BOSTON — More than 250 years after a Black man became the first casualty of the American Revolution, felled by British troops during the Boston Massacre, this city of 700,000 still hasn’t elected a mayor who isn’t a white man.
Now, nearly a year after George Floyd’s death touched off a national reckoning on race, the two major candidates already running to replace Washington-bound Mayor Marty Walsh are both women of color. There are many more non-white politicians thinking about launching campaigns. And the City Council president, a Black woman, is first in line to become acting mayor.
The departure of Walsh — President Joe Biden’s nominee for Labor secretary — creates a rare open-seat opportunity in a city where no incumbent has lost reelection in 72 years. The free-for-all that’s likely to ensue, with a pile-on of Democratic candidates vying for one of the most coveted jobs in Massachusetts politics, means there’s no guarantee a woman or non-white candidate will win.
But one thing is already clear: The race will be dominated by a debate about the issues surrounding race — and whether the city has done enough, in every facet of its operations, to lift up residents from minority and historically marginalized communities. The outcome could also be a symbol of change for a city that has been slow to shed its racist image.
"Marty’s leaving in a moment when this entire country, this entire city, is going through a reckoning on what we’re gonna do about race. I want race to be right where it should be at the forefront of these conversations," Boston state Rep. Russell Holmes, a member of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said in an interview.
"Whether it be education, transportation, everything that is economic development, the underlying thing that so few of us talk about is race,” he said. “That won’t be allowed to happen at this moment.”
Those early election-year dynamics in Boston offer a precursor what other major cities will be facing this year: Mayoral contests in Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York City and elsewhere will wrestle with the fallout from the widespread protests for racial justice last spring and summer, and calls for police reform, in the wake of Floyd’s death.
The past year has secured the Black Lives Matter movement as a permanent fixture of local politics in American cities, and in states across the country. New York, Minnesota and Connecticut are among states that passed major new police reform laws this year — as did Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. City budget debates have been shaped by the push to “defund the police.”
In Boston, Walsh declared racism a public health crisis in June and hired the city’s first chief diversity officer. He convened a police reform task force and, ultimately, signed an ordinance to create a new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency at the beginning of January, establishing a civilian review board for public complaints and bolstering the Boston Police Department’s ability to conduct internal investigations.
Still, inequality is stark in the city. The net worth of a Black family in the Greater Boston area was $8, while the net work of a white family in the same region was $247,500, according to a 2015 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University and the New School. And just under a quarter of Boston’s Black households are part of the city’s middle class, earning between 75 percent to 125 percent of the city’s $78,791 median income, according to Boston Indicators, a research project from the nonprofit The Boston Foundation.
"I’m asking all of us to accept this responsibility as our own and commit to fighting racism, our deepest moral obligation,” Walsh said during his final State of the City address this month. “That’s our greatest opportunity for growth. No city is better prepared than Boston to meet this moment."
And tensions are high between police and protesters. Bodycam footage recorded during the George Floyd protests showed Boston police officers shoving protesters and spraying them with pepper spray. In one video, an officer appeared to brag about hitting protesters with his cruiser.
Walsh, an Irish-American former labor leader, is leaving the city at a time when the face of Boston politics is changing rapidly. In a matter of years, the city elected a record number of women of color — including Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins — and the most diverse City Council in Boston history.
The city is already on track to make history well before an election is held: If confirmed as labor secretary, Walsh’s resignation will elevate Council President Kim Janey to acting mayor. Janey would be the first woman and first Black Bostonian to lead the city, and is considering running for a full term. The 2021 race provides another opportunity for change, candidates say.
Boston City Council members Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell launched campaigns in the fall, before it was clear that Walsh would leave the city. Now, more than a dozen state lawmakers, city councilors, law enforcement officials and City Hall employees — many of them Black or Latino — are also weighing campaigns.
"Boston has a unique opportunity to confront its own painful history when it comes to race and racism, and to do the hard work of eradicating systemic inequities. But for us to do that we need to elect leadership that not only understands inequities, but has lived it," Campbell said in an interview.
"I give credit to the voters," added Campbell, who claims to have raised more money than any Black mayoral candidate in the city’s history. "For electing our district attorney and our congresswoman, diverse candidates that folks didn’t think had a chance in winning their races. That momentum is only going to continue given the moment in time we’re in."
Boston has spent years confronting a long history of racism. The city was home to protests and violent clashes in the 1970s that stemmed from the desegregation of Boston public schools.
It’s taken decades to change some of the city’s best-known landmarks. Boston renamed Yawkey Way, the famous street outside Fenway Park, to Jersey Street in 2018. The street had been named after Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who resisted integrating the team in the 1950s. The Red Sox was the last baseball team to integrate.
Boston became a majority-minority city two decades ago, in the year 2000, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency. As of 2015, Boston was 54.5 percent Hispanic or non-white. The city is also getting younger; the share of adults under the age of 34 is increasing in Boston.
That change in demographics has translated over the last decade into the election of a more diverse slate of public officials in Boston. Slowly at first, then rapidly over the past few years.
Wu, who was recently endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), recalled her 2013 campaign for City Council, when the goal was to double the number of women on the Council from one to two.
"To see just a few election cycles later — going from doubling from one to two, to swearing in the first-ever majority-women, majority-people of color Council in Boston after the 2019 elections — is a remarkable, fast shift in politics in our city," Wu said.
That sort of movement toward change may be harder to replicate in the mayoral race, however — especially during an off year. Without a congressional midterm or presidential contest to energize voters, the election will likely draw a smaller and different type of electorate.
"In a mayoral election, you get a lot more of the traditional voters — people who work at City Hall, people who have families in the police or fire department, or in the redevelopment office. They may be older voters as well. So it’s tough to get those voters to think about big picture issues," Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos said. "In politics, usually we look at leaders as constituent services-type people or big picture people, and very few do both."
In a city where politics is a pastime, it’s not unusual for an open mayoral race to draw a crowded field of candidates, making it costly and challenging to stand out from the other contenders. Walsh ran against 11 people in 2013. This will be only the second open mayoral race in 28 years. Walsh’s predecessor, Mayor Tom Menino, served for 20 years.
But if Janey — the City Council president poised to take over as acting mayor — decides to seek a full term, she’ll have the advantage of running as an incumbent. That worked in Menino’s favor in the early 1990s. Menino became acting mayor after Mayor Ray Flynn was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Holy See by President Bill Clinton. Menino ran for a full term and was in office for two decades.
"She will have the city machinery under her. That really is a great advantage to show accomplishments, to show leadership, to show that you can handle the job, which is all the things that Tom Menino did. There’s risk, though," said Drew O’Brien of Burson Cohn & Wolfe, who worked on Menino’s 1993 campaign. "We’re in a complicated political and governance situation."
While the city’s changing demographics will draw a packed, diverse preliminary field, some political players worry it will reduce the chances that a candidate of color makes it to the general election. A similar vote-splitting result played out among progressives on Super Tuesday in Massachusetts, where left-of-center favorites Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren came in second and third place to Joe Biden.
That’s a real concern for Eldin Villafañe, of Boston’s Barrales Public Affairs, who served as communications director on the campaign of the council’s first-ever Latina member, Julia Mejia.
"My fear is that, among Black and brown candidates that may be throwing their hat in the ring,” Villafañe said, “they will have a real Game of Thrones within our community."