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Mayoral race will take place in a changed city

Boston’s electorate has transformed in 7 years since Martin Walsh elected

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Mayoral race will take place in a changed city
2021 in Boston was a year of historic political firsts — with four women running for mayor and a new crop of Black, Latino and Asian politicians who have redrawn the political landscape in the city. Clockwise from top left: Mayoral candidates Annissa Essaibi George, Kim Janey, Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu. BANNER PHOTOS

If past is prologue, this year’s mayoral race may have many of the hallmarks of the 2013 race — the last race in which candidates ran for an open seat, after longtime mayor Thomas M.  Menino announced he would not seek a sixth term. The 2013 election featured a diverse slate of 12 candidates, half of whom were people of color, before the preliminary whittled the field down to two white men.

But past isn’t always prologue, and Boston in 2021 isn’t what Boston was in 2013.

In the intervening eight years, Bostonians likely to vote in preliminaries have increasingly embraced politics and candidates to the left of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who won the 2013 contest. Come January 1, 2022, Boston may well have its first woman of color as mayor.

So far, city councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell are the only two declared candidates for the seat, likely to be left open again by Walsh’s departure to become U.S. Labor Secretary. Each has raised more than $500,000, building off campaign war chests they amassed while on the council. Also mulling a run are at least four men: state Sen. Nick Collins, state Rep. Jon Santiago, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and the city’s chief of Health and Human Services, Marty Martinez.

What happened in 2013

With the exception of the number of people of color running, the 2013 race fit many of the longstanding patterns of the electoral politics that dominated Boston throughout the 20th century, including the dominance of Irish American politicians. The two top vote-getters in the preliminary, Martin Walsh and John Connolly, drew from the city’s most powerful political bases: the South Boston-Dorchester area, Charlestown and West Roxbury.

While the third- and fifth-place finishers — Charlotte Golar Richie and Felix G. Arroyo — polled well in center-city neighborhoods including Roxbury, the South End, the predominantly Black sections of Dorchester, Mattapan and Jamaica Plain, Golar Richie’s 15,536 votes trailed second-place finisher Connolly’s by 3,884.

The conclusion many political observers reached before the preliminary ballots were cast was that Blacks, Latinos, Asians and white progressives, who often voted in lockstep, would split their votes between the six candidates of color. But that same dynamic didn’t vitiate the white vote, with white candidates Walsh and Connolly in first and second place and former Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley in fourth.

With the exception of Menino, all of Boston’s mayors over the previous 100 years had been Irish American men, and so were most top vote-getters in City Council elections. But in 2011, that dynamic began to change when Ayanna Pressley rocketed to the top of the at-large City Council race in her second-ever election. Felix G. Arroyo was second. From 2015 on, Pressley and Michelle Wu were top vote-getters in every at-large race.

Breaking barriers

Of all the elections between 2013 and now, 2018 proved the most pivotal. The district attorney race that year had all the hallmarks of a split vote among people of color and white progressives, with one white male, prosecutor Greg Henning, who garnered considerable support from white elected officials, and three people of color and one white woman running on progressive platforms.

Rachael Rollins defied the political pundits and beat Henning in the Democratic primary in 17 of the city’s 22 wards, with 33,797 total votes to Henning’s 18,523.

Perhaps even more stunning that year was Pressley’s takedown of 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano in the 7th Congressional District. Capuano, a popular, moderately progressive Democrat, garnered only 41% of the vote after Pressley rode in on a national wave of electoral change, spurred on by reaction to the Trump administration’s racially-divisive polices and rhetoric, that also saw progressive champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win in New York’s 14th Congressional District, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota’s 5th and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan’s 13th.

A changing city

Also remarkable in Boston politics was voter turnout for the 2018 primary. While citywide turnout was 25%, historically high-voting wards 6 and 7 in South Boston saw turnout at 20% and 22%, lower than that in Roxbury, where turnout was 23% — reversing a decades-long trend of lower-than-average turnout in the city’s communities of color and higher-than-average turnout in the traditionally white working-class neighborhoods.

Gentrification may well have been the culprit. The Seaport District in many ways represents the new class of young urban professionals who have changed the political equation in many of the city’s neighborhoods. The district, all of which falls under Ward 6, Precinct 1, is a relatively homogeneous area with the highest per capita income in the city. Turnout in that precinct was just 15.6 percent.

While highly educated, the tech and finance workers living in such neighborhoods are often new to Boston and are less invested in the politics of the city.

Given that the same young urban professionals who have flocked to the Seaport have moved into almost every precinct in South Boston, displacing longtime working-class renters and owners, the transplants may have effectively suppressed turnout in the neighborhood.

In the 2021 mayoral race, that same dynamic could easily play out up and down the historically white-working-class neighborhoods along Dorchester Avenue stretching down toward Lower Mills.

That corridor in 2013 represented Walsh’s core base of support. While many pockets of the neighborhood, particularly in the Neponset-based Ward 16, may remain intact, many other sections have been permanently altered by the white professional and student renters who tend to have less of a connection to Boston and its politics.

Who’s turning out?

At the same time turnout has tanked in traditionally white-working-class neighborhoods, it has held steady — at or near the city average — in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods and increased in some neighborhoods where the white population leans more progressive.

For the 2013 municipal preliminary, voter turnout in Jamaica Plain-based Ward 19 was 41%, versus 49% in West Roxbury-based Ward 20, long the most powerful ward in the city. But in 2018, turnout in Jamaica Plain was 40% — the highest in the city — but in West Roxbury dropped to 34%.

While activists have for decades been organizing to increase turnout in the city’s Black, Latino and Asian communities, in recent years chapters of Progressive Massachusetts in Jamaica Plain, Downtown Boston, West Roxbury and Roslindale have been doing the same. During the 2018 electoral year, the groups rallied behind Rollins and Pressley, likely helping to drive turnout in their areas.

What will happen in 2021?

Along with the demographic shifts altering Boston over the last decade have come shifts in the political terrain as well. In past decades, Bostonians notoriously voted along race lines and valued neighborhood affiliation over a candidate’s stand on particular issues.

Yet race now seems to play less of a role than ever in Boston voters’ decisions. In the 2019 at-large city council race, Taiwanese American Michelle Wu was the top vote-getter in Roxbury and in West Roxbury, a neighborhood that has long backed Irish American candidates.

In the 2018 district attorney contest, Greg Henning secured a first-place finish in West Roxbury, but Rachael Rollins (who is Black and Irish) won 2,957 votes to Henning’s 3,158 — a close shave.

Could city voters at last care more about a candidate’s positions than her or his race? In recent years, neighborhood activists across the city have pressed candidates running for municipal office to take stands on issues such as rent control, reining in the Boston Police Department and support for an elected school committee. The city’s three Progressive Massachusetts chapters and progressive-leaning ward committees such as Hyde Park’s Ward 18 Democratic Committee, the East Boston-based Ward 1 Democratic Committee and the Back Bay-based Ward 4 Democratic Committee, have helped to drive the political discourse in election years.

With progressive white voters playing an increasingly pivotal role, it’s likely there will be greater scrutiny of candidates’ positions on issues of concern to voters.

Wu, Campbell and — should she choose to run — soon-to-be acting Mayor Kim Janey all have a pathway to the mayor’s office. While in past years, that path may have been blocked by the presence of other women and people of color in the race, the current political moment in Boston and the new electoral dynamics here have made it more possible than ever for a woman of color to win.