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Is Boston finally past tribal politics?

Political activists say issues may trump race in election

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Is Boston finally past tribal politics?
State Rep. Jon Santiago receives the endorsement of the Latino Victory Fund as the group’s president, Nathalie Rayes, looks on. BANNER PHOTO

During Mel King’s 1983 mayoral campaign, a coalition of Black, Latino, Asian and progressive white activists came together to push for the former state representative’s bid. While King lost to City Councilor Raymond Flynn in the general election, the nexus of activists and voters of color that supported him, referred to as the Rainbow Coalition, took on a life of its own.

Although the name died out locally after Jesse Jackson used it in his 1984 presidential campaign, an informal alliance of political activists and voters of color and white progressives in Boston has persisted since then, helping to fuel electoral victories for candidates such as Felix D. Arroyo, who in 2003 became the first Latino elected to the City Council, Sam Yoon, who in 2005 became the first Asian American elected to the council, and Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to the council and later to Congress from Massachusetts.

Could this year’s mayoral race, with three Black candidates, a Latino candidate and an Asian candidate all running for the same seat, rupture the alliance that has dominated politics in Boston’s communities of color?

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is running for mayor, speaks during a rally Saturday to promote her Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools outside English High School.

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is running for mayor, speaks during a rally Saturday to promote her Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools outside English High School. PHOTO: Angela Rowlings

On the one hand, candidates of color are receiving support from ethnic affinity groups. Jon Santiago received an endorsement from the Latino Victory Fund, a national group that supports Latino candidates with campaign fundraising and volunteers. Michelle Wu has been endorsed by the Asian American Pacific Islander Victory Fund. Andrea Campbell got the nod from Our Black Party, a national group headed by Black former elected officials.

On the other hand, early indicators paint a more nuanced picture of the race. A poll released last week by MassINC, the Dorchester Reporter, the Boston Foundation and WBUR showed Wu and acting Mayor Kim Janey in the lead, with 19% and 18%, respectively. Yet 46% of voters are undecided.

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey talks with Yemi Ajayi about gardening at Nightingale Community Garden in Dorchester.

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey talks with Yemi Ajayi about gardening at Nightingale Community Garden in Dorchester last Friday. PHOTO: Angela Rowlings

Who Black, Latino and Asian voters will ultimately choose is still an open question, but Latino voters who are supporting a candidate appear split between Santiago, who received support from 12% of Latinos, and Wu, who had support from 11% of Latinos.

Janey had support from 30% of Black voters — far more than any other candidate. Wu had support from 10% of Black voters in the poll. The greatest share of Wu’s supporters are whites, 21% of whom said they would most likely vote for her. (Asian American responses were not disaggregated from the poll).

Segun Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, says Boston has largely moved beyond the tribal politics that defined the city for much of the 20th century.

“The fact that there are so many candidates of color is one measure for that,” he said. “The conversation has shifted from ‘We’ll never have a person of color as mayor’ to ‘Which one will we have?’”

Idowu says the candidates’ stands on issues will be more of a defining factor than in past election cycles.

“People are talking more about the issues than ethnicity,” he said. “People are comparing notes on where candidates stand on the issues.”

Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, agrees with Idowu’s assessment.

“Just because a candidate is a person of color doesn’t mean their voter base is,” she said.

The fact that all candidates in the race are people of color could maximize voter turnout in communities that have traditionally turned out in lower numbers than voters in white communities, Chen notes.

“When you have diverse candidates, you attract more voters,” she said.

This year’s race stands in stark contrast to 2013, when political activists in the Black community were concerned about five candidates of color splitting the Black vote, even as six white candidates also vied for the mayor’s seat.

“This year can’t be a repeat of 2013 because of the candidate makeup,” said former City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, who ran that year along with Charlotte Golar Richie, John Barros, Charles Clemmons and Charles Yancey.

“Even if a white person jumps in the race now, the probability of a person of color not being in the final is impossible,” Arroyo noted.

The electorate

When Mel King lost his bid for the mayor’s office 38 years ago, the probability of a Black candidate winning seemed a long shot. Despite record turnout in the Black community, and a coalition of supporters in Latino, Asian and liberal white communities, Flynn won with 65% of the vote, relying almost entirely on the strength of conservative working-class white voters.

Flynn’s 1983 victory marked the last time a mayoral candidate won relying on a purely white vote, however. In 1993, acting Mayor Thomas Menino relied on Blacks and liberal whites in his victory over former state Rep. Jim Brett, as did Martin Walsh in his 2013 victory over John Connolly.

In more recent electoral cycles, white candidates who were unable to attract Black, Latino and Asian voters have fared poorly.

In the 2018 race for the open Suffolk County District Attorney seat, one of the least progressive candidates, Greg Henning, won in South Boston and West Roxbury, but did poorly in predominantly Black precincts, receiving just 7.6% of the vote in Ward 14 in Dorchester, compared to winning candidate Rachael Rollins, who came away with 35% of the vote there.

Former City Councilor Tito Jackson, who challenged Walsh in 2017, said the current election presents an opportunity for voters to shape the priorities of the next mayoral administration.

“It’s up to the community and community-based organizations to determine what are the issues,” he said. “We’ve missed too many opportunities in the past to hold mayoral candidates accountable for delivering to our communities.”

Chen cited the cost of housing, small business support and workforce development as leading needs of voters in Chinatown.

Citywide, voters listed the COVID-19 pandemic and housing as their top concerns in the poll released last week, with public education, the economy and jobs, and crime/public safety as distant runners-up.

With five more months for candidates to canvas, answer questionnaires and participate in forums, there’s still plenty of time for voters to assess where candidates stand and make their decision.

“At the end of the day, our biggest hope is that the candidate who listens to the voters’ needs wins,” Chen said.