Wednesday, April 18, 2007

City Council Special Election I

Seven names were on the ballot in the special preliminary election for City Council in District 2, but the competition was really among three candidates who finished within three percentage points of each other: Susan Passoni, Bill Linehan, and Ed Flynn. Though the district has long been dominated politically by South Boston--overshadowing the South End, Bay Village, the Leather District and a small part of Dorchester--the preliminary vote showed that Chinatown—straddling only two precincts—can be pivotal.

In recent years, parts of the district outside South Boston have been gaining in electoral clout. That hardly guarantees a victory in the final for Passoni, who lives in the South End. But the preliminary signals one tipping point in that the candidate who got the most votes in South Boston, Ed Flynn (1445), failed to make it to the final.

Finishing close behind Passoni throughout the district, Bill Linehan got the second highest number of votes in South Boston (1287), and he was far ahead of all the other candidates in Chinatown’s largest precinct, which also includes the Leather District. Ward 3, Precinct 8 gave Linehan 246 votes, even though the turnout here was only about 14%. In the same precinct, during the final election of 2005, when Jim Kelly won his last term, he received only 188 votes, despite a turnout of more than 32%. In that same election, the precinct gave Passoni 305 votes. Observers say it’s likely she’ll pick up some of the votes this year that went to other candidates, especially South Boston environmental justice activist Mary Cooney. Some votes for other candidates could also go to Linehan, and it’s anybody’s guess about the split among new voters in the final.

What’s also apparent is that Linehan has picked up support in Chinatown that eluded Jim Kelly. There could be many reasons for this, including Linehan’s work in Chinatown for Mayor Menino’s Administration on the addition of upper grades to the Josiah Quincy Elementary School. Other factors could include support from Frank Chin, a long-time community leader who enjoys good relations with City Hall. According to Lydia Lowe, the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Assn., the “City Hall machine” was a factor, at least in Chinatown precincts. Even if that overstates the role of Mayor Menino, Passoni is more noticeably at odds with the administration on issues such as powers of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the construction of a biodefense lab near Boston Medical Center. Less clear is what, if any difference can be explained by rising numbers of new, non-Asian voters. And even Lowe says Chinatown turnout was highest among the elderly.

Another part of the Chinatown community—including residents of Castle Square, Mass Pike Towers, South Cove East and West lies in Ward 5, Precinct 1. This also includes Bay Village and part of the South End. In 2005, Passoni received almost two-thirds of the vote in this precinct. In this year’s preliminary, she had 57%, well ahead of Linehan’s 16%.

If Passoni is to win in the final election on May 15, she needs more votes from South Boston. In this year’s preliminary, with all the other six candidates from South Boston, precincts in that area gave her only from 2.9% to 16.9%. In 2005, the same precincts gave her anywhere from 15% to 37% of the vote, so that suggests she can do better in May. But that could still be far short of the votes for other South Boston candidates going to Linehan.

Whoever wins in May will have to run again for a full term later this year. There have been close special elections with large fields that set the stage for a much less competitive regular election. If Passoni were to win, there would seemingly be an incentive later this year for someone who could unify and mobilize the still dominant vote from South Boston—even if it’s unclear they would do better than Linehan. If Linehan wins and Passoni doesn’t challenge him, then Flynn’s performance shows what could be done, provided the South Boston vote isn’t split by any more candidates from the same neighborhood. But special elections also make an obvious but dramatic change in a candidate's political status: the difference between wannabee and incumbent.