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Winner’s circle
Political bellwether or fortunate fluke? Dissecting the successful — and heavily hyped — campaign of Andrea Cabral.

ON TUESDAY, September 14, incumbent Andrea Cabral trounced Steve Murphy in the Democratic primary for Suffolk County sheriff, winning by a 20-point margin that shocked Boston’s political world. The next day, at a press conference held at Cabral’s Roslindale headquarters, I discussed her victory with Bob Marshall, a middle-aged black man who teaches at Madison Park High School and volunteered for the Cabral campaign. "The city grew up last night," Marshall told me. "It said no to good-old-boy politics and it said yes to professionalism and merit.... It’s a good thing to see and be part of, because history was made last night. Boston will never be the same."

The Boston media seem to agree. With few exceptions, Cabral’s victory has been cast as a watershed moment, a political tipping point that saw Boston’s expanding minority communities come into their own at the voting booth. (The Boston Globe’s assessment — CITY’S POLITICAL LANDSCAPE SHIFTS: MINORITY COMMUNITIES FLEX NEWFOUND MUSCLE IN DRIVING CABRAL’S VICTORY — was demure compared with the Boston Herald’s: SHERIFF PUTS NEW FACE ON THE HUB: CABRAL ROCKS CITY POLITICS WITH VICTORY.) Political insiders, too, are announcing that something big happened last Tuesday: Jane Lane, the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s spokesperson, told the Herald that Cabral’s win "may be the dawn of a new era in Boston politics."

Cabral’s win was impressive. But it’s worth remembering that the "New Boston" has arrived before. Twenty-one years ago, when African-American candidate Mel King parlayed support from Boston’s communities of color into a strong second-place finish in the city’s mayoral primary, it seemed to mark the beginning of a new chapter in city politics. Two months later, Ray Flynn destroyed King, 66 percent to 34 percent, in the final election; today, Boston has yet to elect an African-American mayor, and hasn’t had a black at-large city councilor in more than a decade. That’s why the specifics of Cabral’s victory, and the question of whether it’s a seminal moment or a feel-good anomaly, deserve greater scrutiny. Increased involvement by voters of color helped drive Cabral’s win. But candidates who follow her lead may discover that other factors — enviable buzz among Boston-area women, extraordinary support from the Democratic establishment (including Senator Ted Kennedy), heavy gay and lesbian backing, and an opponent tailor-made to lose — were just as valuable.

CABRAL ACHIEVED a number of firsts when she beat Murphy. Once the formality of November’s general election — in which she’ll run unopposed — is dispensed with, she’ll officially become the first female sheriff elected in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere. (Cabral, who is of Cape Verdean and African-American descent, was appointed sheriff in 2002.) She’ll also be the first African-American elected to the post. More significant: come November, Cabral will become the first female and second African-American elected to countywide office in Suffolk County. (Ralph Martin was elected district attorney in 1994.) Bear in mind that the city of Boston has never elected a female or a black mayor, and that Boston’s various congressional districts have never been represented by an African-American woman. In short, by vanquishing Murphy, Cabral scaled unprecedented heights for someone of her race and gender.

These breakthroughs alone make what happened last week important. But Cabral’s win is also being touted as a valuable capstone to Felix Arroyo’s comeback in last fall’s Boston City Council elections. Arroyo had finished a disappointing fifth in the 2001 at-large final, but when Mickey Roache left to become Suffolk County registrar of deeds, Arroyo became Boston’s first Latino councilor. When he once again finished fifth in the 2003 at-large preliminary, however, Arroyo seemed poised to lose his job. Instead, he regrouped and finished a strong second in the final. Arroyo’s political rebirth was hailed as a major victory for Boston’s minority communities, which now make up over half the city’s population, and there was even talk of a future mayoral run. But some observers remained skeptical.

By dispatching Murphy, or so the thinking goes, Cabral proved the skeptics wrong. "There was tremendous turnout among the communities we focus on, the communities of color in Boston," Juan Martínez, of the nonpartisan voter-registration organization BostonVOTE, says of last week’s election. "We started to see that trend develop in last year’s City Council race, and I think this is just a continuation of that."

In the 2002 primary election, Martínez notes, 7970 voters went to the polls in Ward 20, which contains heavily white West Roxbury; 3451 voted in Ward 12, which includes black-dominated Dudley Square and Grove Hall. Last week, 4563 people voted in Ward 20, compared to 3120 in Ward 12. (The disparity in turnout can be attributed to the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary.) "The communities of color have a larger share of the pie this year," Martínez concludes. "I think the voters are finally saying, ‘We want our elected officials to look like the demographics of the city.’ Those who wanted to could have thought of the 2003 City Council race as a fluke. But when this happens two elections in a row, it’s not a fluke anymore."

It’s a popular argument. "They underestimated Felix’s win," agrees political consultant Joyce Ferriabough. "The powers that be and the political pundits looked at it simply as a quirk. They did not see that there was a formula happening around Felix Arroyo’s thing, and that formula was to get a push out to double the base, because that’s what West Roxbury and South Boston does." But this explanation goes only so far. To begin with, support for Cabral and her opponent didn’t simply break down along racial lines: South Boston voted overwhelmingly for Murphy, but Cabral garnered almost half the vote in West Roxbury and actually won Winthrop. (For that matter, Arroyo received extensive support from liberal whites.) What’s more, Cabral’s campaign relied on another factor — support from women in the Boston area — that had no clear parallel in Arroyo’s 2003 run. Cabral benefited from "an incredible level of support among women in the city, and that cut across all neighborhoods," one City Hall insider says. "You saw a heavy turnout in the North End, which is a very safe neighborhood and has a lot of young single women; in Charlestown, the same thing." This is especially significant, this observer adds, given that young women — especially young women who didn’t grow up in Boston — tend not to vote in local elections. "It’s a huge thing," he concludes. "I don’t think that was part of Felix’s base."

The importance of Cabral’s female support has gotten relatively little attention in post-election analyses, but Cabral herself has emphasized it repeatedly. On the night of the election, she seemed to give equal weight to the support of women and non-white voters. "Communities of color turned out huge and women across the board turned out huge," Cabral told me. "Women kept coming up to me at different polling places and saying, ‘I came out just to vote for you.’"

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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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