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Divisions in political base present challenge for Walsh in Boston mayor’s race

Interests of police unions, Trump supporters, black voters at odds

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Divisions in political base present challenge for Walsh in Boston mayor’s race
District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson campaigning for mayor in the Jamaica Plain Wake Up the Earth parade.

Unseating an incumbent mayor is a rarity in Boston, but fractures in Mayor Martin Walsh’s electoral base could present leading challenger Tito Jackson with a golden opportunity.

In his 2013 upset win over at-large City Councilor John Connolly, Walsh, then a Dorchester state representative, prevailed by a thin three percentage-points. He drew heavily on support from predominantly black and Latino precincts in Hyde Park, Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury.

Author: Photo: Mayor’s Office photo by Jeremiah RobinsonMayor Martin Walsh marches with (l-r) state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and at-large city councilors Annissa Essaibi-George and Ayanna Pressley in the 21st annual Mothers Day Walk for Peace in Dorchester.

But now the disparate groups Walsh depended on for electoral victory find themselves at odds over critical issues. Black voters want body-worn cameras, a civilian review committee to investigate police abuse and more black, Latino and Asian officers on the force — measures opposed by the police unions who have backed Walsh with votes and campaign contributions.

Many residents are calling for greater affordability in newly-built housing, while real estate developers who back Walsh with campaign funds are meeting the administration’s ambitious housing goals with an abundance of luxury units beyond the reach of most Bostonians.

And in the mayor’s own Dorchester political base, a significant number of Democrats who voted for Donald Trump might be alienated by Walsh’s public stands against the president’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim executive orders.

If Jackson is able to capitalize on the tensions Walsh is facing as the gulf between haves and have-nots widens in Boston, he may be able to broaden his support beyond the Roxbury-based district he currently represents on the council.

Trump Democrats

To peel back the layers of potential fractures in Walsh’s base, one need look no further than recent elections, where precincts with high percentages of Walsh supporters went in heavily for Trump. For example Ward 16, which backed Walsh 76 percent — his highest margin in any ward — is home to many of the cops and firefighters who have donated heavily to the mayor’s campaign. And it’s also home to the precinct with the highest percentage of Trump voters in Boston — precinct 12. There too Walsh scored his highest margin of victory in the city — an impressive 86.8 percent.

In Savin Hill’s Ward 13, Precinct 10, Walsh’s home district until he moved into Lower Mills in 2015, longtime union activist and Walsh supporter Bobby “Sauce” Callahan explained his departure from the Democratic Party in a Boston Herald column last week, railing against Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and the Democratic establishment. Other union activists took notice, with several prominent firefighters re-posting Callahan’s diatribe on their Facebook pages.

Ward 13 is at the center of Walsh’s base of support, which extends into South Boston’s wards 6 and 7, both of which backed Walsh, and both of which contain precincts where the Trump vote exceeded 30 percent — more than twice the city average of 13.8 percent.

Union ties

The predominantly white labor unions whose members live in Dorchester — including firefighters, cops and building trades workers, have done well under the Walsh administration. But they stand in stark contrast to other public employee unions. The Boston Teachers’ Union is the largest of several working without a new contract during the three-and-a-half years of the Walsh administration. Last year, budget cuts to schools prompted three student walk-outs and a picket line at the mayor’s State of the City address. This year, the Walsh administration invested in expanding learning time at some schools and funded an increase in the number of early learning seats, yet cut the budgets at 49 of the district’s 126 schools.

Bob Marshall, a retired teacher who hosted a meet-and-greet for Walsh during the 2013 election, said support is waning for the mayor among members of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, a group that gave Walsh a failing report card in March.

“He’s a nice guy,” Marshall said. “I wish him well. But it’s time for a change.”

Black vote is key

Walsh’s 2013 upset victory against former at-large City Councilor John Connolly exposed fault lines in Boston’s electoral map. While Walsh’s support in the Dorchester base where he has been politically active for much of his adult life was solid, Connolly boasted strong support in his base in voter-rich West Roxbury, where he garnered 60 percent of the vote, and in wealthier areas like Ward 5 in the Back Bay/Beacon Hill area, where he won 76.7 percent of the vote.

For Walsh, the path to victory was through the city’s black and Latino communities, where endorsements from virtually every black elected official as well as several unions with large black and Latino memberships helped Walsh win nearly 60 percent of the vote in predominantly black and Latino precincts. That margin of victory among the city’s 43,000 black and 55,000 Latino voters was key to Walsh winning the mayor’s race by three percentage points.

For Jackson to mount an effective challenge against Walsh, he would have to hold down a base of support in Boston’s black and Latino communities. So far, he’s banking on his strong defense of Boston’s schools, voters’ dissatisfaction with the skyrocketing cost of housing in the city and his opposition to the city’s 2014 Olympics bid, which Walsh backed.

“He’s always been supportive of the Boston public schools and has been supportive of the children of Boston,” said Kristin Johnson, a Jamaica Plain parent activist who held a meet-and-greet for Jackson recently. “I think support is strong for him here in Jamaica Plain.”

Walsh seems as if he’s working again to win over black and Latino voters. On Tuesday, May 2, the date the city’s Election Department released nomination papers, Walsh was in Dudley Square greeting voters as he and his volunteers were en route to collecting more than 12,000 signatures — four times the number he would need to secure a slot on the ballot. That same day, Jackson’s campaign collectined more than 3,000 signatures.


The unions representing patrolmen and detectives on the city’s police force will likely back Walsh, given his administration’s February settlement of contract negotiations — including an 8 percent pay raise. Walsh received $30,000 in campaign contributions from 70 police officers in the month following the contract settlement.

Whether black voters will back Walsh remains an open question. If a civilian review board becomes a campaign issue, Walsh may face difficult choices. Then there’s the issue of hiring officers of color. Although the city is more than 50 percent people of color, people of color are underrepresented among military veterans to whom the Civil Service gives a near absolute priority for hiring. The Walsh administration and police unions are in favor of keeping the Civil Service exam as a requirement for police hiring; many blacks are not.

In the housing arena, Walsh’s record is mixed. His administration’s aggressive housing production targets — 50,000 new units by 2030 — have translated into a bonanza for the building trades and developers of luxury housing units, yet as the mayor himself noted during his visit to Dudley Square, affordable housing and displacement remain top issues for black and Latino voters.

Walsh’s stands against the Trump administration’s anti-immigration and anti-Muslim executive orders and the headlines they generate may score him points with liberal voters, but given that his base overlaps so neatly with the axis of Trump support in the city, the anti-Trump rhetoric probably won’t do much to energize his strongest base.

By many accounts, the race is Walsh’s to lose. But keeping his base together amid the growing economic and political pressures this year may prove impossible.

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