City Council At-Large Candidates Struggle For Attention

Some stood out in a strong field at a forum earlier this week, but still others disappointed.

A confession: I am always disappointed with the caliber of Boston’s city council candidates. It always seems that in a city so teeming with the best and brightest, the pool of city council hopefuls should resemble the kind of talent you might find applying for high-level jobs in law, finance, non-profit, health care, academia, or religion. That doesn’t happen, presumably because of the (understandably) low esteem in which people hold the council.

Any hope I harbored that this year’s two open seats and changing of the mayoral guard might bring a flood of those superstars has sadly been dashed. But that’s OK; we deal with what we have.

What we have is a large pool of candidates for the four at-large seats that, judging by reasonable comparative standards, is impressive, diverse (in many ways), and deep. There are a lot of candidates in this field of 19 who would be perfectly reasonable finalists when Tuesday’s preliminary narrows the field to eight. Some good candidates will be left out of the mix.

I moderated a forum Wednesday night at Roxbury Community College, hosted by MassVote, NAACP Boston, and Future Boston, at which 18 candidates participated (all but Frank Addivinola). It was one of the few such pre-preliminary opportunities for the public to see the candidates this way; a paucity of forums has been added to the other factors conspiring to prevent them from getting any attention.

Plus, of course, with so many candidates, they are limited to about five minutes each of actual speaking at a forum this one.

Still, I took away some impressions to share—noting first that any candidate can have one good or off night.

Overall, I was really impressed. It’s a really deep field of people with intelligence, knowledge, experience, and passion. There are few “what are they doing here?” eye-rollers in the batch.

First, some who stood out to me. Gareth Saunders was very sharp, I thought; I wasn’t sure he would be after a long time out of the political arena, but he spoke compellingly about the lack of urgency the city is bringing to its problems. Jack Kelly was also quite good. His reliance on personal narrative is a little heavy for my taste, but you can really tell how well he connects to a wide range of residents. Seamus Whelan, who I found too big-picture in my Candidate Chat, was very good at the forum, I thought, in connecting the complaints about the 1 percent and corporate influence to the local issues at hand. Michelle Wu continues to impress—she is so polished, she comes across like an incumbent rather than a first-time challenger. Martin Keogh, who was another I wasn’t quite sold on in our Chat, was solid Wednesday evening; he conveys that regular-guy image, but informed and passionate.

A few were more a little disappointing—and again, it might have just been an off-night. I liked that Phillip Frattaroli was willing to take contrary stands (for instance, not wanting to dramatically change the city charter to re-balance powers), but he didn’t seem crisp or persuasive backing up those positions. Catherine O’Neill, who has impressed me at other times, was hesitant and unfocused at this forum. Douglas Wohn, who I think has some smart observations, was not able to articulate them. Keith Kenyon was not bad—he made a strong plea for more vocational schools—but didn’t come across as quite up to the level of the rest of the pack. Francisco White was passionate, and raised important issues about the city’s unaffordability, but did not convince me of his ability or readiness for the job. And Stephen Murphy, who I’ve seen at many of these sorts of things over the years, did not have one of his better performances, in my view.

The rest were fine. Michael Flaherty had some very strong moments, particularly when skewering the failures of the Boston Public Schools, but he didn’t necessarily show himself markedly superior to the others, as you might expect from someone with his experience. Ayanna Pressley, likewise, delivered her message with passion, but was not a stand-out on this night. Jeff Ross is another one who relies a lot on self-narrative, but I don’t think he connects as well as Kelly—although he can also be very sharp on issues. Chris Conroy came across as smart and solid, but I’m not sure he was connecting very effectively. Ramon Soto and Annissa Essaibi-George were both likable, and good enough. And Althea Garrison was Althea Garrison: occasionally razor-sharp and laser-accurate with her criticisms of the status quo; other times meandering or simply too brief.

That’s how I saw it from the podium, anyway. I wish more people could have opportunities to watch them and judge for themselves.