It was a scathing editorial: In a 624-word April harangue titled â€œChange is coming,â€ the Bay State Banner, a local paper chiefly focused on the regionâ€™s African-American community, ripped into Mayor Thomas Menino. The author, Melvin Miller, took the incumbent to task after the Boston Redevelopment Authority tabled a Roxbury project that memorialized a local arts educator, Elma Lewis.
â€œAfter the Elma Lewis decision, no self-respecting African American can vote for Menino if he chooses to run again,â€ Miller wrote. â€œIt is time for Menino to step down so that he will be remembered for his many achievements.â€
Menino quickly reversed course, but similar editorials followed. Last week, the paper announced it was suspending publication, a victim of the recession and sagging advertising.
But the question remains, apart from the editorials that some have dismissed as rhetoric: Will Tom Menino continue to have a virtual lock on the votes of the black and minority community as he makes a bid for a historic fifth term? Menino faces his most vigorous challenge to date in the candidacies of Michael Flaherty, a city councillor at-large and South Boston politician; Kevin McCrea, a South End businessman; and Sam Yoon, a Korean-American city councillor at-large.
â€œI would argue that the minority community will be the battleground,â€ said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. â€œSam needs them. Mike needs them. Itâ€™s going to be won or lost in the communities of color.â€
Both Yoon and Flaherty are attempting to make a play for minority votes, their campaigns say.
Indeed, part of the Yoon campaignâ€™s strategy is to dig into Meninoâ€™s column of support in the minority community, while counting on Flaherty to take white voters in other parts of the city away from Menino, and forcing the 16-year incumbent to defend two flanks at once.
The Yoon campaignâ€™s own polling indicates that Yoon does well with Bostonians who have lived in the city for ten years or less, they say. And theyâ€™re aiming to reach out to residents who voted in the 2006 gubernatorial race and in the 2008 presidential election for Barack Obama. (There were 135,732 voters in both those elections who skipped municipal elections in 2005 and 2007, most of them in communities of color and liberal areas of the city.)
â€œThis is the first election where itâ€™s going to be taken up,â€ Small said of the black vote. â€œBecause itâ€™s always been Menino. Outside of Sam and Menino, I havenâ€™t seen anybody working the community.â€
Flahertyâ€™s camp takes issue with that, saying theyâ€™re out in the minority community, with a base in the increasingly diverse areas of South Boston, Jamaica Plain and Dorchester, among others. They have been holding meet-and-greets, along with small â€œkitchen table conversationsâ€ among people of color. They just havenâ€™t been hyper-vocal about it, they say, and donâ€™t feel a need to be.
The Flaherty campaign said they were also continuing to push for Meninoâ€™s attendance at a trio of forums sponsored by voting rights group MassVOTE. A roster of other groups, including ones representing communities of color, have also signed on as sponsors of the forums. (Menino said he wonâ€™t attend the forums, instead agreeing to three debates â€“ two before the preliminary election and one before the final election.)
â€œMassVOTE is a critical forum to getting the message out in the minority community,â€ said Flaherty spokeswoman Natasha Perez.
Yoon said reaching out to communities of color comes naturally to him.
â€œMy background speaks to the way I would govern,â€ he told the Reporter. â€œI was a community organizer. I was an activist and an organizer much longer than I was a politician. I have been in this world for a long time. And thatâ€™s going to matter as I work with the community, create an agenda for minorities.â€
For his part, at a recent Roxbury forum, McCrea pledged to bring more construction jobs within the neighborhood and ensure that more local residents work on the projects.
Menino supporters say he is also reaching out to minority voters, including through his high number of meet-and-greets, including ones with members of the Caribbean community and others. They also point to numbers from a Boston Globe poll in May that shows sky-high support across all demographics.
â€œHeâ€™s got very strong support in the traditional, older African-American community,â€ added Judy Meredith, an ardent Menino supporter in Dorchester and Beacon Hill lobbyist.
Meninoâ€™s quick reaction to the Elma Lewis controversy shows his responsiveness, she said.
â€œHe pays attention,â€ Meredith said.
Asked about the Banner editorials, Small, who is black, dismissed them as â€œrhetoric.â€
â€œLast I checked, we lived in a democracy,â€ he said.
Minorities in other cities like Philadelphia would â€œkill to have a mayor like Menino,â€ he said. â€œYeah, he has some drawbacks. What Iâ€™ve learned a long time ago is no electeds are perfect.â€
Menino also has the public support of high-profile people of color: At a recent Dorchester house party, with the sign â€œDot for Meninoâ€ hanging on the side of the house, both state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry and Charlotte Golar Richie, who is heading up Gov. Deval Patrickâ€™s re-election campaign, attended. (Patrick, the stateâ€™s first African-American governor, is staying out of the mayoral race, despite Meninoâ€™s support for a rival â€“ then-Attorney General Thomas Reilly â€“ in the 2006 campaign.) Both Richie and Dorcena Forry have worked in the Menino administration.
Forry pointed to Meninoâ€™s support for the creation of the Mecca Mall at Grove Hall, among other projects, which have helped to revitalize the Blue Hill Avenue corridor.
â€œHeâ€™s not taking anything for granted,â€ Rep. Forry said of Menino. â€œHeâ€™s out there talking to people, letting them know of his vision.â€
Still, the minority vote remains up for grabs, others say.
â€œI donâ€™t think anybody has a lock on it right now,â€ said City Councillor Charles Yancey, who has clashed with Menino and whose district includes Mattapan and parts of Dorchester.
The mayor has a fundraising advantage and â€œpayroll patriots,â€ he added, referring to city workers who are expected to come out and support Menino in the Sept. 22 primary and the final election in November.
â€œItâ€™s not guaranteed that he will win,â€ Yancey said. â€œThereâ€™s a lot that could happen.â€
Another district councillor, Chuck Turner, is staying out of the race. Turnerâ€™s district includes Roxbury, parts of Fenway, the South End, and Dorchester.
Team Unity â€“ a group that was once made up of Turner, Yancey, Yoon and then-City Councillor Felix Arroyo â€“ is no longer unified.
The only instruction Turner says heâ€™s giving to his supporters is read up on the individual candidatesâ€™ positions and to go to the various debates and forums. â€œI think itâ€™s wiser to just be honest and sayâ€¦in terms of choices, the people have to make the choices,â€ he said.
But people like Small advocate for more cohesiveness among the minority community to press the candidates on their positions and to get what the community wants.
â€œNone of these three,â€ he added, referring to Menino, Flaherty and Yoon, â€œcan pull this stunt off without us.â€
â€œWeâ€™re the trump card,â€ Small said. â€œNow who wants to play?â€