At-large Contenders Are Running the Real City Council Race

A sporting equivalent of Mayor Thomas Menino's poll numbers reported May 10 in The Boston Globe would perhaps be sitting in the audience of a heavyweight fight watching the reigning champ flex and shadowbox, then realizing that you're the one due in the ring.

The once-in-a-century numbers appear to put Menino, for the moment, virtually out of reach. It's a long summer and it could be a nasty autumn and fall, but for the time being City Councillor Michael Flaherty (who falls to Menino, 61-23, in the poll), Councillor Sam Yoon (a 63-21 loser), and entrepreneur Kevin McCrea (70 to 7) had better get creative or resign themselves to being "opponents."

The Flaherty troops are rattled, but argue that he can rough up the mayor with a tight message and a disciplined ground game, saying Menino's consistently muscular poll numbers don't reflect the level of disgruntlement with the prospect of electing a mayor to a 20th year in office. And Yoon's camp says their guy could catch fire.

Perhaps. But for right now the best campaign in Boston (other than the Patrick v. Legislature tilt unfolding acrimoniously up on the Hill) is the race for the four at-large City Council seats. It's the most interesting field in recent memory. The 2005 roster was a good one: Flaherty, Felix Arroyo the first, Yoon, Steve Murphy, state government legacy John Connolly, mayoral daughter Patricia White, and mayoral son Ed Flynn.

This one's better.

Incumbents Connolly and Murphy are both on the ballot. Arroyo's son, of the same first name, is running. Ego Ezedi, who put 20-year district Councillor Charles Yancey through a stern test in 2003, is running. A former top Kerry aide, Ayanna Pressley, and a Patrick aide, the inimitably named Tito Jackson (who's going to scoop up votes on name alone), and a former Romney aide, Robert Fortes, are running. A former senior Menino aide, Tomas Gonzalez, and former Flaherty and Maura Hennigan aide, Andrew Kenneally, are in, too.

A guy who cut his teeth in politics by running as a Nantucket Republican, Doug Bennett, put on an impressive signature-gathering blitz. There are, among others, Hiep Nguyen, Sean Ryan, and Jean Claude Sanon.

Past fields have featured candidates whose sole hopes for survival past the September preliminary to the November general were exciting one or another bloc of voters - usually ethnically based, but also tailored to interest groups. This year, to crank any of the serious voter bases into action, all the reckonable candidates will have to compete with demographically similar rivals.

So they'll need to carve across the traditional voter indexes. One of the oft-forgotten brocards of the electoral politics behind the city's four at-large seats is that voters get four votes - count 'em - to cast. They can use four or zero, but you could have a ballot that hit up four different demographic groups, or just one. Either way, candidates know they have to broaden their appeals.

Because of the four-vote quirk on the at-large ballot, candidates "drafting" behind one another have permitted individual campaigns to focus on these narrow voter caches - not always confined to ethnicity and often involving the even less easily veiled appeals to labor unions - in the hope that a top-heavy field meant less competition for those "hmmmm okay," leftover votes. This year's ballot runs too deep for that.

This is what Boston politics looks like after the long, excruciating throes of the development of the heavily hackneyed "New Boston." (Please, pray the political masses to the departed soul of James Kelly, please let the field this year not try to out-"New Boston" each other.) First the test of the modern Boston pol was the ability to excite a previously flaccid ethnic bloc (or, if you happened to be Irish or Italian, one that had been active already), and now the test is - or should be - to find another way. Yes, tend your backyard, but the way to win is to follow the threads through the neighborhoods and past the traditional tribal borders.

If the press and political activists grow bored with a mayor's race already threatening to be a blowout, the at-large race could provide an undercard that will feed the electoral jones for that dwindling number of Bostonians who still feel it.