Aug 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The tea leaves of Boston's historic mayoral race

A series of Boston mayoral candidates is seen in a four-way panel.

(Clockwise from top left) Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell; Acting  Mayor Kim Janey; At-large Councilor Annissa Essaibi George; and former City Council President Michelle Wu. Photos: Getty Images

For the first time in history, a white man is not in serious contention to be the next mayor of Boston, a city with a checkered racial history.

Why it matters: The face of Democratic Party politics has changed, with more women and people of color running and winning races. As high-profile races like Boston's — and New York's — attract multiple people of color in a primary, some candidates say that allows for more ideological diversity, as well.

  • The field of candidates in Boston is historically diverse: all but three are women and all but one are people of color. The primary is Sept. 14.
  • Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who is Black, and city councilor Michelle Wu, who is Asian American, led the field in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll from late June.
  • That's a sea change for a city where a white man once attacked a Black man with an American flag, where forced busing created angry confrontations between Black and white parents and police officers, and where Black athletes have often complained about racist fans.

What they're saying: "There’s more than enough room for more than one Black woman to run in this race," candidate Andrea Campbell told Axios.

  • She argued that, in particular, the presence of multiple Black women such as her helps chip away at the idea Black women are all the same — a monolith — in their political leanings.
  • "At one point, some people suggested I drop out of the race because there was already another Black woman in the race," she added, referring to Janey. She replaced Marty Walsh, a white man, when he was tapped to be Labor secretary. Janey's now running to assume the position full-time.
  • When Michelle Wu ran for city council in 2013, she was told her identity would prevent her from ever getting elected in Boston. “I was told over and over again that I would likely lose, and for reasons beyond my control: I was too young, not born in Boston, Asian American, female,” Wu wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed.
  • She told Axios that this time around, she's not hearing that. "It’s been a rapid, inspiring transformation in Boston politics over the eight years that I’ve been honored to serve," Wu said.

Another candidate, Annissa Essaibi-George, the daughter of Arab and Polish immigrant parents, told Axios that Boston's history of electing white men even once convinced her father she couldn't be mayor.

  • Years ago, Essaibi-George told her dad that she wanted to be mayor someday. "And my father said: 'An Arab girl with an Arab name will never be anything in this city,'" she recounted.
  • "That was his experience immigrating to this country in his twenties — as an Arab, as a Muslim — and he didn’t see this as an opportunity for me" back then, she added.

The backdrop: From the notorious James Michael Curley to the late Tom Menino, an affable politician who became the city's longest-serving mayor, Boston has been led by white men not just in City Hall but also the powerful police and fire departments.

  • In 2009, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) became the first woman of color to be elected to the city council. Wu became the second in 2013.
  • "It started to shift the paradigm of what was possible in our city and particularly as we took on policy initiatives," Wu told Axios.
  • In 2018, Pressley knocked off Rep. Michael Capuano, a well-liked fellow Democrat and liberal politician, to win a primary that propelled her to become the first Black woman from Massachusetts to be elected to Congress.
  • She quickly took on national prominence as a member of "The Squad."
  • William Gross was sworn in as Boston's first black police commissioner that same year.

While the Democratic Party is increasingly represented by candidates and elected officials who look more like the places they serve, some are looking to mayoral races in big blue cities like Boston and New York to determine whether the party is looking not just at race but also political philosophy.

The question is whether more moderate candidates will win favor this time around, not that the initial threshold of breaking a color barrier has been crossed.

  • Some Democrats are drawing early parallels to the New York City mayoral and the Virginia gubernatorial races, in which a more moderate Democratic candidate (albeit a white one in Virginia) edged out a field of progressives at a time when the progressive wing of the party is a potent force.
  • Others see the mayoral races as suggestive of a larger national trend within the Democratic Party.

“I am the face of the Democratic Party,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a Black former police officer, said after winning the New York mayoral Democratic primary in June.

  • He believes his success was rooted in his moderate stances, including opposing defund-the-police rhetoric.
  • “If the Democratic Party fails to recognize what we did here in New York, they’re going to have a problem in the midterm elections and they’re going to have a problem in the presidential election,” he added.

What to watch locally: Boston politicos are eager to see if a more moderate candidate, like Annissa, wins the primary by edging out the more progressive candidates.

  • Several strategists who focus on national mayoral races said that when selecting a mayor, voters typically are looking for a candidate who represents stability, not someone to shake things up.
  • For those who believe that theory of the case, President Biden's election offers a solid example.
  • Such thinking could benefit Janey, who has quickly stripped "acting" from any references to her title and is running as all the white incumbents who had preceded her.

What to watch nationally: Another campaign on the Democratic radar is Seattle's mayoral race.

  • Similar demographic and political dynamics are expected to play out there.
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