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Walsh reflects on year of challenges and changes

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Walsh reflects on year of challenges and changes
Mayor Martin Walsh participates in a December virtual coffee hour with the Age Strong commission from his office in City Hall. PHOTO: JEREMIAH ROBINSON, MAYOR’S OFFICE

No one would dispute that 2020 brought extreme challenges worldwide, nationwide and locally. In Boston, officials and residents faced surges of COVID-19 infections and deaths, widespread shutdowns and economic hardship, while also wrestling with issues of racial justice in policing and public education. In a recent Zoom interview, Mayor Martin Walsh reflected on Boston’s pandemic response, the city’s current police reform and education issues, and his own future options.

The following interview has been edited.

Banner: The COVID pandemic has exposed inequalities in cities and states across the nation. How well do you think Boston has responded to inequalities in areas of housing, education and how essential workers are treated?

Walsh: I think the team here inside City Hall was really amazing. In March, we shut everything down, and within a matter of days, we set up food distribution centers. We delivered Chromebooks to our kids. We had a system set up for wellness checks on our seniors and our veterans. We worked to get a shelter system to separate people so they could physically distance, and for anyone who came down with COVID we worked with Healthcare for the Homeless and we also had isolation tents. So, I think in that sense of it, the response was really incredible.

Walsh updates the city during a November press conference outside of City Hall. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

Walsh updates the city during a November press conference outside of City Hall. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

On the inequity piece, it’s tougher question to answer. We didn’t stop creating more affordable housing — we were actually able to get 1,000 vouchers out to families that were either homeless on the verge of homelessness. We were able to house 250 chronically homeless people. This is all new housing. But what I noticed, really, in the pandemic, was that when you look at the numbers, and you look at the communities, whether it’s in the Black community, where African Americans tested positive in high numbers — and now in the Latino community, too — a lot of that [relates to] housing instability, intergenerational families and families living together, and not having the proper space. So we’ve seen a lot of that. Clearly, we have issues around housing.

In health care, we set up testing facilities. We’re doing the mobile testing sites. More and more people are getting tested, which is great, but with the vaccine coming, we have to do more work to build confidence in the community.

One of our top priorities was declaring racism a public health crisis. One aspect of that is, how do we build not just trust with the black community and the communities of color, but how do we increase access, so that the feeling is when you and I go into a hospital, we both get treated the same, regardless of where we’re from, our economic means, the color of our skin. Those are the things that the pandemic has brought to light and that we’re working on.

Moving forward, one of the biggest concerns is going to be employment. Many of our lower-income jobs, such as in the hospitality industry and restaurants, those workers are going to be disproportionately hurt by COVID, because their industries might not come back.

To what extent do you think Bostonians are doing their part as individuals to stop the spread?

I think most people are, but I do think over the summer we had too many cookouts, and now we have too many house parties going on. That’s probably, maybe, the number one and number two places where the spread is happening. In March, April, May, we had high rates of infection. In June, it started to come down. In July and August, we were at about 1.8% to 2.8%. Right around September, we started to see those numbers creep back up. We were getting more complaints about house parties. There’s definitely a correlation there. The experts told us that there could be a big surge after Thanksgiving. [Now,] the daily cases are almost where we were [before], and we have Christmas coming. So my concern is that we’re going to see those numbers continue to go up high.

Turning to police reform, people in Boston have been asking for a civilian review board since 1992, when the St. Clair Commission Report made its recommendations. What’s taken so long? Why are we just doing it now?

We had the CO-OP [Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel] board here in Boston when I became the mayor. They roughly got 10% of the [Boston Police Department’s] Internal Affairs cases. A couple of years ago, I expanded that to five members and to 20% of the Internal Affairs cases — but it did not do what it was supposed to do. They didn’t meet frequently enough. And I’m aware that that’s on me. But in the aftermath of what happened with the George Floyd murder, that put a whole new sense of urgency to dealing with systemic racism and dealing with the systems that we have.

I put together the Police Reform Task Force. That task force came back with recommendations. One of the things that I asked them to look at was what a civilian review board would look like. The [new] Civilian Review Board is going to have members of the community reviewing cases against police officers. An executive director is going to be hired. It’s not going to be located here at City Hall, it’s not going to be at the police department. We’re trying to find a space and we’re going to be hiring that person. I think this is a great step forward.

Walsh walks out of Boston City Hall with Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius

Walsh walks out of Boston City Hall with Boston Public Schools Superintendent
Brenda Cassellius for an August press conference updating the city on the COVID-19 pandemic and school reopening plans. PHOTO: ISABEL LEON, MAYOR’S OFFICE

In education, a big development this year was the one-year change to the entrance requirements for the city’s three selective-admission high schools. Is your administration looking at more permanent changes for the requirements?

We’ve actually done it. I mean, this [entrance] test that we were supposed to have this year was different than the last test, and it never got a chance to get off the ground. The one-year pause on the testing piece of it was because of COVID — obviously, we can’t bring that many kids into a classroom to do the testing.

But we are going to be looking at equity in admissions. We have to look at what is the process going to be, moving forward. I think that it’ll be interesting to see how the process that we did this year works. Twenty percent of our seats will be reserved for the top-ranked students citywide, based on GPA, and 80% of the invitations will be distributed by a combination of GPA and home zip codes. The [Exam School Criteria] Working Group tried to do it the most equitable and fair way they could. And next year, they’re going to continue to have conversations about what it looks like.

Finally, you’re widely rumored to be considering a position in the Biden administration. Have you given that any thought?

It’s an honor to be even mentioned. To me, I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s pretty incredible. My name is being mentioned, and I don’t know if it’s true or not. It’s an honor.’ But honestly, you know, I love my job. This year has been very challenging, but it’s also been very fulfilling. Governing under intense pressure, as far as life-and-death in some cases, and then also trying to keep the city moving forward — there’s still work to be done. We still have probably three or four more tense months of coronavirus, and then I think we’ll start to see maybe a little relief when the vaccine is widely distributed. I’m praying that, anyway.

I love being the mayor of Boston. I’m not going to make an announcement right now if I’m running or not, but I can tell you this: I still have lots of unfinished business to do as mayor, and I look forward to working as mayor with a Biden-Harris administration that actually believes in working with cities and towns.