What is most remarkable about what Marty Walsh pulled off Tuesday isn’t the fact that he won City Hall, but where he won it.
On Andrea Dowman’s front stoop.
A few months ago, black voters like her were inclined to dismiss Walsh as just another typical — and yes, white — politician who knew little about how to solve their problems.
On Tuesday, Walsh trounced John Connolly in communities of color, neighborhoods everyone agreed would be key to victory. A MassINC analysis found that without voters like Dowman, Walsh would not be Boston’s next mayor.
Until recently, Dowman was done with city elections, had vowed never to vote in one again. “I gave up hope,” she said. Her husband, a retired police officer, was in a dispute with the police department, and nobody seemed able to resolve it. She needed help caring for her elderly mother but couldn’t find it. Though her two children are grown now, she worried that the schools weren’t improving fast enough.
Dowman, 48, didn’t even bother to cast a ballot in September’s preliminary, despite the fact that several candidates of color were running. She didn’t trust them, either. And so the fact that three of those candidates endorsed Walsh after the preliminary barely registered with her.
And yet, there she was at the Higginson/Lewis school in Roxbury on Tuesday, voting for Walsh, and with an enthusiasm she thought she’d never muster again.
Why? His people showed up. They came to her door and rang the bell. They wanted to talk – not just leave leaflets. They told Dowman of Walsh’s struggles, and of how he wanted to bring jobs to the community. One of the canvassers told Dowman she’d been homeless before Walsh gave her a spot on the campaign.
“No one has ever taken the time to talk to us,” Dowman said. “They listened to our problems. I felt like I was a voice again.”
Thousands joined her. Talking to voters at the Higginson/Lewis, it was clear that Walsh’s appeal was about more than those coveted, and extremely valuable, endorsements by Charlotte Golar Richie, John Barros, and Felix Arroyo. Voters in communities of color went to him because Walsh wore his struggles on his sleeve – struggles many people in black and Hispanic neighborhoods can relate to. And because he sent legions of campaign workers into their streets to do way more than canvass: They offered personal testimony of his sincerity.
Dowman hadn’t met the candidate — wasn’t even sure what he looked like — until she ran into him at the Higginson/Lewis on Tuesday. Walsh, overwhelmed by what was plainly unfolding that day, looked set to burst into tears, hugging everyone in sight. Dowman, who had never spoken to a mayoral candidate before, shook his hand and told him what the outreach by his campaign had meant to her.
There has been a lot of talk this election cycle about uniting the city, with its painful history of racial division. Walsh took a huge step down that path Tuesday.
But now comes the much harder test. Walsh doesn’t have long to convince Dowman and other voters in minority neighborhoods that they made the right choice. They will be watching to see whom he chooses to lead the city’s schools and police department, and how those institutions change. They will be looking to see where development happens, where he spends his time, where he seems most comfortable.
Bertha Harris has been where Dowman is. The 77-year-old retired teacher has seen a lot of candidates who seemed to care come through Roxbury over the years. On Tuesday, Harris voted at the Higginson/Lewis, too, except she chose Connolly.
“Walsh has all the people behind him, but he reminds me of the politicians of the ’60s and ’70s,” she said. “They just use our community to get into power.”
Here is the huge challenge for the mayor-elect. Walsh’s job now is not just to keep Dowman’s faith, which will be tough enough, but to restore it for Harris, and the many others like her.
That’s a task that will make this hard-fought election seem like a picnic. But this man of surprises is up to it.