The City Council looks like the New Boston
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
This is not your mother’s Boston City Council.
Time was, that body was mostly unremarkable and pretty powerless, stymied by limited ambitions, and by mayors who could (and did) thwart councilors’ policy proposals, not to mention their dreams of higher office. The council was often ignored and extremely mockable.
Not any more. Today’s City Council is dominated by smart, ambitious people who mirror a city transformed over the past decade or so. They have big ideas, they propel public conversation — sometimes more strongly than the mayor does — and push the city forward.
As we near the Sept. 24 primaries, which will winnow a field crowded with impressive candidates, it’s worth noting what the council has become: a body to which Boston’s rising stars, people with big dreams for the city and for themselves, now aspire.
The ascension of former councilor Ayanna Pressley to Congress is partly responsible for that. But her rise is just the most dramatic demonstration of the fact that the chamber on City Hall’s fifth floor is no longer the dead end it used to be. Most of these councilors are passionate policy nerds. Among them: At- large Councilor Michelle Wu has been a leader on transportation, challenging the state to fix the transit system more aggressively than has Mayor Marty Walsh, even proposing a fare-free MBTA, a provocative notion that gets to the system’s yawning inequities; District 6 Councilor Matt O’Malley has been a consistent voice for the environment, pushing a plastic bag ban and net zero carbon buildings; District 1 Councilor Lydia Edwards is a bona fide labor expert, and is putting the heat on area universities to improve conditions for student workers; council President Andrea Campbell has consistently pressured the city on the inequities in schools.
“We now have a City Council that is unafraid to take the lead on issues that matter,” Campbell said. “We’re being taken seriously, viewed as a body that, yes, can get things done.”
It used to be that councilors couldn’t get traction unless they were in the good graces of the mayor, who could make or break their ability to deliver services for their constituents. If they wanted press, they generally had to be where the mayor was. But social media now provide councilors with their own platforms. And the city’s 311 service means residents hold the mayor’s office directly responsible for fixing potholes.
On top of all that, city government is far more attractive to those who want to change the world these days.
“People are starting to discover you can achieve some really awesome goals at the local level,” said Mike Ross, who served on the council from 2000 to 2013. “A lot of people have given up on our federal government.”
So we have more superstars than ever running for the council. It’s unfair to single anyone out in a field this strong, but consider Kenzie Bok, running for the district seat being vacated by Josh Zakim. Bok, 30, is a thoughtful and passionate housing advocate who helped lead the campaign for Boston’s Community Preservation Act, approved by voters in 2016, which raises funds for affordable housing, open space, and historic preservation. She has been a senior adviser for policy and planning at the Boston Housing Authority and budget director for at-large Councilor Annissa Essaibi George. Bok, who has a PhD in history, teaches courses in the history of philosophy and in housing justice at Harvard.
She’s worried Boston has been changing in ways that exclude people with lower incomes. And she reckons the City Council will be the place where she can best help them.
“We’re at this tipping point in the city,” Bok said. “The majority of the council is really interested in expanding the power of the legislative branch to tackle the big-picture challenges of the city, people who are excited about policy. That completely changes the game.”
It sure does. Who would have thunk it?