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Poll finds COVID-19 tops list of Hub voter concerns

Pandemic ranked higher than jobs, police reforms

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
Poll finds COVID-19 tops list of Hub voter concerns
At-large City Councilor Michelle Wu greets supporters at Tai Tung Park in Chinatown. Mayor Martin Walsh enjoys a considerable lead over Wu, according to a GBH poll released last week. BANNER PHOTO

As Boston prepares for the 2021 mayoral election, a new GBH News poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group shows that the COVID-19 pandemic far outstrips any issue on the minds of registered Boston voters, relegating crime, public safety, police conduct and race relations to a third tier of worry. Of second most importance to voters was housing, the economy and jobs.

The survey found that 39% of respondents saw COVID-19 as the “single biggest issue” they face and reported numerous effects of the pandemic:

19% of respondents experienced job loss.

20% indicated they’ve turned to a food bank.

28% reported spending a significant portion of a savings or retirement fund.

29% struggled to pay a portion of their rent or mortgage.

Mayor Marty Walsh declared a public health emergency over coronavirus on March 15. In the six months since then, the virus has infected more than 16,000 Bostonians, killing more than 750.

According to MassINC Polling Group President Steve Koczela, the pandemic’s impact is — in reality — even more dire.

“When we’re talking about the impacts of COVID, we know that they’ve been very disproportionate on people with lower income, people of color, immigrants and non-English speakers,” Koczela said. “If we were to do a general population poll, where we polled everybody in the city of Boston regardless of [voter] registration status, you’d probably see these impacts even greater.”

The GBH News/MassINC poll was conducted from Sept. 11 to 15 and sampled 400 registered voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9%.

When asked to state their preference in the 2021 mayor’s race, 46% favored undeclared incumbent Mayor Marty Walsh while 23% favored at-large City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has announced her mayoral campaign. District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell, who represents Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, Roslindale and Jamaica Plain and is said to be considering a run, was favored by 4% of respondents. Another 18% didn’t know or were undecided, and 6% said they would prefer another candidate.

Housing costs were a distant second behind COVID: 12% named the issue as the top concern.

“My fear is that it’s going to decrease the diversity of the city,” said Max Shuchman, 27, of Allston. “I have friends and family who are moving out of the city based on costs and I’d like to be here longer.”

Jobs and the economy were the next resonant issue with voters, with 8% saying it was their top concern.

Crime, race and policing

Despite recent protests over racism, police brutality and police accountability, neither crime and public safety nor race relations rose to the top of most voters’ issue list. Only 6% of respondents identified crime and public safety as their most pressing issue, while 4% chose race relations.

This doesn’t mean that those issues don’t matter.

Koczela said responses on police and policing proposals suggest, simultaneously, broad approval of the Boston Police Department and broad agreement on room for improvement through specific reforms.

In the poll, 71% of respondents indicated some level of approval of the way BPD is doing its job, with 38% characterizing their approval as “somewhat.” On the other side, 22% disapprove, and 7% either didn’t know or declined to answer.

Black and Latino voters were most accepting of BPD performance, with 74% and 75%, respectively, indicating approval.

“I’ve been driving around in Boston now for over eight years,” said Germaine Gentle, a real estate agent who moonlights as a ride-share driver and says he has never been pulled over by Boston Police while on the job at odd hours. He chalks his free movement up to the force’s good training and decent community relationships.

“I think they profile, maybe less, or maybe they have a good idea of who is who based on their interactions with people and neighborhoods,” he said.

When asked about police performance and responsiveness, 68% believe an expanded civilian review board, as recommended by the mayor’s reform panel earlier this month, would be effective at improving the way Boston police operate.

Kevin Robinson, a South Boston man in his early 30s, said: “I support our Boston Police Department, but that doesn’t mean I unwaveringly support everything that they do.”

“I think,” Robinson added, “a civilian review board to watch the people that watch us makes sense.”

Emma Hahn of Brighton was more considered, calling the civilian review board “a good first step.”

She said, “I think that any sort of oversight outside of the police department is a good thing. In practice, it’s going to be interesting to see whether that [review board] has any power, or any access to information that everyday people don’t necessarily have, or if it’s going to be a continuation of qualified immunity.”

Hahn, 29, also supports cutting some funding from the Boston Police Department and shifting it to social services, an idea that 65% of respondents support and 28% oppose.

Younger voters and Latinos indicated the most support for this idea, while voters ages 60 and older expressed the most opposition.

“You cannot take money away from the police,” said Richard Pavidis, 69 who fears reallocating funding will prompt an increase in unlawful behavior. “They are our first line of defense against all the ungodly people that are now committing crimes in order to survive.”

Overall, the very presence of police in a neighborhood tended to make almost half questioned — 46% — feel “mostly safe.” However, 18% said they were “mostly anxious.” Thirty-two percent said they were not affected, and 4% didn’t know or declined to respond.

Early issues for mayoral race?

The issues of policing and police funding could be used by mayoral candidates to distinguish themselves in nascent 2021 mayoral race. There’s a gap between how Walsh supporters and Wu backers think about police.

Among Walsh supporters, 76% approve of the way the BPD is doing its job, while 57% of Wu supporters approve.

Additionally, 55% of Walsh supporters said they feel safe when they see Boston Police in their communities, while only 31% of Wu supporters feel safe in the same circumstance.

Of the gap, Koczela said, “You can see the coalitions that Marty Walsh and Michelle Wu are beginning to carve out and how they feel differently about some of these issues.”

He added, “I do think that this is going to be an active discussion during the campaign and between the candidates, trying to figure out exactly what the right course is for the Boston Police Department.”

Saraya Wintersmith covers Dorchester, Roxbury and. Mattapan for GBH News 89.7.

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