City Councilor At-Large Felix G. Arroyo is among many candidates fighting hard to win the Mayor’s Office this fall. But Arroyo is describing a different vision of the mayor’s role, one where residents would directly shape the City’s plans and policies.
“I believe the power in City Hall doesn’t come from inside the building. It comes from outside the building,” Arroyo said in a recent interview, “Everyone should have a say. It’s not a favor we’re giving them. It’s a right.”
It’s also practical, Arroyo said, describing how such grassroots brainstorming has helped him craft proposals that he believes ultimately will increase economic opportunity in Boston, a place he describes as the incarnation of the American Dream.
Arroyo, 34, is in his fourth year as a city councilor and previously worked as a union organizer and a constituent services rep for former City Councilor Chuck Turner. He comes from a family steeped in public service. His father, Felix D. Arroyo, was Boston’s first Latino city councilor and a locally beloved liberal activist in such roles as a Boston School Committee member.
His parents also had the classic American immigrant experience, moving to Boston from Puerto Rico and raising six children, a background that informs Arroyo’s positive attitude about the city.
“My parents came here speaking no English. My first language is Spanish,” said Arroyo. “They came here searching for that American Dream.”
“It wasn’t always easy for us. I know what it’s like to use the stove as a source of heat in winter,” Arroyo said. But, he said, Boston also was a place where his parents were able to buy their first home and where he was able to get a great education in Boston Public Schools. Making sure that everyone has that kind of opportunity, he said, is what drives his campaign.
His family background also makes Arroyo the first Latino to run for mayor of Boston. While he is quick to point out that the office will be won on merit rather than race, he acknowledged the significance.
“It is what allows me to say this is a historic campaign,” he said with a grin, adding more seriously that it is a sign of progress in Boston that a Latino candidate can mount a serious mayoral campaign.
“There’s a lot of pride about our city in the Latino community,” Arroyo said. “It comes from the realization the American Dream is real. This is the type of city where anything is possible.”
Arroyo was born in Boston and raised in Hyde Park. He moved to Jamaica Plain in 2001 and still lives there with his wife Jasmine Acevedo.
“I really came of age in Jamaica Plain,” he said, referring to such community involvement as his former service on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council and his current work as a Jamaica Plain Community Centers board member. He is a longtime youth baseball coach in JP as well.
Jamaica Plain “respects community involvement and community engagement,” he said—ideas that are key to his governing style that “puts community first.”
That partly means such structural changes as “splitting” the Boston Redevelopment Authority into separate planning and economic development agencies. He described as accurate the frequent community complaints that, with BRA process today, “You don’t get to play a role” in setting the development agenda.
But the real core of Arroyo’s idea is grassroots input, both informal and formal, to shape policy. He is already doing it with such efforts as his ongoing youth advisory committee, among other methods.
A prime example of the process, he said, is the “Invest in Boston” proposal he is seeking to turn into law. His plan calls for the City of Boston to deposit funds only in banks that demonstrate they are directly helping Bostonians through lending practices, hiring or other activities. That idea came directly from conversations with youths seeking jobs and small businesses saying no banks would extend them credit, he said.
Invest in Boston “really shows how I think and how I operate,” Arroyo said, describing how leveraging the City’s $1 billion in bank investments would help make “the prosperity that’s in Boston really get into our neighborhoods.”
Boston Public Schools (BPS) is another spot Arroyo wants more bottom-up rather than top-down input. It’s a topic he knows well; his mother is a former BPS teacher and his sister and wife currently are BPS teachers.
Arroyo expressed dissatisfaction with the recent BPS process where a new school assignment plan was adopted amid controversy over access to “quality” schools.
“All we did was figure out the fairest way to deliver an unjust product,” he said. “We have to move it beyond talk,” he said of attempts to define and then expand quality schools.
Still, he does have some specific ideas for improving schools. They include art, physical education, civics lessons and financial literacy classes for all students; job training for teens; and an extended school day.
He also said that, as mayor, he would hire a new BPS superintendent who would create a budget starting with direct student needs, not on the money “filtering down” through the bureaucracy to the classroom.
The goal of public input also shapes Arroyo’s support for a proposed casino in East Boston. He said a casino is “not my first choice” for economic development, but that it will go somewhere in the area and Boston should have the tax revenue and jobs. He said he also supports giving only East Boston citizens, rather than all Bostonians, a vote on whether the casino should go there—an option under state law. He said it would go against his idea of community input if Eastie voted no to the casino, but the rest of Boston voted yes and forced it on them.
Arroyo’s time working for Turner may raise some eyebrows, as several years later, Turner was convicted on federal bribery charges. Turner is currently in prison, though he will be back in Boston this summer. By the time of Turner’s sentencing, Arroyo was one of his peers on the council and tearfully voted for him to be removed from office.
Asked if he had ever seen Turner do anything wrong while working for him, Arroyo said, “I’m saddened about how his career in public service ended. What he was convicted of was not the person that I knew.”
Arroyo currently has some more popular figures campaigning for him. His father, who retired to Uruguay, has returned to stump for him. Also on the campaign trail recently was his father-in-law, Héctor Luis Acevedo, who happens to be the enormously popular former mayor of San Juan and a major figure in Puerto Rican politics.
But Arroyo is emphasizing that his campaign is about grassroots organizing and direct outreach to regular people. He offered a politics-watching tip: “You can see how someone will govern based on how they campaign.”
Minutes after the interview ended, this reporter was approached on a sidewalk by an Arroyo volunteer asking for a nomination paper signature and eager to talk about Felix.
John Ruch is editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette that is owned by the Independent Newspaper Group.