right place, and they’re hoping he’ll learn to channel those impulses effectively in the political arena.

"He is an unusually passionate believer in social justice," said Frank, adding: "I don’t agree with everything he does — I don’t think the hunger strike was a good idea."

Long-time African-American community activist (and onetime at-large council candidate) Boyce Slayman thinks the city’s African-American voters are particularly disillusioned with Arroyo. "Chuck Turner might get laughed at for getting arrested protesting, but it’s for issues his community relates to," he says. "When Felix fasted against the war, he wasn’t fighting for more jobs or more housing. He demonstrated a disconnect between his actions and the interests of the community."

Arroyo’s supporters argue that beyond the few flaky episodes, Arroyo has made a real difference. Tiffany Skogstrom of Health Care Without Harm points to Arroyo’s successful fight for a resolution against dioxin pollution. Jeremy Pittman of CPPAX cites the surprising success of an Arroyo-sponsored council resolution opposing the proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. "Things like that indicate a shift in his idea of what the council does and how he can function with that system," Pittman says.

But most voters might view those "successes" as moot idealism: the council has no say over state constitutional amendments, and the dioxin resolution was essentially symbolic. Arroyo’s progressive agenda — focusing on issues such as immigrants’ access to services, discrimination against gay men and lesbians, voting reform, housing, bilingual education, jobs for women and minorities — has so far resulted in more talk than concrete change. "His record doesn’t tell people that he’s working for them," says Slayman.

And as much as Arroyo hones his message, he still can’t help but think globally. "Many councilors look at the position as just a local position," Arroyo muses during the interview in his office. "But a war includes Boston."

Voters, however, tend to judge their councilors very much by local results — if not more narrowly by what they’ve accomplished for the neighborhood or even the block. Rob Consalvo, now District Five councilor, says he began knocking on doors in January of 2000 for his losing at-large campaign in 2001. "Having been there, I can say that it’s very difficult because it’s such a big city," Consalvo says.

Arroyo didn’t exactly take that same door-to-door approach, and he has heard the comments (prevalent particularly among the city’s minority communities) that he has been conspicuous in his absence. Ben Thompson, executive director of STRIVE employment program in Codman Square, says that Arroyo has not come looking for votes in that neighborhood. Arroyo signs can be seen in West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, but not in Four Corners, Grove Hall, or Dudley Crossing. Shoppers questioned at the Mall of Roxbury last week knew little about him.

"It’s very difficult to reach out to the entire city," Arroyo says. He has even worked out his made-for-the-hustings response. "When they say where was I, I ask them, where were you? Where were you when I held a hearing on MCAS, on bilingual education, on dioxide pollution?"

Meanwhile, he’s doing almost daily "visibilities," marching down Blue Hill Avenue at the Caribbean Festival; waving at rush-hour traffic in Brigham Circle; shaking hands with morning coffee-sippers at a West Roxbury Dunkin’ Donuts.

Yet his old ways still slip through, as when he says, a little too contemptuously, when talking about crime: "It’s more complex than showing your face at a neighborhood crime-watch meeting or a stop-the-crime parade." Oops. "But I will go to the parade," he adds quickly.

ARROYO IS playing catch-up now for all the missed parades and meetings. "I think Felix came in not thinking about the next election," Slayman says. "Felix has not done a lot of work cultivating his base."

"He hasn’t had to run for election much before," says Pittman of CPPAX. "I think Felix is moving out from thinking that progressives will automatically vote for him, and [realizing] that he has to go out and ask for their votes."

Arroyo has raised more than $60,000 this year, mostly from Back Bay and Jamaica Plain liberals, and had over $26,000 in the bank heading into September. He has analyzed precinct-by-precinct where he got votes last time (Back Bay, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Mattapan, South End) and where he could have (Hyde Park, Roslindale, West Roxbury). "He’s in a better position than he’s been in any previous election," says West Roxbury state senator Marian Walsh. She thinks that Arroyo could draw well in her district, especially in a low-turnout race. "That favors the incumbent," she says. "He’s run before, so his name is well-known."

Arroyo hopes to pick up votes he lost last time around to fellow Hyde Park resident Consalvo. "Last time, Consalvo had a lot of bullet votes," Arroyo explains. In the at-large election, a voter can select up to four candidates because there are four spaces to fill; a bullet voter marks just one, thus guaranteeing a vote solely to that candidate and denying votes to any others. Arroyo’s suggestion is that, without the bullet tactic, Consalvo’s voters would also have voted for him in the previous election and will support him this time. (Consalvo denies asking for bullet votes in 2001.)

Those bullet votes are the stink bombs of the at-large race, and no candidate wants to be caught encouraging their use. But Arroyo is allowing his political ally Chuck Turner to call publicly for an Arroyo bullet vote, and doesn’t denounce it. "People have to do what they feel they ought to do. I do not encourage it or discourage it," he says.

Bullet votes for Arroyo won’t hurt top challengers Patricia White and Matt O’Malley, who aren’t likely to appeal to the same voters anyway. The two candidates most likely to lose votes are Owens (who, perhaps not coincidentally, last ran against Turner) and fellow progressive council member Hennigan. Arroyo has also teamed up with Turner and embattled District Four councilor Charles Yancey to do joint campaigning. At the Caribbean Festival, they dispensed balloons and T-shirts emblazoned with all three of their names; they plan to combine resources for mailings, phone banking, and other campaign efforts. "They’re clearly trying to deny [Hennigan] the black vote," Slayman says.

"The strategy is grown out of the panic of Yancey and Arroyo," Slayman says. The risk, Slayman says, is that the association with "the two Chucks" could lose Arroyo votes outside the city’s communities of color.

Hennigan says she doesn’t mind. "Felix and I get along very well," she says. "It would be a great loss for the city if he did not return to the council."

But as she talks about her 20 years of community outreach, she says, "I don’t just campaign the month or two months before the campaign," adding, "If you’re committed to it and you really love the job, then it’s not work to attend those neighborhood meetings and meet with people."

Asked about Hennigan, Arroyo insists he has no animus. He even musters some bland praise — "I respect Councilor Hennigan.... We need each other to deliver an agenda" — which he then extends to fellow at-largers Murphy and even Flaherty. "For the at-large race, I wouldn’t like for the current make-up of councilors to change," he concludes.

District councilors have also started grumbling about Arroyo’s tactics. West Roxbury/Jamaica Plain councilor John Tobin and Allston-Brighton councilor Jerry McDermott recently accused Arroyo of sponsoring progressive challengers in their districts in order to bring more progressive voters to the polls who might then vote for Arroyo in the at-large race.

Annoying your fellow council members might not be the best way to get things accomplished (as Arroyo surely knows after supporting Hennigan for council president against Flaherty). But perhaps Arroyo is learning what it takes to survive in the real, practical world of Boston politics — a big step in the growing-up process.

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein[a]

Issue Date: September 12 - 18, 2003
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