For the first time in a decade, there’s a City Council race in Allston-Brighton worth paying attention to
It’s been a long time since Mark Ciommo faced a serious challenge for his Boston City Council seat. The councilor representing the city’s 9th district—the Allston-Brighton neighborhood—has a lot going for him in the way of money, institutional support, and hometown name recognition. They are the common advantages which often deter regular challengers, but in 2017, something has changed, as the nine-year council veteran will be the lone incumbent forced to wade through a preliminary election since two challengers—Brandon Bowser and Alex Golonka—have stepped forward in attempts to unseat him from the left, with housing and affordability the centerpieces of their respective candidacies.
Last year, Time reported that Boston averaged the third-highest rent costs in the United States, behind only San Francisco and New York. While Allston-Brighton remains one of the city’s relatively more affordable neighborhoods, it’s also an area that feels the brunt of regional income inequality. According to a 2014 report by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Allston has the third-highest poverty rate among major Hub neighborhoods, with 37 percent of its residents below the line. Brighton met the city average at about 21 percent below the poverty line, with the entire district combined at over 25 percent. (Those numbers may have shifted in the time since, particularly due to displacement in the area, but not likely by very much over three years.)
With both candidates zeroing in on the affordable housing quagmire, the question is whether or not that issue will resonate deeply enough to drive voters to the polls in numbers that could lead to an unlikely unseating of a hometown incumbent for the first time in six cycles.
Allston-Brighton consistently turns out to vote at a lower rate than the rest of the city, with district-wide participation hovering around a mere 12 percent the last time there was an election featuring a mayoral race on the ballot, back in 2013. Ciommo won with little more than 6,000 votes that year. (He topped a six-candidate field with 35 percent in the primary before winning the general with 59 percent.)
Nationally, there hasn’t been anything to indicate an increase in involvement in the democratic process since the 2016 presidential election. Citywide elections in Jackson, Mississippi, and Los Angeles have actually displayed a further decrease in the already low off-year turnout. If that trend holds here, it likely won’t be awakening a huge, formerly untapped source of voters that that floods a new candidate to victory in this race. As many have predicted.
However, another trend in the wake of Donald Trump’s election—of progressive candidates with strong populist backings—shouldn’t be overlooked, especially at the local level. Candidates supported by groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and Our Revolution have reaped the benefits of a more engaged and active base, all while promoting bold ideas and a change to the system.
Growing up the son of a pastor, Brandon Bowser says that he has had a sense of social justice ingrained in his life from a young age. A mission program his family ran took them around the world, through Texas, California, and even some time in Russia.
“I was taught about going and serving others,” Bowser said. “That was kind of the basis of it all.”
Bowser’s nomadic young life eventually landed him at Central Michigan University, where he developed a deeper sense of activism campaigning for affirmative action, before finding a permanent home in Boston in 2009.
After spending five years as a teacher at the Jackson/Mann K-8 and Thomas A. Edison K-8, both in Allston-Brighton, Bowser decided to take a hiatus and run for public office.
“I know this neighborhood, I’m invested in this neighborhood,” Bowser said. “How we maintain our identity and keep people from getting priced out. That’s what I’m about.”
To Bowser, a crucial part of that identity is the Allston arts scene. In addition to the tangible struggles and suffering caused by rising rent costs, such bubbles also take a sharp cultural toll on artists and their ability to devote time to their crafts. According to Bowser, as the cost of living in the area increases, so do the departures of its creative people.
“They leave, they go where they can afford to live,” Bowser said. “Providence has a great music scene because it’s all [Boston] expats.”
Bowser laments over the decay of Allston as a northeast haven for music: “They used to call it ‘Allston Rock City,’” he says. The neighborhood was even named after an artist, painter, and poet: Washington Allston.
Apart from finding ways to make living in Boston affordable and being an advocate for the arts, Bowser doesn’t dive into many specifics or pinpointed plans. In fact, he decries the idea of making “campaign promises” or offering potential resolutions he knows would be beyond his control.
“It’s easy to say something that sounds good,” Bowser said. “I don’t think that really benefits anyone.”
What Bowser does commit to is being a transparent and available advocate for his constituents. If he has anything that represents a campaign promise, it’s that, if elected, he plans to host regular community meetings to interact with and connect the district’s representation to local organizing, bridging the community to its government.
“I want to be a neighborhood candidate,” Bowser said. “It’s important to have your decisions influenced by your neighborhood.”
His campaign embodies that sentiment. While Bowser has a good network of people “working their asses off” helping him through the election, he’s operating as his own campaign manager, taking on a workload rare even in local races.
“It’s crazy,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t suggest it.”
Bowser’s content to get his message out. It’s just about “having a conversation,” he says. There’s no ill will toward Ciommo, a “great guy,” and Bowser is uninterested in any sort of a negative campaign. But if he’s going to win, his first hurdle, theoretically, will be getting past Golonka in the preliminary election on Sept 26, a challenge Bowser’s not taking lightly.
“People are telling me I’ll make it through,” Bowser says with a grin. “I’m not so sure. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
It’s a sunny August day in Allston, where Alex Golonka’s campaign is holding its weekly Sunday meeting at the Avenue Bar & Grill. The somber mood is juxtaposed with the weather. A day before, Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, while protesting fascists among other unsavory characters, with many others being hurt and maimed.
“From any of these movements we’ve been a part of, it could have been any of us,” Golonka tells the group, in reference to the murder of Heyer. “Especially with Black Lives Matter. Around the time [activists] were taking the [Mass Pike in 2015], people were saying, ‘Oh, fucking drive right over them. Just plow through them with your car.’ I don’t want to make this about me, but this woman that was killed, she’s all of us, you know?”
The group’s been holding weekly meetups at the Avenue, in some capacity, for about a year, before necessarily knowing that a run for office was on the horizon.
“We started meeting in the runup to the  election,” said Cody Ward, Golonka’s campaign manager. “We were just trying to figure out, ‘Hey, what’re we gonna do?’ We know we can’t make a difference at the federal level, but we realized there weren’t really any great progressives at the local level, at the state level … And then we saw that the Boston City Council race was coming up. And we saw that Mark Ciommo was hardly ever challenged. We started thinking, ‘What would it take? What would it take to get on the ballot so we could start asking some questions?’”
Nobody was the natural leader, they say. They just needed someone to be the flag bearer, someone to put their face on the movement, and Golonka stepped up.
As the campaign checks spots off of the canvassing list, Ward “cuts up turf,” mapping out new spots for volunteers to knock. But getting the timing right on the weekends is a concern.
“You don’t want to wake people up on a Saturday,” says Garmil.
Golonka: “My theory is that there’s no good time. You either bother them during breakfast, lunch, or dinner.”
“Wake up! The Revolution’s happening,” Ward says to some laughs as the crew orders another round of drinks.
Growing up in the Massachusetts suburb of Milford, Golonka found his sense for left politics early on.
“I’ve been into politics and socialism from a young age,” Golonka said. “I guess some of it came from being bullied early on. I just got this sense that the world isn’t fair.”
That notion was only reinforced when Golonka moved to Boston for college 12 years ago, where he described living in the stereotypical, sardine-packed apartment as the only means of affordable housing.
Asked if he considers himself a “socialist,” a label that can even make some bleeding-heart progressives balk and cringe, Golonka’s response is unequivocal: “Hell yeah … It’s a better promise—being a socialist. It avoids platitudes. It says, ‘I want to advocate policies that help everybody, rich, poor, black and white.’ Saying you’re socialists doesn’t need to be pinpointed to some exact thing, just that you boldly know that you’re for working and struggling people.”
An active member of Socialist Alternative before seeking office, Golonka’s one of just two candidates for City Council to be endorsed by Boston’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
“The reason I’m running is because even since I moved here, the problems have gotten worse through both [former City Councilor Jerry] McDermott and Ciommo,” Golonka said. “The problems just never went away.”
His criticisms translate into an unabashedly progressive campaign platform: drastically increase affordable housing, implement rent control if necessary, enact a $15/hour minimum wage so that no full-time worker makes less than $31,000 annually, halt recent cuts to education, increase investment into bike lanes and public transportation, and cease the growing privatization of the MBTA.
“I want to propose bold solutions,” Golonka said. “A lot of people around here don’t even know who their city councilor is … I don’t know where they stand, but you damn sure know where I’m at.”
Councilor Ciommo has always called Allston-Brighton home. He was raised in the district by a single mother and says that he’s always felt a strong obligation to the community that fostered his upbringing.
“I have a 30-year record of service in this community,” Ciommo said, pointing to his work as a teacher, along with his time at the Veronica B. Smith Multi-Service Senior Center and the Jackson Mann Community Center before seeking public office in 2007. “I know the significance of being an advocate within the community.”
Part of that advocacy is in defending the institutions vital to his upbringing, which often “come under fire.” But another vital role for Ciommo is furthering development in the district. One such success includes the recent completion of the Boston Landing commuter rail stop in Brighton.
Ciommo has been a proponent of the Boston Landing development, a five-year project which was concluded in May. The commuter station, part of the Framingham/Worcester Line, runs by the new Bruins practice arena and is expected to drastically cut costs and/or commute times for residents in the area, according to Ciommo.
“Being able to bring people from Brighton to South Station in 10, 15 minutes,” Ciommo said, “I think that’s going to help a lot of people.”
But Ciommo acknowledges the crisis that his opponents challenge him on and maintains that he is a “strong advocate” of affordable housing. When he first took office, the housing crash greatly devalued property in the city, with supply far exceeding the demand.
“We were in a Great Recession when I first came in,” Ciommo said. “Now the pendulum has almost swung the other way.”
Ciommo says that he is firmly with the city in its efforts to make Boston livable and affordable.
“The demand is exceeding the supply right now,” Ciommo said. “But we as a city are committed to advocate for affordable housing.”
The general consensus, if not explicit, is that Ciommo will cruise through the preliminary election. With no sort of official polling, the incumbent plans to use the first election as a barometer for assessing the electorate this time around.
Looking at the numbers, Ciommo obliterates his opponents when it comes to fundraising, with more than $80,000 on hand per the latest financial report. In the first two weeks of June, not long after his opponents declared their candidacies, Ciommo hauled in over $19,000. The steady contributions since will likely continue, considering that he receives a lot of his support from business and real estate owners, while both of his opponents are running campaigns centered around making housing more affordable.
By contrast, at the time of this writing, Bowser is hovering above $1,500 in cash on hand, while Golonka barely has $500 in funds, most of which came from family and friends. Still, judging by the palpable campaign activity in District 9 for the last couple of months, few people would deny that for the first time in a long time, there is a serious council race in Allston-Brighton.
“I knew what the rules were when I took the job,” Ciommo said of facing a re-election campaign. “Every two years you need to rely on your record and your vision. I’ve been able to do that every election since then, and I think I can do that this time too.”
Patrick Cochran is an independent journalist covering politics and grassroots activism.