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Walsh shepherded city through changes

Administration wrestled with racial inequality amid economic boom times

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Walsh shepherded city through changes
Mayor Martin Walsh addresses reporters in his final press conference Monday. PHOTO: John Wilcox, Mayor’s Office

Back in September 2013, Martin Walsh wasn’t the top choice for Black and Latino voters, the majority of whom backed former Department of Neighborhood Development Director Charlotte Golar Richie and at-large councilors Felix G. Arroyo and John Connolly in the September preliminary.

But when the field narrowed and Walsh and Connolly faced off in November, Walsh scored a decisive victory, drawing a majority of the support from Black and Latino voters as well as white progressives and his conservative-leaning Dorchester/South Boston base.

Mayor Martin Walsh

Then state Rep. Martin Walsh is endorsed by elected officials and former candidates including former state Rep. Gloria Fox, former state Rep. and mayoral candidate Charlotte Golar Richie, former City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo and former candidate John Barros. Banner file photo

While an odd coalition of voters secured Walsh a victory, when it came to representation in his administration, Blacks and Latinos faced a mixed bag. His original 17-member cabinet had just two people of color: Chief of Staff Daniel Koh, who is Korean and Lebanese, and Arroyo, who served as director of Health and Human services. His “kitchen cabinet” — the set of city officials he met with on a weekly basis — was all Irish American, with the exception of Koh.

While faces changed and Arroyo’s successor at Health and Human Services, Marty Martinez, secured a place in the kitchen cabinet, the general pattern of whites in top hiring and decision-making positions held throughout Walsh’s years in City Hall.

Despite the often-contentious relations between his administration and civil rights groups, Walsh did make several notable appointments. In 2018, William Gross became the first African American to head the Boston Police Department. In 2015, Tommy Chang’s appointment as Boston Public Schools superintendent marked the first time an Asian American held that position. In 2019, Walsh tapped then-Election Department Commissioner Dion Irish, who is Black, to head the Inspectional Services Department.

The policies and practices handed down by Walsh and his administration often opened with promises and pronouncements that did not always lead substantive change in a city that for decades has resisted progressive reforms on race.

Mayor Martin Walsh

Mayor Martin Walsh visits Frugal Bookstore in Nubian Square in 2019. Mayor’s Office photo

As he prepares to head to Washington, Walsh leaves a complex legacy in city politics marked by moments of progress and stubborn challenges his administration often failed to meet head-on.

The changing face of Boston politics

Walsh’s rise to power in Boston politics came at the beginning of an era of unprecedented progress for Black, Latino and Asian elected officials. But the mayor more often than not found himself in opposition to candidates of color, endorsing white candidates over them in multiple electoral cycles until his 2019 endorsement of at-large City Council candidate Alejandra St. Guillen, who lost by one vote to Julia Mejia.

Walsh’s time in office saw councilors Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu garner the most votes in at-large races, as well as the historic upset victories of Pressley in the 7th Congressional district race and Rachael Rollins in the race for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s seat.

With the 2019 election, the Boston City Council became majority women and majority people of color.

Walsh, who has largely enjoyed cordial relations with the city’s councilors and State House delegation, clashed last year with the majority of the council’s Black, Latino and Asian members over the Boston Police Department budget. The councilors of color backed calls from community activists to cut the department’s total budget by 10% and invest the savings in crime prevention and social service programs. Walsh instead opted for a smaller cut from the police overtime budget, which the department routinely overspends and the city always replenishes. In the end, five of the city council’s 13 members voted against the budget.

As Walsh prepares to leave, three declared mayoral candidates — city councilors Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George — are women of color. Also in the race are Walsh’s Economic Development Chief John Barros and state Rep. Jon Santiago. This year could be the first mayoral election in which no white men are contenders — a far cry from the 2013 election, where two white men bested a diverse field of 12 to advance to the general election.

Mayor Martin Walsh attends the Roxbury Reunion in Franklin Park. Banner file photo

Real estate development

Walsh’s mayoral term came as real estate developers were ramping up construction of luxury housing developments in the city’s downtown areas and outer neighborhoods. Walsh’s career began as a young adult working in the Laborer’s Union Local 223, and while serving as a state representative he also held the position of head of the Building Trades Council.

As mayor, he set an ambitious goal of creating 69,000 new housing units, as city planners estimated Boston’s population would swell to 800,000 by 2030 from 617,000 in 2010. Projects large and small gained approvals from the city’s development oversight agencies with relative ease as the Walsh administration met and often exceeded goals for production of market-rate units and production and preservation of affordable units.

So far, Boston has seen more than 36,000 new units permitted or constructed over the last seven years. Of that, more than 20% are affordable. The more than 5,600 affordable units already constructed and the 1,700 currently under construction represent the largest number of such units built in recent history.

The city’s construction boom has come at a cost, though. Longtime residents in virtually every neighborhood complained about approval processes at the city’s Inspectional Services Division, Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) and Boston Planning and Development Agency Board that favor politically-connected real estate developers over abutters.

Public anger over insider dealing came to a head in 2019 when a longtime city employee was indicted for receiving a $50,000 bribe from a developer seeking approval from the ZBA for a South Boston real estate project. That news was followed by longtime Inspectional Services Department head William “Buddy” Christopher taking a leave of absence from city government while the architecture firm he founded was at the center of the South Boston project.

Walsh signs an ordinance authorizing a real estate transfer tax. Mayor’s Office photo

Walsh promised changes to the troubled ZBA, advancing reforms that would make the body more transparent and change the composition of its board. Yet at the neighborhood level, residents continue to complain of a process they say allows developers to skirt zoning laws over the objections of abutters.

Education

Walsh’s approach to Boston’s public school system underwent two phases. In the first phase, his administration was characterized by leadership that embraced corporate education reform ideals which prioritize competition among schools for dwindling resources and the constant threat of school closures.

A report that Walsh’s education chief, Turahn Dorsey, helped shepherd through BPS leadership in 2015 suggested the district could close as many as 50 school buildings.

At the same time, the lean funding environment in which BPS schools operated during the first four years of the Walsh administration generated large student protests as schools cut positions and programs, despite annual city budgets fattened by property taxes from thousands of new luxury units growing throughout the city.

That dynamic changed, however, with the 2016 statewide Question 2 charter school expansion referendum. The question, which opponents said could have stripped away tens of millions of dollars in school funding in Boston, catalyzed public opinion against charter schools. Walsh took a hard stand against charter proponents and their corporate-backed education reform allies. Bostonians voted against the question 62% to 38%.

By 2018, Dorsey and Chang had left the administration. By 2019, the BPS budget was more aligned with the 3% increases other city departments were seeing, although allocations tied to enrollment have kept what critics refer to as a “Hunger Games” dynamic in which schools compete for funding.

Last year, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced an $80 million increase to the department’s then-$1.2 billion budget, the largest such increase in recent years.

Racial equity

In his first year, Walsh appointed the city’s first-ever chief diversity officer, Sean Blugh. The move was seen as part of the mayor’s commitment to ensuring his administration hired and promoted people of color and that firms owned by Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women are well represented in the city’s contracting.

Yet barely a year later, Blugh, who had little staff or budget with which to achieve his office’s objective, moved to a different position in city government — and a recent report shows stark failure in directing more city contracts dollars to minority- and women-owned firms.

Next, Walsh appointed Atyia Martin as the city’s chief resilience officer, a position funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and aimed at tackling disparities in health, economic and educational outcomes.

Behind the splashy announcements, bold initiatives and new positions, however, civil rights activists saw an administration that appeared bent on preserving the status quo. The NAACP Boston Branch in 2017 gave the administration low grades in employee diversity, noting that data showed hiring and promotions in the city’s largest departments — schools, police and fire — were overwhelmingly white.

During Walsh’s tenure, the city consistently appealed judgements in lawsuits charging the police department with racially discriminatory hiring and disciplinary practices, further straining his administration’s relations with civil rights advocates.

Walsh and elected officials cut the ribbon on the Dorchester Day parade in 2018. Banner file photo

Parting words

In his January state of the city address, Walsh continued to push the theme of tackling Boston’s persistent racial inequities, many of which were laid bare by the COVID pandemic, which led to higher infection rates and death rates in the city’s Black and Latino communities.

“The pandemic made it clear: a community crisis demands a community-wide response,” Walsh said. “So I’m asking all of us to accept this responsibility as our own and commit to fighting racism. It’s our deepest moral obligation — and it’s our greatest opportunity for growth.”

As Walsh prepares to head to Washington, he leaves the city helmed by acting Mayor Kim Janey to contend with the national racial reckoning and the rocky road to recovery from the pandemic.

With all five declared mayoral candidates people of color, three of whom are women, the city seems poised for change. To what extent city government will tackle the issues facing Boston will remain an open question. But the son of Dorchester who has now risen to national prominence said he believes Boston will succeed.

“No city is better prepared than Boston to meet this moment,” he said in his State of the City address.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that former Zoning Board of Appeal member Craig Galvin’s firm was involved in a South Boston real estate transaction for which a city employee was convicted of receiving a bribe. Galvin’s firm was not at all involved in that transaction. The Banner regrets the error.

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