There are some misleading narratives about Boston’s first open mayoral election in decades. The most outlandish is this: There is no difference between the two candidates. Yes, they’re both Irish-Americans in early middle age who grew up in politically engaged families. But their priorities, loyalties, and leadership approaches couldn’t differ more.
City Councilor John Connolly, 40, is fundamentally a reformer. He frames issues in terms of desired outcomes — a simpler, fairer school assignment plan; an end to the student achievement gap; greater entrepreneurship in neighborhoods; a more innovative arts scene — and then seeks to deploy city resources in new ways.
State Representative Martin Walsh, 46, is more rooted in the establishment. His longstanding contacts with the traditional sources of clout — unions, neighborhood groups, elected officials — form the backbone of his campaign. His endorsements from city workers, former rivals, and State House colleagues have helped him advance in the polls. Most organized sources of power in the city are behind Walsh; Connolly’s base comes from more issue-oriented groups, and from grass-roots families and individuals.
Walsh argues that, with so many constituencies by his side, he has the credibility to push for changes from within. He’s sincere in that belief. As a cancer survivor and recovering alcoholic who has turned around his life, Walsh isn’t the tool of any outside force. He, too, promises to fight for a longer school day, less red tape at City Hall, and more neighborhood development.
But in choosing Walsh, back when there were 12 candidates in the race, some of these groups felt they knew what they were getting. Savvy, experienced operators with large blocs of votes don’t endorse candidates who are eager to push in unfamiliar directions. Walsh is more deferential to traditional political processes than Connolly; he must understand, on some level, that the endorsements he received are a down payment on maintaining the status quo. On the campaign trail, with every reason to want to demonstrate his independence, he was reluctant to urge the City Council to reject an overly generous salary award of a 25.4 percent over six years to police patrolmen — a deal he agreed was bad for the city.
So voters should choose with their eyes open. If they are comfortable with the existing city government and see change mostly as a risk, Walsh has shown he would be an able steward. His personal affability and sensitivity to the varied interests surrounding City Hall suggest smooth management, at least in a political sense. He’s bright and understands the issues. Chances are good that he’d push the city in a progressive direction, at least incrementally.
But if voters feel the city can improve faster — that it can speed up the pace of school reform to retain more families with young kids; lower the cost of housing through new development that also helps businesses add middle-class workers; enhance the well-being of all Bostonians by drawing tech industries to a more vibrant downtown — then Connolly is the stronger choice.
If, after a 20-year administration, voters feel City Hall needs more than just a different boss, but a fresh, probing pair of eyes looking for ways to do things better, then, too, Connolly is the stronger choice.
In that spirit of hope, bolstered by a belief that Boston is poised for more than the usual amount of growth and improvement, the Globe is pleased to endorse John Connolly for mayor.
Another misleading narrative is this one: Walsh’s endorsements reflect his superior people skills, in comparison to the colder, more aloof Connolly. Like Mayor Menino, Walsh genuinely enjoys politics, and speaks easily to divergent groups. His warm personality is a definite plus. But Connolly, too, forges connections with Bostonians who have problems that need solving. His ambition is rooted in concern for people he’s met, and helped, through his political career and, earlier, as a teacher.
This weekend, for example, hundreds of Somali-Americans, a fairly recent immigrant group that’s often been distant from the corridors of power, rallied for Connolly. In the past, Connolly pushed the school system to hire a Somali-speaking liaison. That move empowered struggling families and gave promising students a better chance. It also helps explain Connolly’s strong support among a host of other average families — who credit him with untangling aspects of the school bureaucracy, such as an assignment plan that rewards the most sophisticated parents and those with the resources to visit schools in distant neighborhoods.
Most of these average families are people of color. They would benefit from Connolly’s effort to simplify the assignment plan by busing students only within much smaller districts, while also creating a lottery for 16 citywide K-8 schools for parents who want more choices. Despite all these options, plus charter schools and METCO, some African-American leaders fear that smaller districts would leave minority kids with worse choices than white families. This fear reflects an outdated view that anything short of citywide busing harms the neediest communities. But Connolly believes, rightly, that by connecting schools to communities, the city can direct services where they’re needed and craft programs to elevate all students.
Connolly’s advocacy for immigrants of color is significant because it reflects a difference in perspective between the candidates. Walsh, too, is supportive of immigrants of color, just as Connolly is supportive of public-safety workers and other unionized employees. But Connolly understands that the city’s resources aren’t limitless, and that excessive contracts, such as the $87 million award that an arbitrator bestowed on police patrolmen who already average $109,000 per year, represent a misallocation of city funds — money that could support programs like preschool for the children most likely to fall victim to the achievement gap.
Inevitably, the willingness to set even common-sense boundaries for city contracts, especially with police and firefighters, is portrayed as hostility to unions, ingratitude to first responders, or, even more unfairly, as class snobbery. Labor PACs have leafleted the city with claims that Connolly does not understand working-class people. But Connolly, a father of three who grew up in Roslindale and earns roughly $100,000 per year — less than half of what Walsh earned last year as a state representative and head of the building-trades union — understands well enough.
More importantly, Connolly sees how the interests of people in Boston are interconnected. Excellence in public safety is essential to stabilize neighborhoods. A more vibrant downtown, replete with nightlife, brings in the start-up businesses that create jobs and yield tax revenues. Good schools enable middle-class families to stay in the city, sparing Boston the urban curse of being home to only the very rich and very poor. Better outreach and instruction for English-language learners builds the workforce of the future and points needy children in a positive direction.
Today’s Boston is a dynamic place, and a lively mayoral campaign has highlighted a civic energy and a depth of talent that can propel the city even farther. Boston is lucky to have, in Marty Walsh and John Connolly, two candidates who are deeply knowledgeable and committed to strengthening the social fabric. But Connolly’s vision and independence put him in a better position to help Boston reach its greatest potential sooner.