BOSTON — When Michelle Wu first ran for Boston’s City Council, she made get-to-know-you appointments with a series of political rainmakers, and found that their questions took on a familiar pattern.
Where did you grow up? What neighborhood? What neighborhood were your parents from? It took a while for Ms. Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who moved to Boston as a Harvard undergraduate, to understand what she was really being asked: Which tribe do you belong to?
In the six years that Ms. Wu has served on the council, swift change has come to Boston, whose middle-income Irish-American and Italian-American neighborhoods formed the bedrock of a Democratic machine for most of the last century.
Rising housing costs have squeezed out families whose political loyalties had been nailed down through patronage for generations. They have been replaced by transplants, immigrants and professionals who, like Ms. Wu, cannot claim membership in any of Boston’s tribes.
This year, Ms. Wu said, “I’m not even sure people would know what neighborhood the candidates live in.”
On Tuesday night, Ms. Wu celebrated a landmark — the election of a City Council dominated by progressive women and people of color.
“The issues are deep and urgent,” she said on Tuesday, to hoots from her supporters. “Boston has seen rents going up by double digits each year. We see that every time it rains, during high tide, that our city is flooded and it’s getting worse and worse. The heat is coming, the floods are coming, the traffic is coming as well.”
Ricardo Arroyo, 32, a public defender whose family is Puerto Rican, won a seat in a district that has been held by Italian and Irish men — handed back and forth “like a baton,” he said — since he was born. His victory meant that seven of the council’s 13 seats will be occupied by Asian-Americans, blacks or Latinos.
“I’m flipping the city,” he said giddily, as supporters danced to salsa music. “Right now, I think, what we are really basking in is that for a long time, there are a lot of communities that haven’t received the services they deserved — haven’t been seen, frankly — and we’re going to do a lot to change that.”
It is the latest in a series of political changes in the state.
Tuesday’s election comes 14 months after Ayanna Pressley, a black woman who had served a decade on the City Council, jolted the state’s Democratic establishment by defeating Representative Michael Capuano, a white 10-term incumbent who was expected to coast to re-election in the Seventh Congressional District.
And it comes two years before the next mayoral race, in which two council members — Ms. Wu and Andrea Campbell, the council president, who is black — are expected to challenge Mayor Marty Walsh for the chance to become the city’s first female, or nonwhite, mayor.
“These are things that would have been unthinkable in Boston a few years ago,” said John Connolly, a former city councilor who is white and who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Walsh in 2013. “There is this kind of new energy, recognizing a new guard.”
Because Massachusetts is known for its political liberalism — its courts propelled the abolition of slavery and were the first to legalize gay marriage — its dismal record at electing women and people of color can come as a surprise.
Massachusetts did not elect its first female senator, Elizabeth Warren, until 2012. In 2017, women of color made up almost 15 percent of the state’s population, but held only 1.5 percent of seats in the State Legislature. The mayors of Massachusetts’s 10 most populous cities are white men.
One reason is that Massachusetts has been securely ruled by a single party, whose leaders were under little pressure to expand the field of candidates, said Erin O’Brien, a professor at University of Massachusetts Boston who has researched the state’s record of electing women.
Nontraditional candidates, like Ms. Pressley, who in 2018 became the state’s first woman of color in Congress, have entered races against the recommendation of party elders.
“If Pressley had lost, her fortunes in the Democratic Party would have been slim, but she won and she won big,” she said. “The rumblings are because the Democratic Party is losing control over the nomination process.”
For generations, local elections in Boston were an exercise in bean counting, in which incumbents kept careful track of politically loyal families.
“You would go out and knock on doors and you’d hit a multifamily house,” Mr. Connolly said. “You’d say, ‘The Sullivans on the first floor have five votes, the O’Malleys on the second floor have four votes.’ You kind of generationally knew who lived where.”
That neighborhood system was still in place in 1999, when Michael Flaherty, 50, was first elected to the council. “If you were able to get someone a job, that person, and their family were loyal supporters of yours basically forever,” he said.
That system helped create the all-white, socially conservative City Council in place in 1974, when a federal judge ruled that students in Boston’s public schools would be bussed to schools outside their neighborhood in order to achieve racial balance.
The City Council was nearly unanimous in its resistance to the order, whipping up anger in white neighborhoods that fueled violent street protests.
But white residents no longer make up a majority in Boston, slipping from 59 percent of the population in 1990 to around 44 percent in 2017. These days, city councilors are competing to carve out progressive political identities, with an expectation that the council’s stars are headed for higher office.
Ms. Wu, 34, who credits Ms. Warren, her Harvard Law School professor, with launching her career, is a soft-spoken policy nerd who has proposed radical solutions to the city’s structural inequalities. She wants to waive all fees for travel on public transportation, a model that has been tested in some European cities.
Last year, to the delight of her supporters, she got into a public brawl with Airbnb when she challenged its expansion of short-term rentals, which she argued would further tighten Boston’s housing market. The company mass mailed letters to thousands of city residents, condemning Ms. Wu as “aligned with big hotel interests.”
On Tuesday, when Ms. Wu won more votes than any of her seven competitors for an at-large seat, she promised to challenge the political establishment on housing and climate.
Ms. Campbell, the council president, a graduate of Princeton University, has built her political career around the wrenching story of her twin brother, Andre, who cycled in and out of the criminal justice system and died in pretrial custody at the age of 29. Ms. Campbell, 37, has made education into her signature issue, saying a quality education marked the divergence in the paths that she and her twin took.
“I love being from here, and I’m a proud Bostonian,” she said in an interview. “But I’m not naïve to the fact that political power structures have been predominated by white men.” Now, she added, “we have to catch up.”
The city’s shifting identity was palpable on Election Day, when, per tradition, the mayor, the candidates and their staff gathered for lunch at Santarpio’s Pizza in Chelsea, as waitresses swept in and out with platters of grilled sausage.
The old guard was there, beefy union guys and men in roomy suits. So was the new guard, women with braids and Ivy League pedigrees. Emmanuel Serra, a former state representative, sounded a little wistful as he considered the change that had come. In his day, he said, everything was about the neighborhood.
“You lose something,” said Mr. Serra, who is known as Gus. “I would go to coffee shops and I listened to what they had to say. If you listened to what they said, they would re-elect you again and again and again. It was personal,” he said. “It became personal.”
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