If the Boston mayoral race were more about experience and vision — and less about money and machinery — Bill Walczak would be one of its leading contenders.
That he isn’t is a problem not just for Walczak, but for the rest of us.
I have had long conversations in recent weeks with nine of the 12 candidates for the city’s top job, and I liked a lot of what I heard. Most have great ideas for improving Boston, but only a few might transform it: Walczak is one of them.
“Tommy Menino, I think of him as Boston 1.0,” Walczak says. “What does Boston 2.0 look like? The goal is to take a great city and see what we can do to elevate it.”
Walczak wants to attract the best talent to City Hall, inspiring a new generation of political leaders the way former mayor Kevin White did. He talks of making Boston the healthiest city in the world, and the greenest. He wants Boston to try more new things, including becoming a 24-hour city. He thinks kids should be connected to schools years before kindergarten, and years after graduation — that schools should be second families.
These aren’t just pretty words. Walczak is the rare visionary who also gets it done. For decades, the Codman Square Health Center he cofounded in 1979 has transformed lives. Rising in the heart of a blighted Dorchester neighborhood, it began as a way to improve health and grew to focus on a bigger disease: poverty. Rather than a place people visited only when they were sick, the center became a portal for all kinds of services — adult education, fitness classes, a farm stand. The 350-employee, $25-million operation fosters the social connections vital to community health. Joining forces with a charter school in 2000 was the logical extension of that mission. Codman Academy prepares kids for college and for careers in the health industry. Led by the stellar Meg Campbell, the award-winning academy is about to become a K-12 school.
This is the kind of record and outlook Boston voters should be searching for. But this race is short, and has so many candidates that a spot in the final could be won with just 25,000 votes. Many of the other candidates, in politics for years, have the money and networks to make that happen much more easily than Walczak. It makes this preliminary campaign less about ideas than about getting your vote out. Walczak, who raised just $54,000 in June, is being spoken of as a low-tier candidate.
That’s not smart or fair. We’re at the dawn of a new era in Boston, or the possibility of one. The person to lead the city should be a big thinker with big ideas — and a record of making the improbable real.
“I’ve always bemoaned the fact that we didn’t have people coming out of the nonprofit sector to run,” he says. “Now I see how difficult it is. But I’m very committed and very scrappy, and I’ll make this work.”
Should Walczak be the next mayor of Boston? I don’t know yet. But when it comes to vision, he should definitely be the guy to beat.
* * *
After my last column, about an impressive, immigrant eighth-grader who earned his javelin prowess throwing spears at zebras in Nigeria, I received several notes from readers saying there are no zebras in the wild in Nigeria.
They’re right. I spoke to the boy, and he admitted that the hunting escapades he told me about, stories he told friends and teachers since arriving at the age of 10, were tales he’d heard from an uncle, and not his own. But in conversations with his mother and teachers, the rest of his story checks out. His many remarkable accomplishments in Boston stand.