Throngs cheered as he drew near. Children reached up for high-fives, elderly women leaned in for hugs, and young men sought fist bumps. But the most frequent response to the sight of Boston’s mayor marching on his home turf in the Dorchester Day Parade was the roar of two exultant syllables: “Mah-ty!”
Martin J. Walsh led a miles-long procession of politicians, bagpipers, marching bands, dance troupes, and hundreds of other participants along Dorchester Avenue Sunday under blue skies.
The yearly tradition was a joyful, musical celebration of the diverse Boston neighborhood and an unofficial start to the ramped-up political campaign season, five months before Massachusetts voters choose a new governor.
“This parade really has been, over the years, the kickoff of the campaign season,” Walsh, a Dorchester resident, said in a brief moment between jogging from one side of the street to the other to greet applauding spectators.
Early on the route, a very young Bostonian sitting with her mother waved to the mayor.
“Happy Dot Day,” Stella Peterson, 4, said confidently to Walsh.
“Happy Dot Day to you!” Walsh replied, bringing a smile to Stella’s face.
One of the hundreds of hands Walsh shook was that of Greg Jones, a Dorchester resident.
“I’m not even a Democrat and I like Marty,” he said. “He does good for the city.”
Walsh marched with a smattering of other local officials, including City Councilor Tito Jackson and Police Commissioner William Evans.
Perhaps the only other group to receive such acclaim at the event was the marchers for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation, including family of Martin, the 8-year-old Dorchester boy who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing.
The reaction wasn’t quite as robust for the gubernatorial candidates marching in the parade. Polls have found that most remain unknown to large parts of the electorate.
Among the candidates hoping to succeed Governor Deval Patrick who made their way shaking hands along the more than 3-mile route were Republican Charlie Baker, Democrat Steven Grossman, and independent aspirants Jeffrey McCormick and Evan Falchuk.
Baker stopped moving only for brief handshakes and hellos, but lingered for a conversation with lifelong Dorchester resident Kay White, 91.
“You look fabulous,” he said to White.
“He’s a great guy, isn’t he?” she said later, adding that she was thinking of voting for him come November.
A few spectators took it upon themselves to quiz the candidates.
“How do you feel about unions?” Dorchester resident Anthony Meeks, who gave his age as “fortysomething,” asked Grossman, the state treasurer.
Grossman, gripping his hand, said his family business had run a union shop for decades and he feels good about organized labor.
Meeks seemed satisfied with the response, but said later that he had not made up his mind about the race and needed to study up on the candidates’ positions.
In a brief interview, Grossman took a glancing knock at his opponents who didn’t make the trek up Dorchester Avenue.
“Showing up matters,” Grossman said. “Failure to show up, people say, ‘Well he didn’t care enough to come to my community on my big day of the year’ — says a little something about people’s feelings about you and your feelings about them.”
Three of the other Democrats in the race, Attorney General Martha Coakley, former Obama administration health care official Donald M. Berwick, and former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem, attended campaign events in the western part of the state. Joseph Avellone, the fifth Democrat, held campaign meetings on the South Coast, his spokeswoman said.
For many in the crowd, a highlight of the parade — which also included martial arts demonstrations, brass bands, and people costumed as Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader — appeared to be seeing the Dorchester native who rose to the city’s highest office.
Kay Perry-Dougan, 52 and raised in the neighborhood, was sitting along the parade route and motioned to Walsh, telling him she “was praying and backing you all the way.”
Asked why she was such a strong supporter of the mayor, Perry-Dougan drew close to a reporter.
“He understands working-class people,” she said, “because he’s lived here all his life.”