The success of any electoral or civic group depends largely on its ability to innovate, imagine, negotiate, and demand its own outcomes.
To their significant benefit, communities of color — including African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Africans, and those of Caribbean descent — have historically forged local political power in this country through direct democratic participation, especially in large urban centers such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Boston.
For many within the city’s communities of color, the mayoral preliminary two weeks ago serves as a graphic example of obvious leadership and institutional shortcomings. The fact that two white men of Irish descent reached the mayoral finals in a municipality that is now a majority-minority city is remarkable given the electoral trends in other multicultural cities of similar size across the nation. The natural political logic here is that as cities become blacker and browner, those civically invested citizens begin to wield power and provide leadership.
A number of things went awry for communities of color in Boston’s preliminary vote for mayor:
First, turnout among the 65 majority-black precincts was a mere 13 percent, much lower than the citywide average. This reflects the community’s inability to routinely register and motivate voters to visit the polls. Trends among communities of color in Boston are strikingly consistent: City turnout among these voters is always higher during statewide and presidential election years. Voter participation is dramatically lower during municipal elections, especially during preliminary contests.
Poor turnout within black and other communities of color reflected the lack of planning against a predictably low municipal vote turnout.
Second, the six mayoral candidates of color failed to animate their prime supporters. A truncated election season was also part of the problem. Mayor Tom Menino’s sudden decision to not seek reelection did not allow many of the candidates of color to consolidate fund-raising objectives or craft a well-honed message. The short campaign season also worked against those candidates in making solid voter contact with their base constituencies.
Third, and more importantly, none of the candidates of color appropriately assessed the nullifying effects of having too many candidates of color in the race. While the strategy of reaching consensus around the most viable candidate of color was raised in community forums in Roxbury last May and again in August, it was jettisoned in the interest of myopic electoral calculation, resulting in a missed opportunity to elect the city’s first person of color.
In light of this miscalculation, what must be done? Which opportunities can be salvaged as the race between state Representative Martin Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly continues? What actions can be taken to ensure that the needs of the city’s most vulnerable citizens are included as the new mayor takes office?
■ Leaders within the city’s communities of color should convene to discuss our civic interests as they pertain to a new municipal agenda. Such issues should include public education, the persistence of gang violence, jobs, and economic development.
■ Leaders from across the city should publicly articulate community needs that must be addressed through the remainder of the campaign and challenge Walsh and Connolly to embrace community-focused, policy-specific commitments that they will enact as mayor.
■ A citywide mayoral forum should be held to educate the voters on these issues.
Within Boston’s communities of color, no group is monolithic. But all groups share powerful civic, social, and political commonalities with others.
Wilson Goode in Philadelphia, Harold Washington in Chicago, David Dinkins in New York City, Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, and Shirley Franklin of Atlanta are proof that communities of color can sway power in cities and produce mayors who will serve the broadest interests.
Is the opportunity for a mayor of color lost? Unequivocally, the answer is no. Yet, what shall we do?
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said that power concedes nothing without demand. Communities of color in Boston are uniquely poised to recalibrate their political objectives and demand what they want for all of Boston.
Retired Chief US Magistrate Judge Joyce London Ford is past chair of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. Kevin C. Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition.