Boston sees profound political changes in ’18
Black women, progressives score unprecedented wins
The year 2018 brought in sweeping political changes in Boston, mirroring a surge of progressive electoral activism that propelled left-of-center women of color — including Boston’s own Ayanna Pressley — into the national spotlight and into congress.
The city’s building boom continued apace, deepening fears of displacement and reaching into Dudley Square where as many as 360 new housing units could enter the development pipeline. As 2019 dawns, Bostonians can expect the developments of 2018 to lead to sweeping changes in criminal justice, politics and housing.
On the political front, 2018 began with Mayor Martin Walsh being sworn in for his second term in office, having won 65 percent of the vote to then-District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson’s 34 percent. The bigger story, however, came with the swearing-in of the City Council, which picked up three new members: Lydia Edwards in District 1, Ed Flynn in District 2 and Kim Janey in District 7.
The addition of Edwards and Janey brought the committee’s total number of women of color to six, at once the greatest number of women and the greatest number of people of color ever to serve on the body.
After that, political news pivoted to fall midterm elections and hotly-contested races for state offices.
In January, three Democratic candidates for the governor’s office held by Republican Charlie Baker swung through various Boston venues seeking an edge to get the party’s nomination. In February came the launch of at-Large Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s ultimately successful bid for the 7th Congressional District seat, which incumbent Michael Capuano had occupied since 1999.
The Democratic challengers in several races worked the inside game during ward caucus meetings in February. By then, former 5th Suffolk District Rep. Evandro Carvalho had first announced his bid for the 1st Suffolk Senate seat vacated in 2017 by Linda Dorcena Forry, then pivoted to enter instead a crowded field vying for the Suffolk County District Attorney seat after incumbent Dan Conley announced he would not seek reelection.
The local political landscape heated up even more as challengers emerged to take on four incumbent legislators: Angelo Scaccia, Byron Rushing, Liz Malia and Jeffrey Sanchez. Added to the mix was a fiercely contested race for the open 5th District seat. Thus, in the months leading up to the Sept. 4 primary, voters in the South End, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill and Dorchester received multiple door-knocks, mailings and robo-calls.
The net effect of spirited campaigns at the state, county and federal levels appeared to push voter turnout to a relatively high 25 percent, with some precincts in progressive-leaning Jamaica Plain turning out as high as 40 percent. In a pattern that mirrored a national trend, the city’s voting patterns underscored a surge in progressive voters spurred on by left-leaning candidates.
Pressley’s candidacy against Capuano, attorney Rachael Rollins’ decisive victory in a five-way race, and the victories of Nika Elugardo, Jonathan Santiago and Liz Miranda demonstrated a surge in support for progressive campaigns at a time of significant political polarization at the national level. Whether voters were mobilized by the anti-immigrant, conservative rhetoric spewing from the Oval Office or inspired by the candidates themselves, the result was that 18 of the 32 new Massachusetts House members are self-described progressives, a development that could add significantly to the ranks of the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus.
To what extent the progressive surge steers the conservative-leaning House leadership to the left will come to light as the Legislature takes up measures that stalled in the last session. Two to watch are the Safe Communities Act, which would limit local police departments’ involvement with federal immigration enforcement, and education funding reform, which seeks to increase the state’s education foundation budget.
In 2018, Boston’s housing construction boom continued apace, with the city’s skyline transformed by the addition of new luxury high-rises and neighborhoods swelling with new condo developments and apartment complexes. Rising rents and housing prices remained key concerns for Bostonians, many of whom complained they have been priced out of their neighborhoods.
In response to ongoing concerns about displacement of longtime Boston residents, city officials issued new guidelines for the disposition of publicly-owned land, calling on developers to detail anti-displacement strategies. For Dudley Square, the Department of Neighborhood Development called on developers to create housing units with a mix of one-third affordable, one-third moderate-income and one-third market-rate prices. By December, the agency had received more than 15 proposals for four Dudley Square land parcels, with varying sizes and affordability levels.
City officials tout the city’s unprecedented construction of affordable housing: 2,142 new affordable units constructed since Mayor Martin Walsh took office in 2014 and more than 7,500 new units in the pipeline. But with 27,513 total new units in the city’s development pipeline, many residents complain the pressure of luxury development on the market is taking its toll on the city. Some Roxbury activists in September called for a moratorium on any development of city-owned land.
The landmark 1993 Education Reform Act turned 25 in 2018, sparking a mixture of congratulatory events and soul searching. The legislation, spurred by a lawsuit charging the state with shirking its duties to ensure all residents have equal access to education, created a funding system to level the playing field between wealthy school districts and low-income districts. But the authors of the act didn’t foresee the rising costs of health care, special education and instruction for English language learners.
Advocates, including elected officials in Brockton and Worcester, are weighing another lawsuit, after legislation that would have increased education funding by $1 billion — the amount advocates say is required to adequately fund all the state’s districts — passed in the Senate but stalled in the House.
In Boston, a city with a tax base considerably larger than that of Brockton and Worcester, the school department proposed the closure of three schools: the McCormack middle school, West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy. While McCormack students and teachers were able to secure a stay of execution while they seek a high school with which to merge, the Boston School Committee voted to close the latter two.
The School Committee vote to close the schools came as city councilors and education activists debated a return to an elected school committee. Parent activists argue that the current mayor-appointed committee has no accountability to constituents and is therefore able to usher through policies that go against the wishes of parents, students and teachers.
In August, school department officials cut the ribbon on the new $73 million Dearborn STEM Academy building in Roxbury, the first state-of-the art school finished under Walsh’s $1 billion BuildBPS plan. The plan calls for renovations to existing schools and the construction of new school buildings in neighborhoods such as Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury that currently have more students than available seats.
While there has been no vocal opposition to the notion of building new schools, six city councilors called on the School Committee to pause school closings, firing off a letter in December urging a more transparent planning process. The letter, signed by councilors Lydia Edwards, Annissa Essaibi-George, Kim Janey, Matt O’Malley, Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu, failed to block the school committee’s vote, but signaled an important shift on the council, with six members firing a shot across the mayor’s bow.
School Superintendent Tommy Chang stepped down abruptly in June, bringing to a close a three-year tenure marked by missteps, including a 2017 change to school start times that would have seen a majority of elementary school students starting as early as 7:30 a.m. Walsh’s appointment of interim superintendent Laura Perille, who has had no experience working for a public school system, led to widespread calls for an open and transparent hiring process for a permanent superintendent, and calls for Perille to remove herself from the running, which she eventually did.
Other important developments
In April, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that ended some mandatory minimum sentences, increased the threshold for felony charges and made it easier for ex-offenders to seal their records. The bill came about after years of advocacy by criminal justice reform activists and progressive legislators.
Mayor Martin Walsh gave the green light to police body-worn cameras in his fiscal year 2019 budget, carving out $2 million in the city’s $3.29 billion budget to expand their use beyond a small pilot program.
Highland Park neighbors mounted a campaign to stop City Realty’s plans to raze a historic church building. The firm sold the building to Historic Boston Incorporated, which has agreed to renovate the edifice, which formerly housed the St. James African Orthodox Church.
A ballot measure that would have raised as much as $2 billion a year for education and transportation was shot down by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court after business leaders challenged it. The Fair Share Amendment would have appeared on the Nov. 6 ballot.
In August, Mayor Martin Walsh swore in William Gross as the city’s first black police commissioner. With Rachael Rollins sworn in as District Attorney and Steve Tompkins serving as Suffolk County Sheriff, all of Boston’s top law enforcement positions are now held by blacks.