Incumbents fare well, but newcomers lurk in at-large race

Boston voters whittled the field for the City Council's four at-large seats to eight candidates Tuesday, selecting council President Michael Flaherty as the top finisher, followed by Councillor Felix Arroyo, in a low-turnout preliminary election preceding the November 8 final.

Dorchester candidate Sam Yoon, a progressive, surprised many observers with a fifth-place showing, slotting behind West Roxbury's John Connolly in third and Hyde Park incumbent Councillor Stephen Murphy in fourth. Turnout clocked in at a shade above 15 percent, a number expected to spike when the mayoral election tops the marquee in November.

With 15 candidates crowding Tuesday's ballot, fewer than five thousand votes separated Flaherty, of South Boston, from Patricia White, the sixth-place finisher from Roslindale. Fellow Rozzy hopeful Matt O'Malley ran seventh, more than 800 votes behind White, and South Boston's Edward Flynn placed eighth. A precipitous drop separated the next tier.

Comprising the top five were three incumbents - Flaherty, Arroyo, and Murphy - and two newcomers; Connolly's third-place showing cements the legitimacy hinted at by his nearly preternatural fundraising, and Yoon's five-spot earns him a contender's stripes for November.

Neither Dorchester district councillor faced a challenge in the preliminary, though Councillor Charles Yancey will encounter J.R. Rucker in six weeks and Councillor Maureen Feeney will square off with Michael Cote.

Tuesday's totals rang higher than the 13.6 percent in 2003, but down from the 17 percent who hit the polls in 2001, the last mayoral election year. Of the city's 270,397 registered voters, approximately 41,000 came to the polls Tuesday, according to City Hall records.

"It was a very crowded field with lots of talented candidates, and it made people's decision difficult," Flaherty said after the results were posted, in between greeting supporters at his Cornerstone Pub party in Southie.

Arroyo supporters portrayed the two-term councillor's results as indicative of a changing Boston political dynamic, in which fundraising and connections matter less than word of mouth and grassroots organization.

While federal election monitors kept tabs, the results from the city's settlement of a Justice Department voting rights lawsuit, the day's bright and seasonably balmy weather mixed with a high-stakes Red Sox doubleheader to shape turnout.

Liberal rally

Yoon's performance, in his maiden campaign and in the first appearance of an Asian-American on a citywide ballot, set political watchers buzzing, as conventional wisdom had him marked as a "bubble" candidate before Tuesday. In mid-August, he acknowledged he would be "happy with an eighth-place finish" in the preliminary.

Hustling from a television appearance to a Blarney Stone gathering just blocks from his Waldeck Street home, Yoon said the campaign would labor in the coming weeks to further inroads among non-traditional voters.

Arroyo's silver medal may have helped Yoon with liberals and voters of color, who delivered Arroyo, of Hyde Park, an unexpected reprise of his second-place finish in the 2003 final election.

"I didn't expect this," Arroyo said at a jubilant campaign party at Merengue Restaurant on Blue Hill Ave. "I didn't know what was supposed to happen. I felt it was unpredictable because there were so many good, good candidates in this race."

Early in the day, low totals worried progressives who feared more traditional, conservative voters might check in with higher numbers than newer and progressive voters. Before 2:30 p.m., Arroyo campaign manager Patrick Keaney blasted a frantic message from a campaign address to a mass e-mail list, reporting high noontime numbers in wards where Arroyo traditionally scores below his citywide average.

"We hear a lot about a 'New Boston' these days, but looking at the turnout results in today's election is a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same," the message read.

Less than an hour later, Yoon campaign manager Andrew Kain sent a similar message, reporting that "turnout is incredibly low, especially in our key performance precincts-precincts in the communities of color and progressive areas … Low turnout favors the more conservative candidates, and city primaries are notoriously low in turnout, and therefore the progressives get left out."

But by the time poll workers began trickling back to headquarters and campaign parties with numbers-stuffed envelopes, and city election workers started posting results on the Web, rumors of a liberal power outage had proved unfounded. As the total of reported votes crept past 50 percent, the list of candidates who placed in the money became apparent, although the final order continued to fluctuate.

On the western front

Less than 200 votes ahead of Murphy, Connolly's strong third thrilled a crowded Sons of Italy Hall in Roslindale Village. Thanking his supporters, the son of Massachusetts district court chief justice Lynda Connolly and former Secretary of State Michael Connolly asked for six more weeks of volunteer support.

"There's a lot of talk about 'old Boston' and 'new Boston,'" Connolly told the throng. "But I've seen a much subtler contrast in our community, between those who are doing well and those feeling squeezed financially."

Later, Connolly told the Reporter, "This is going to be intense," he said. "Don't think I'm taking anything for granted."

The instinct to buck a sense of entitlement was among the first responses for all of the candidates left standing Tuesday, even the incumbent with the longest history as an at-large councillor.