Martin J. Walsh, a legislator and longtime labor leader, ground out a tight victory over Councilor at Large John R. Connolly Tuesday to become Boston’s 48th mayor, propelled by a diverse coalition that transcended geography, race, and ideology.
Walsh rode a wave of support that spanned Boston, from his Savin Hill neighbors to African-Americans in Roxbury to liberal activists in Jamaica Plain. His victory, fueled by unprecedented spending by organized labor from across the country, places a son of Irish immigrants who grew up in a Dorchester three-decker at the head of New England’s largest city.
With all precincts reporting, Walsh captured 52 percent of the vote to Connolly’s 48 percent. The two candidates were separated by fewer than 5,000 votes, making it the closest mayor’s race in decades.
When Walsh takes office Jan. 6, it will mark the end of the 20-year tenure of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, whose announcement in March that he would not seek reelection unleashed a generation of pent-up political ambition.
Walsh took the stage at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel to chants of “Mar-ty, Mar-ty!” The huge crowd packed in tight toward the stage, with scores more on balconies adorned with banners from organized labor. The mayor-elect kissed his longtime girlfriend, Lorrie Higgins, and addressed his supporters.
“For this kid from Taft Street in Dorchester, you’ve made Boston a place where dreams come true,” Walsh said. “Together, we’re going to make Boston a place where dreams come true for every child, for every person, in every corner of this city.”
In a race that lacked substantial policy differences, Walsh won as an affable everyman with a compelling life story. The 46-year-old spoke often about his immigrant roots, his battle with childhood cancer, his brush with a stray bullet that grazed his leg after a night of drinking, and his struggle as a young man to overcome alcoholism. Walsh made up for a dearth of detail when discussing policy with a genial personality that helped build trust, a trait that won key endorsements from black and Latino leaders.
Most crucially, he secured the backing of the three most prominent mayoral candidates of color after the preliminary election. Their endorsements became a potent symbol for Walsh, and other black elected officials soon followed. In the week before the election, public polls swung in Walsh’s favor.
The election marked the dawn of a new era in city politics, with a flood of money from outside groups and anonymous political committees rivaling spending by the candidates’ official campaigns.
For organized labor, Walsh’s bid for mayor became a national cause as unions across the country contributed millions to the effort. Boston has not had a labor leader as mayor in recent memory, and it is a rarity for major American cities.
Walsh becomes Boston’s first mayor from Dorchester since John B. Hynes walked out of Old City Hall on School Street in 1959. Walsh is the first bachelor to serve as the city’s chief executive since 1945, when Mayor John E. Kerrigan lived at home with his mother in South Boston. After nine terms as a legislator on Beacon Hill, Walsh will be a newcomer to City Hall.
He is 24 years younger than Menino, who was born during World War II and came of age as Boston convulsed with urban decay and the racial strife of court-ordered busing to desegregate schools.
Menino has been a fixture at City Hall since 1984, serving for nearly a decade on the City Council before winning the mayor’s office. He pushed to make the city technologically savvy, but never put a computer on his City Hall desk.
Walsh is a child of the late 1960s whose formative years came in the aftermath of court-ordered busing. He grew up in a polarized city, but he spent much of his campaign talking and promoting one Boston.
Connolly told his subdued supporters he was proud of his campaign and its focus on education, describing how he high-fived students on school buses at one of his final stops.
“I believe in Boston more than I’ve ever believed in Boston because I believe in the people of Boston,” Connolly said. “And I know Marty Walsh is going to do a great job as mayor.”
More than 141,000 people cast ballots Tuesday, for a turnout of 38 percent of registered voters, an increase from September’s preliminary election, but far short of the 255,000 voters who came out in Boston last year for the presidential election. As the first open race for mayor in 20 years, the campaign sparked excitement in political circles but was largely overshadowed by the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings and the triumph of the Red Sox in the World Series.
Menino announced March 28 he would “leave the job that I love” and not seek a sixth term, catching much of Boston’s political establishment by surprise.
But Connolly, a three-term city councilor, did not wait for Menino’s announcement before kicking off his mayoral campaign in February, vowing to challenge the incumbent, who maintained stratospheric approval ratings, if he ran again. Walsh had also been quietly laying groundwork for a mayoral bid, but never planned to take on Menino.
The early push gave Connolly and Walsh a significant head start in the preliminary election. Twelve candidates qualified for the ballot in September’s election. The field included six black and Latino candidates, and observers suggested Boston was primed to elect its first mayor of color. But candidates of color could not raise nearly the amount of money of their white counterparts.
In the preliminary election, Walsh edged Connolly by roughly 1,400 votes, and both advanced to the final. But two out of three voters cast their ballots for other candidates, leaving both campaigns scrambling to win over voters previously aligned with other candidates. Most analysts gave the initial advantage to Connolly because he had a broader base of support. Walsh topped the ticket with lopsided victories in his base in Dorchester and nearby South Boston.
Initial public polls showed Connolly ahead, but Walsh snagged a series of endorsements and gained momentum. Two failed mayoral candidates — former School Committee member John F. Barros and Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo — both joined Walsh’s campaign. They were followed by former city housing chief Charlotte Golar Richie, who finished third in the preliminary election.
A significant turning point came before the preliminary election, when the education group Stand for Children vowed to spend more than $500,000, working independently of Connolly’s campaign but very much determined to elect him mayor. Other groups had quietly been spending a few thousand dollars a day for Connolly and Walsh, but the size of the Stand for Children pledge triggered a backlash.
After initially accepting the endorsement, Connolly told Stand for Children and other outside groups not to spend money on his behalf. In hindsight, $500,000 was not as significant as people thought. In the past three months, groups have flooded Boston with nearly $4 million in outside spending.
Walsh benefited from at least $2.5 million in television commercials, mailers, and paid canvassers, much of which was paid for by organized labor.
Late last month, a newly formed political committee spent $480,000 on a major television advertising buy for Walsh. The committee is not obliged to identify its financial backers until January, and the only name listed on the group’s paperwork is Jocelyn Hutt, a 55-year-old woman in Roslindale.
Another group backing Walsh was Working America, political organizing arm of the national AFL-CIO. It has spent at least $660,000 in the last three months. It mailed a brochure to voters that described Connolly as a “son of privilege” and included erroneous information about the city councilor’s stint as a teacher.
In total, spending by organized labor for Walsh could top $3 million. In addition to outside spending, unions from 37 different states gave $614,000 directly to Walsh’s campaign, records show. Unions can legally donate up to $15,000 to a candidate, and almost 90 percent of Walsh’s labor money came in checks larger than $500, the maximum for individuals.
In mid-October, the group Democrats for Education Reform started spending money again on behalf of Connolly and unleashed a last-minute advertising blitz. In total, education groups spent at least $1.3 million promoting Connolly.
In Dudley Square, George Turner, 79, voted for Walsh, acknowledging that he was swayed by endorsements from black and Latino elected officials. James Williams, 68, made the same choice.
“I think he’s the man for the job,” Williams said of Walsh.
Lorenda Hollins made a different choice.
“It was a tough decision, but I voted for Connolly,” said Hollins, a 43-year-old health worker. “I like the fact that he’s married, well-educated, went to Harvard, and he’s seeking to better our school system.
“And I like the idea of breaking up the [Boston Redevelopment Authority]. They have terrible communications in the community. You turn around, and there’s a new project going up.”
Outside the polling place at Elihu Greenwood School in Hyde Park, 55-year-old Jackie Neely said she voted for Connolly because she was impressed with his message of school reform .
But Tony Simmons said he made up his mind last week to vote for Walsh. “I liked what he was saying about education, crime, and community development,’’ said Simmons, 46. “Their views were pretty much the same. But for me, Walsh’s views were stronger.”
Billy Baker, Meghan E. Irons, Wesley Lowery, and Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org