Every election of a new mayor marks a change in the city’s direction. Sometimes the change is obvious, as when Raymond Flynn was elected to replace Kevin White in 1983, vowing an intensive focus on neighborhoods over downtown. Sometimes it is less obvious, as when Tom Menino replaced Flynn. All that was known back in 1993 was that Menino was friendly and approachable, attuned to neighborhood concerns but more pragmatic than Flynn. It took a while to see all that the Menino era would represent.
Martin J. Walsh is more of a Menino than a Flynn, at least in terms of his approach to governance. His narrow victory in a hard-fought contest against City Councilor John R. Connolly is an expression of faith in his character and personality, more than an endorsement of any particular platform. Like Menino, Walsh seems open to anything that will make the streets safer, improve city services, or attract new businesses. His core commitment is to the job itself; he wants to do what’s right for Boston.
That’s an admirable stance, and one that should make the transition from Menino to Walsh smooth, and keep Boston on a steady path of progress. Though Walsh is not personally close to Menino, voters’ choice of the 46-year-old state representative and trade-union leader seemed to reflect the extent to which Menino has redefined the job in his own image. Boston voters see their chief executive almost as a family member, and judge him by his personal approach as much as his political agenda. Connolly offered the more ambitious and detailed policy plans, and was a stronger voice for change; but voters seemed almost to tune out those plans, focusing instead on the candidates’ life experiences and backgrounds.
On that score, Walsh stood out. Born to a politically engaged, working-class family in Dorchester, Walsh battled cancer as a little boy. Later, he became an alcoholic, but fought to turn his life around. His support for addiction services, along with his personal intervention on behalf of others who suffered from drug or alcohol abuse, has been a quiet but consistent facet of his entire political career. Many voters noticed, and believed that Walsh’s own suffering would make him more attuned to theirs. His courage in overcoming illness and addiction was a credential in itself, a sign that no matter how close he was to certain powerful interests — unions, neighborhood associations, fellow politicians — he would always be his own man.
In the last days of the campaign, outside political groups funded by unnamed donors took to the streets and airwaves in support of Walsh, and the campaign took on some ugly class dimensions. Flyers portrayed Connolly as a son of privilege and enemy of working-class concerns. These claims tapped into deep, dark divisions in Boston’s history — class resentments that are as damaging to Boston’s character and image as the racial wounds of the busing era. Walsh struck some of those themes in a milder way in his own campaign materials, but did little on the stump to fan the flames. He clearly knows, on some level, that he can’t play those divisive cards as mayor.
Indeed, Walsh’s solid political sense is a large part of his appeal. His willingness to reach beyond the boundaries of race and class was widely touted in his campaign; the endorsements of so many friends, colleagues, and former rivals attested to his ability to build bridges. Now, all Bostonians should join him in building a bridge to a future of growth, unity, and harmony for the city they love.