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Door to Door, Block by Block

Three Boston City Council at-large candidates have BU connections

| From BU Today | By Cynthia K. Buccini

At a house party on Tremont Street, Ayanna Pressley chats with Jay Kuhlow (left) and Josh Dawson. Photos by Frank Curran

They’ve spent much of the summer hitting neighborhood hot spots, shaking hands with Boston voters, collecting endorsements, making endless calls to raise money.

Of 15 candidates for 4 at-large Boston City Council seats, 3 have ties to BU: Tomás González, former director of community outreach at the Medical Campus and part-time master’s student in Metropolitan College, Andrew Kenneally (MET’08), and Ayanna Pressley (CGS’94).

The 13-member council includes 4 councilors-at-large, elected by all Boston voters. With two of the four at-large incumbents leaving office — Michael Flaherty (LAW’94) and Sam Yoon are looking to unseat Mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01) — opportunity knocks.

A preliminary election, which will whittle the roster of at-large candidates to eight, will take place on September 22; the municipal election to choose the final four is November 3.

Tomás González, former director of community outreach at the Medical Campus and part-time master’s student in Metropolitan College

Tomás González
On a warm July evening, Tomás González (above, second from right) mingles easily with potential supporters, mostly Latino, at a Beacon Hill house party. Wearing a dark pinstriped suit and subtly patterned tie, González chats with guests sipping wine and munching on crackers, cheeses, dips, and shrimp. After about an hour, the crowd of more than 30 assembles around the living room stairs. Latinos, their host reminds them, are the fastest growing segment of the Massachusetts population; they need to have a voice. Then he introduces González, who tells them, “This campaign is a huge endeavor, and I want to let you know what you’re investing in. You’re investing in 16 years of experience and knowledge.”

González, whose family is from Puerto Rico, earned an associate’s degree from Roxbury Community College and a bachelor’s in history from Boston College. He got his start in community organizing his first semester at RCC, running voter registration efforts as an intern for a city councilor who represented Roxbury. He later was director of the Frisoli Youth Center in Cambridge before becoming the urban youth sports coordinator for Northeastern University’s Sport in Society center.

In 2002, he became the citywide Latino liaison in Menino’s neighborhood services office. “That’s probably the hardest job I have ever had,” González says. “All you do is constituent services … pick up the phone and figure out what that person on the other end needs. I was the voice for the mayor in the Latino community.”

The phone never stopped ringing, he says: “If there’s a fire at three in the morning, you’re going to that fire. Because it’s our job to make sure these people have a place to go after the fire.”

After three years, González became chief of staff for the city’s Elderly Commission. “It complemented my experience, because I’d done a lot of work with youth, teenagers, community, families,” he says. “But I had never worked with an elderly population.” Three years later, he joined the staff at BU, heading community outreach initiatives for the School of Medicine, the Goldman School of Dental Medicine, and the School of Public Health.

González says he hadn’t planned on leaving BU last February, but the opportunity to run for an open city council seat was one he could not pass up. He’s been running full-time since March.

If elected, he says, one goal is to get the entire $2.4 billion city budget online, so voters can see where the money is going, and “engage the city in dialogue over it.” He also wants to improve public schools. “There are high-performing, high-impact schools in our system right now,” he says, pointing to Dorchester’s Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School, which his children attend. “Why aren’t they the model?”

González wants to talk issues with anyone who will listen: at house parties, community events, knocking on doors, greeting voters as they head to work. “You’re not talking to people? Forget about it,” he says. “I wake up saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ People might say, ‘All right, what are you selling?’ I’ll say, like, ‘Me.’ Boom. Here you go. And it’s fun.”

Andrew Kenneally (MET’08)

Andrew Kenneally
In May 2008, Andrew Kenneally (right) had just left his job as policy and communications director for city councilor Michael Flaherty to work for a public relations firm. The new job was challenging; when he came down with a severe headache a few months later, he chalked it up to stress.

But the pain persisted. After tests, medication, and more tests, he was diagnosed with a tumor at the base of his brain. Surgeons removed the benign mass and gave Kenneally a clean bill of health.

He returned to work that November, only to become a casualty of company layoffs. “I go home on November 1 and I sit on my couch and I think, great, what else are You going to throw at me at this point?” he remembers. “And the phone rings, but I don’t pick it up because I’m not talking to anybody.”

The call was from a reporter who had told him months earlier that his name had been floated as a possible city council candidate. Kenneally had just started his job, so the timing wasn’t right. Now the reporter wanted to know if he had changed his mind. “And I’m like, it’s kind of a sign,” Kenneally says. By December, he’d formed a committee and started raising money.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he became a legislative and press aide for U.S. Rep. Norman Sisisky (D-Va.), who died in office in 2001, and later director of Internet communications for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), now Senate majority leader. After a little more than a year, he left that job to pursue a master’s in comparative ethnic conflict at Queens University Belfast. “If you want to learn about conflict,” Kenneally says, “go to Palestine or Northern Ireland. It was an enriching experience.”

After returning to Boston, he was chief of staff for Maura Hennigan, then a city councilor, and later became policy and communications director for Flaherty. He earned a master’s in urban affairs at BU in 2008.

Kenneally is concerned about “getting Boston moving again,” he says. “We have so many stalled developments throughout the city. One only has to walk to Downtown Crossing to see a big hole in the ground.” Offering developers financing will jump-start those projects, he says, and put people back to work. He also believes the city must provide more job-training services.

On a rainy day in early summer, he attends a modest rally outside Boston Municipal Courthouse. The organizers, Join the Impact MA and the Anti-Violence Project, are protesting what they see as a judge’s lenient sentence of a man convicted of beating three gay men and their female companion in the South End a year ago. The man received no jail time; Kenneally attends to show support.

“I just think we need to be vigilant and not tolerate such hate,” he says. “As a person who is seeking to be an elected official, I think you have to be visible. You can say all you want, but are you there when they need you?”

Ayanna Pressley (CGS’94)

Ayanna Pressley
Asked when she decided to enter the city council race, Ayanna Pressley ponders.

“The process of deciding to run — you have to do so much internal work,” says Pressley, who over the last 16 years has worked for former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) and for U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.). “Because you’ve been behind the scenes, you’ve never done this work for recognition. Suddenly, there’s a kind of whisper campaign that you’re considering this. People are coming at you, massaging you in ways you’ve never been massaged before. You can really start to think this is about you. And you’ve got to put the brakes on that and dial into what’s important.”

What’s important, she says, is constituent services. “When I could see it as a furthering of what I’d been doing my entire life, then I could get on board with the possibility.”

Pressley was raised on the north side of Chicago by her single mother, who juggled jobs to be able to send her daughter to a top private school. Pressley says everything she knows about advocacy she learned from her mother, who was a community organizer for the Chicago Urban League. Her father, who battled heroin addition and was in and out of prison for most of her childhood, went on to earn two college degrees and teach at the college level.

In 1992, Pressley arrived at BU, but left to work full-time and help support her mother, who had lost her job. She found a job at the Boston Marriott Copley Place and later joined Kennedy’s staff as a district representative. “I did primarily Social Security casework, helping the disabled, seniors, or veterans,” she says. During Kerry’s reelection bid in 1996, she became his volunteer coordinator; after he won, he offered her a job in Washington, D.C.

She held various positions on the senator’s staff, including scheduler, constituency director, and finally, political director. “I was the liaison to elected officials on the municipal, state, and federal level, the Democratic Party, activists and community leaders throughout the state,” she says. “At the core of all things politic is relationships.” She stepped down in May, after 11 years.

At a recent house party with potential supporters on Tremont Street, overlooking the Boston Common, Pressley describes her upbringing and professional experience.

“I’m especially passionate about gender-specific mentoring,” says Pressley, a mentor with the Young Black Women’s Society and the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. “I’m a survivor of sexual abuse. I talk openly about it, because it’s not my shame and because unfortunately I am not alone. I’ll say it proudly: I’m on a mission to support and save our girls. Because strong girls make strong women. And I love the men, but we’re the backbone of society."

Pressley says there’s been “much ado” about the historic nature of her candidacy. “There’s never, in 100 years, been a woman of color elected to the Boston City Council,” she tells the group. “I’m not running to make history. I’m running to make a difference. But it’s not lost on me that I have to first make history in order to make a difference.”

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