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Newcomers Prevail in Contentious City Council Preliminary Election

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Enrique Pepén (District 5) and Benjamin Weber (District 6) unseat incumbents ahead of Boston’s general election in November.

Since Boston adopted its current city council structure in 1984, no incumbent has ever been eliminated in the preliminary voting round. This year, there were two.

On September 12, Boston Districts 3, 5, 6, and 7 held preliminary elections to narrow their fields to two candidates each, ahead of the November 7 general election. Incumbents Ricardo Arroyo (District 5) and Kendra Lara (District 6) have been two of the Council’s most vocal progressive leaders. Both carried reputational challenges into the preliminary round, and neither will advance to the next stage.

Lara – who pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in association with a June 30 car crash – observed in her concession speech: “When you fight the system, sometimes the system fights back, and today we lost this battle.” Benjamin Weber, a Boston Globe-endorsed progressive labor attorney, carried District 6 with 42% of the vote. He will face William King, a relatively moderate IT director for a local nonprofit, in the general election.

Arroyo, whose father was the first Latino ever elected to Boston City Council, battled a series of controversies over the past year. He reflected on election night, “I want to thank my parents, who have watched me relentlessly be attacked, up to and including last night…It’s been a rough 12 months.” Enrique Pepén – formerly director of Boston Neighborhood Services – secured an endorsement from Mayor Michelle Wu (BA ’07, JD ’21) and won 40% of the District 5 vote. Wu called Pepén “exactly the kind of leader we need in government. He’s thoughtful and kind, creative and tenacious—and above all dedicated to serving the community.” Pepén advances alongside José Ruiz, a former police officer supported by former Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and several more moderate city councilors. The general election will test the current and former mayors’ relative degree of influence over the evolution of city legislature.

Incumbent Tania Fernandes Anderson advanced comfortably with 57% of the District 7 vote despite residual concerts related to her hiring family members to city council staff, for which she paid a $5,000 fine. From a crowded field to fill the seat left by Frank Baker in District 3, Walsh-backed Boston Planning & Development Agency official John FitzGerald (43% of vote) will face public school teacher Joel Richards (19%) in November.

In advancing a slate of relative newcomers, the preliminary election raises an important question: is Boston experiencing a turning of the tide against progressive politics, or is this a case of idiosyncratic ethical backlash? Part of the story may be explained by spending.

FitzGerald and Fernandes Anderson both significantly outraised opponents, and notched corresponding comfortable victories. In District 5, Pepén emerged victorious despite raising roughly half of the Ruiz and Arroyo campaigns.

Shortly before last month’s elections, two new Super PACs (Political Action Committees) formed to support moderate alternatives to Lara, Arroyo, and other progressive candidates. Pursuant to the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, outside groups like these have effectively unrestricted spending power, so long as they do not directly coordinate with campaigns. Super PACs exercised significant influence in the 2021 Boston mayoral elections, raising $5.6 million.

Forward Boston PAC supported King and Weber in District 6 (opposing Lara), Ruiz in District 5 (opposing Arroyo), and FitzGerald in District 3. The group was funded primarily by a $150 thousand contribution from New Balance Chairman Jim Davis, who supported Mayor Wu’s opponent in the 2021 mayoral election. Enough is Enough PAC focused specifically on District 5 – its official state registration indicated its organizational purpose as: “Oppose the election of Ricardo Arroyo and to support the election of his opponents.” Both PACs listed Gemma Martin, who runs a local campaign finance consultancy, as their Chairperson and Treasurer.

Notably, PACs were not well received by the candidates – even those the spending favors. FitzGerald, supported by Forward Boston in District 3, explained, “We did not ask for support from this PAC nor do we need support from this PAC,” per the Dorchester Reporter. He continues, “we believe that our campaign is more than capable of running our own race without any outside assistance.” All four Forward Boston-supported candidates, in fact, issued statements in September disavowing PAC involvement in local elections.

Taking campaign and PAC spending together, there appears to have been a specific push to turn over Lara and Arroyo’s Council seats. Neither incumbent managed to lead their district’s campaign fundraising race – despite the name recognition afforded by their roles – and both were targeted by PAC spending. However, strong financial performance by relatively moderate candidates, particularly FitzGerald and Ruiz, supports the argument for a potential moderate shift in voter preferences.

Boston perennially struggles with low voter turnout, particularly in municipal elections without mayoral contests. This time around, voters made sure their voices were heard – preliminary turnout of 15 percent is meaningfully north of 2019’s 11 percent. Now, the city can fully focus on performance, policy, and good governance when voters return to the polls on November 7.

Tim Ford (MBA ’25) is originally from New Jersey. He graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in Commerce and Spanish in 2018, and completed an M.Phil. in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge in 2019. Prior to the HBS MBA, Tim worked in growth equity in San Francisco.

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