With backup from a hip Hub band named Bad Rabbits, John Connolly launched his campaign for Boston mayor in the same room where John F. Kennedy launched a run for Congress.
Get it? He’s modern, but respectful of history. He understands the past, but has a vision for the future, and the energy and passion to carry it out.
He had a crowd of true believers at hello — or, more precisely, at: “My name is John Connolly, and I’m running for mayor of Boston.”
Now all the 39-year-old Boston city councilor has to do is beat Tom Menino, the 20-year incumbent who hasn’t yet said whether he’s running for a sixth term. Connolly is also out to beat anyone who finds a Menino ouster hard to imagine. “Together we can prove the pundits and protectors of the status quo wrong,” he told supporters who packed the Press Room at the historic Omni Parker House.
A 70-year-old mayor with obvious health issues isn’t as invincible as he used to be. The real issue is whether a challenger who looks like a younger version of Boston’s old political model can inspire voters beyond Menino’s solid base.
When Connolly officially announced his candidacy in February, improving Boston schools was his rallying cry. Quickly, that theme was criticized as too narrow. So at last week’s Parker House event, he deliberately expanded the scope of his platform. He pledged to bring a more inclusive culture to City Hall and to usher in a new era of transparency and innovation. He also talked about housing, public safety, and the need for better public transit. Then he wrapped up with a promise to transform the schools.
A graduate of Harvard and Boston College Law School, Connolly was first elected to an at-large seat on the Boston City Council in 2007. The father of two young children with a third on the way, he draws upon that and his past work as a teacher at Boston Renaissance Charter School to connect with young Boston families.
He’s trying to get beyond that more traditional base to the cool, e-commerce crowd, symbolized by Karmaloop CEO Greg Selkoe, who attended the Parker House event.
However, on the face of it, Connolly isn’t a game-changer. He’s an Irish Catholic male who comes from a traditional political family. His mother just retired as chief administrative judge of the Massachusetts District Courts. His father was secretary of state. His West Roxbury home base could be the most culturally conservative neighborhood in Boston, and the most demographically unchanged. That doesn’t mean Connolly is old-fashioned, but his political roots are.
To win, he must inspire a younger, more diverse pool of voters who are new to Boston. But first, Connolly has to get them to focus on Boston politics and where he fits in. Newer Bostonians don’t know the difference between John Connolly, city councilor, and John Connolly, the ex-FBI agent now in jail for his unholy alliance with gangster Whitey Bulger; in fact, many won’t have heard of either of them.
When Michael Flaherty ran against Menino four years ago, 111,000 voters turned out. Only 62,000 voters turned out for the last City Council election. Yet there are potentially an additional 100,000 voters between the ages of 18 and 35 who could show up for a Boston mayoral election. The challenge: So far they’ve been showing up only for national elections. Boston turnout was 234,000 in 2008 when Barack Obama was on the presidential ballot; Boston turnout increased to 255,000 for the 2012 presidential contest.
At the Parker House, Connolly symbolically targeted that younger crowd with a DJ master of ceremonies. In the meantime, he has faithful supporters like Evelyn O’Neill of Roslindale. She backs Connolly, she said, because “He is bright, well-educated, and really speaks for the people. He’s young and vibrant.” About Menino, she said, “I like Tom, but he’s had his run.” Added her daughter, Kristen, 24: “How long has he been mayor? There should be term limits.”
There aren’t term limits. So give Connolly credit for guts, for understanding history, and for trying to make it.