In his annual State of the City speech Tuesday, Mayor Marty Walsh celebrated Boston’s great economic success and presented an ambitious vision for sharing it with more Bostonians.
Walsh delivered his “Believe in Boston” agenda with passion — and a keen awareness of a city undergoing dramatic change, not just to its skyline but to its politics. He clearly believes in Boston and the inspirational citizens he showcased during the Symphony Hall event. But it’s also true that incumbency does not seem as invincible as it once was — especially for an old-school, white male politician in a city growing younger and more diverse. Walsh, now in his second term, surely hears the footsteps behind him.
Times are finally changing, and so is the face of power in Boston. Long dominated by white men, the newly sworn-in City Council is the most diverse in Boston history and includes the first majority of women. Just a year ago, Ayanna Pressley — the first black woman to win a seat on the Boston City Council — was sworn in as the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. And Pressley earned that distinction after beating a longtime incumbent white male congressman, Mike Capuano, who was endorsed by Walsh. Meanwhile, Michelle Wu, who in 2016 was the first woman of color to be elected council president, is often mentioned as a potential mayoral challenger. Based on the tenor of recent tweets, City Councilor Andrea Campbell might also share that aspiration.
The mayor’s speech, of course, highlighted the good economic news — “perfect” bond ratings, 120,000 new jobs, the placement of over 10,000 low-income Bostonians in better-paying jobs, and job training for women. “I believe safety comes from lifting people up, not locking people up,” said Walsh, a sentiment he first expressed in 2016, and one that is shared by social justice advocates like Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins. He also called Boston “the safest, healthiest, most dynamic, productive city it’s ever been,” but acknowledged there’s still work to be done.
And with that acknowledgment, you can hear the footsteps Walsh hears. They represent Boston neighborhoods that for decades have been promised better schools; they echo constituents who are being squeezed out daily by gentrification; and those who can’t afford Uber price surges when the T breaks down.
Walsh called Boston Public Schools “a tale of two districts,” and said the city must do “what it takes to be one great district for every single student, in every single school, in every single neighborhood.” How many times have the parents of underserved Boston students heard that refrain?
Walsh pledged to expand affordable housing, with a plan to raise $500 million over five years. However, that would require the Legislature to allow the city to raise revenue by imposing a tax on all real estate transfers over $2 million. It’s a good idea, but there’s no commitment from Beacon Hill to do what Walsh wants.
In his speech, Walsh challenged state leaders to put more resources into public transit and called for the City of Boston to have a seat on the MBTA board. But his wokeness on transportation comes after Wu seized the initiative last summer and rallied citizens and politicians around her call for a more responsive MBTA.
He also stressed the progress he has made “to make Boston’s workforce the most diverse it’s ever been," a mission that evolved only after considerable heat from critics. According to Walsh, over the past six years, the city’s new hires have been 55 percent female and 51 percent people of color.
Walsh also said he’s working to change “Boston’s image and reality.” In July, the city will host the national NAACP convention. This weekend, he’s joining Pressley as she hosts the Congressional Black Caucus in a historic visit to Boston. The city will hold a week of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will mark black women’s leadership in 100 years of women’s suffrage, and will honor black veterans who fought for this country, from the Revolution to the present day.
“We believe in Boston,” said Walsh. But does all of Boston believe in Walsh and his latest commitment to sharing the city’s good fortune and wealth? Walsh hears the footsteps and is already running hard to stay ahead of them.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.