Final four?

The City Council preliminary is seldom a preview of the finish. But this time, it just might be.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 30, 2009

FEARSOME Can top preliminary City Council finishers (from left) John Connolly, Stephen Murphy, Felix G. Arroyo, and Ayanna Pressley buck recent trends and win in November?

Some of Boston's savviest political insiders were confident of one thing going into last week's preliminary election: the top four finishers in the at-large City Council race would not be the same quartet to actually win those four seats in November. After seeing the results, however, they changed their tune. Most of those same people now fully expect incumbents John Connolly and Stephen Murphy, along with first-time candidates Felix G. Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley, to repeat their preliminary successes, and be sworn in for the next two-year Council session in January.

Of course, these wise guys (this writer included) have been wrong before. And certainly the other hopefuls who survived the winnowing of the field to eight — Andrew Kenneally, Tito Jackson, Doug Bennett, and Tomas Gonzalez — cannot yet be counted out.

History is on the latter group's side. Precedent points to one of them being successful — a lower-four finisher has turned around and won a seat each of the last three times an at-large preliminary run-off was held. John Connolly is well aware of that: he finished third in the 2005 preliminary, but fell to fifth in the general election as Sam Yoon came from fifth place to third. In 2003, Felix D. Arroyo (Felix G. Arroyo's father) catapulted from fifth to knock out Patricia White, who had cracked the top four in the preliminary. And in 1999, current mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty came from below the top tier to take the long-held seat of Albert "Dapper" O'Neil, who had finished third in the preliminary. (There were no preliminaries in 2007 or 2001, due to the small fields of candidates.)

There are several explanations for the phenomenon. For one, the general election usually brings out a larger turnout. Thus, the theory goes, preliminaries are dominated by "traditional" voters, such as city workers, lifetime residents, and the elderly, who vote reliably in all elections, while general elections include more "New Boston" types, including young adults, progressives, and minorities. That clearly helped Arroyo and Yoon, and also helped Flaherty — then one of the "New Turks" entering Boston politics — against old-timer O'Neil.

In addition, relatively unknown candidates have trouble both getting name recognition and raising money amid the large preliminary field — as they surely did this year, with a total of 13 candidates running for the first time citywide. The preliminary can thus help draw attention to newcomers who finish fifth or sixth in September for their follow-up race in November.

And finally, the preliminary can sometimes attract negative attention to those in the top four. In 2003 and 2005, the surprising strength of White and Connolly led to a backlash, in which they were seen as undeservedly benefiting from their political lineage. (White's father was a former mayor, and Connolly's father was former secretary of the Commonwealth.) Plus, the lack of diversity in the top four during those two campaigns led many to rally around a minority — Arroyo in '03, and Yoon in '05 — for balance.

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