Five questions about Boston’s mayoral primary

This week’s big election is the mayoral primary in Boston, featuring almost twice as many candidates as in New York earlier this month but much less rancor. It’s been a quick campaign, as 20-year incumbent Tom Menino announced only six months ago that he wouldn’t run again (for health reasons), prompting 11 men, and one woman, to take what might be their only shot at winning City Hall. The sprint to Election Day has been so fast that no major candidate has been forced out of the race (despite rumors of an attempt to unite the black vote behind one candidate) and no one has flamed out in the spectacular fashion of Anthony Wiener in New York.

With so many candidates, it’s possible that the survivors of Tuesday’s nonpartisan run-off will each get less than 25 percent of the vote. That prospect could have been disastrous in the 1960s or 1970s, when the city was torn apart by racial conflicts, high crime rates, and a sense that Boston had deteriorated to the point where only certain neighborhoods could be preserved as “liveable.” The city could have ended up with two demagogues on crime and racial issues in the general election.
Mayoral politics have been much quieter recently, with Menino winning big majorities in each of the past five general elections, and there are few contentious issues this year. In contrast to New York’s Bloomberg, Menino remains ridiculously popular, so few of the candidates are promising big changes or railing against current policies. The incumbent’s model of governing—pose as an “urban mechanic” focused on neighborhood services while also importing hipster innovations like food trucks, bike-sharing, micro-apartments, and the relaxation of parking requirements for new housing —seems to be working just fine. But no one is following Menino’s lead in implying to have the managerial skills to turn around Detroit. (CommonWealth magazine’s Michael Jonas, reacting to Menino’s flippant remark about “blowing up” the Motor City and starting from scratch, notes that the Boston mayor “has benefited enormously from serving during a time when Boston’s built-in assets—world-renowned health care and medical research, technology innovation, higher education, and finance—are being rewarded in the global economy like never before. That has put a tremendous shine on his tenure.”)
If there’s a front-runner, it’s at-large City Councilor John Connolly, the only one who announced his campaign before Menino said he wouldn’t run again. Connolly has led just about every reputable poll, but with as little as 13 percent of the vote.
Here are five questions that we’ll be considering as the returns come in tomorrownight:
Turnout. Will the large field of candidates boost voter turnout, or will the lack of a major divisive issue dampen interest in the election? In other words, is an optimistic electorate—a UMass/Boston Globe poll conducted in August found that 86 percent of Boston residents think the city has “improved” over the past 20 years—bad for political participation?
Geography. Bill de Blasio’s primary win in New York was notable for its geographic sweep. Could one or two candidates show similarly widespread appeal in Boston, a city known for neighborhood loyalty? And if neighborhoods instead break for the candidates who live close by, will John Barros and Bill Walczak will do well in the areas of Roxbury and Dorchester where they’ve worked as community activists (as opposed to serving them as elected officials)? There’s also the question of how South Boston, still the most politically conservative neighborhood, will distribute its votes now that candidates no longer pay tribute to its exceptionalism. (The idea that the host of the St. Patrick’s Day political breakfast must be an Irishman from Southie got no support from the viable mayoral candidates, and back-of-the-pack Charles Clemons is the only candidate who pledges to end Menino’s boycott of the Southie St. Patrick’s Day parade for excluding gay and lesbian groups.) Finally, it will be interesting to see if the Manhattan-ish areas of the city—along the Charles River and waterfront—lean differently than the double-decker neighborhoods.
Boston Teachers Union. Only a week before the primary, the labor group made a joint endorsement of City Councilors Felix Arroyo and Rob Consalvo, who both share the union’s opposition to lifting a cap on charter schools in the city. The union, which claims 5,000 former and present members in the city, could steer a sizable bloc of votes to its favored candidates, but the endorsement could also backfire in a city that seems hungry for educational reform. State Rep. Martin Walsh, who’s backed by the city’s firefighters and has received much financial support from organized labor (but supports more charter schools), is the other candidate who will test the electorate’s feelings toward public-sector unions. Connolly and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley are betting they can make the run-off by appealing to voters who want the city to be a tough negotiator in labor talks.
The Boston Globe. The city’s largest newspaper endorsed two candidates for the primary: front-runner Connolly and long-shot Barros. The Globe implicitly tagged Barros as the New Boston candidate, citing his “broad understanding of the city’s potential.”* If Barros finishes in double digits on Tuesday, it will be a sign that theGlobe endorsement still matters—and that Barros could use it as leverage toward an elected or appointed political office in the future. The more conservative Boston Herald went with Connolly and Conley, which isn’t going out on a limb, but it mentioned only Walsh as a candidate not to vote for (“his loyalties remain with his union supporters, not with city taxpayers”). This non-endorsement could backfire, as fans of Herald front pages now know which candidate would lead to the most colorful coverage of City Hall.
*The editorial does not mention Barros’s support for “pushing” the Massachusetts legislature to lift the statewide ban on happy hours in bars, but that is one of the “key issues” on the Globe’s compare-the-candidates web page.
National media. Not so long ago, being mayor of a large American city was a dead end politically, to the chagrin of New York’s John Lindsay and Ed Koch, as well as Boston’s Kevin White. The last mayor of Boston to move up to governor was Maurice Tobin, in 1944. But in the past dozen years, Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley and Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell became governors of their states; Jerry Brown returned to the governor’s office in California after serving as mayor of Oakland; and Newark’s Cory Booker became the prohibitive front-runner for this fall’s U.S. Senate election in New Jersey. (In part, the revival of big cities has erased some of the stigma of presiding over what is no longer “decay,” but mayors have also benefited from cities becoming so lopsidedly Democratic that they vote almost unanimously for residents who run for higher office.) New York’s de Blasio is already getting national attention as a leader of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Will the winners of this week’s primary in Boston get some buzz as politicians who could someday aim higher, or will they be dismissed as run-of-the-mill Massachusetts liberals? In other words, will we see someone like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren emerge from the field, or are we going to get a snoozefest like this year’s special election for the U.S. Senate between Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch?
Photo courtesy Mass Live.
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