Communities of color seen as key to mayor’s race

It was a scathing editorial: In a 624-word April harangue titled “Change is coming,” the Bay State Banner, a local paper chiefly focused on the region’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.

“After the Elma Lewis decision, no self-respecting African American can vote for Menino if he chooses to run again,” Miller wrote. “It is time for Menino to step down so that he will be remembered for his many achievements.”

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.

“I would argue that the minority community will be the battleground,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. “Sam needs them. Mike needs them. It’s going to be won or lost in the communities of color.”

Both Yoon and Flaherty are attempting to make a play for minority votes, their campaigns say.

Indeed, part of the Yoon campaign’s strategy is to dig into Menino’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 campaign’s own polling indicates that Yoon does well with Bostonians who have lived in the city for ten years or less, they say. And they’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.)

“This is the first election where it’s going to be taken up,” Small said of the black vote. “Because it’s always been Menino. Outside of Sam and Menino, I haven’t seen anybody working the community.”

Flaherty’s camp takes issue with that, saying they’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 “kitchen table conversations” among people of color. They just haven’t been hyper-vocal about it, they say, and don’t feel a need to be.

The Flaherty campaign said they were also continuing to push for Menino’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 won’t attend the forums, instead agreeing to three debates – two before the preliminary election and one before the final election.)

“MassVOTE is a critical forum to getting the message out in the minority community,” said Flaherty spokeswoman Natasha Perez.

Yoon said reaching out to communities of color comes naturally to him.

“My background speaks to the way I would govern,” he told the Reporter. “I 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 that’s going to matter as I work with the community, create an agenda for minorities.”

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.

“He’s got very strong support in the traditional, older African-American community,” added Judy Meredith, an ardent Menino supporter in Dorchester and Beacon Hill lobbyist.

Menino’s quick reaction to the Elma Lewis controversy shows his responsiveness, she said.

“He pays attention,” Meredith said.

Asked about the Banner editorials, Small, who is black, dismissed them as “rhetoric.”

“Last I checked, we lived in a democracy,” he said.

Minorities in other cities like Philadelphia would “kill to have a mayor like Menino,” he said. “Yeah, he has some drawbacks. What I’ve learned a long time ago is no electeds are perfect.”

Menino also has the public support of high-profile people of color: At a recent Dorchester house party, with the sign “Dot for Menino” hanging on the side of the house, both state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry and Charlotte Golar Richie, who is heading up Gov. Deval Patrick’s re-election campaign, attended. (Patrick, the state’s first African-American governor, is staying out of the mayoral race, despite Menino’s support for a rival – then-Attorney General Thomas Reilly – in the 2006 campaign.) Both Richie and Dorcena Forry have worked in the Menino administration.

Forry pointed to Menino’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.

“He’s not taking anything for granted,” Rep. Forry said of Menino. “He’s out there talking to people, letting them know of his vision.”
Still, the minority vote remains up for grabs, others say.

“I don’t think anybody has a lock on it right now,” 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 “payroll patriots,” 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.

“It’s not guaranteed that he will win,” Yancey said. “There’s a lot that could happen.”

Another district councillor, Chuck Turner, is staying out of the race. Turner’s district includes Roxbury, parts of Fenway, the South End, and Dorchester.

Team Unity – a group that was once made up of Turner, Yancey, Yoon and then-City Councillor Felix Arroyo – is no longer unified.

The only instruction Turner says he’s giving to his supporters is read up on the individual candidates’ positions and to go to the various debates and forums. “I think it’s wiser to just be honest and say…in terms of choices, the people have to make the choices,” 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.

“None of these three,” he added, referring to Menino, Flaherty and Yoon, “can pull this stunt off without us.”
“We’re the trump card,” Small said. “Now who wants to play?”



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