Even as the city copes with massive uncertainty under siege from the coronavirus, Mayor Martin J. Walsh gets to play the role of city patriarch.
His daily briefings act as a signal to constituents that there is a caring presence at work. Walsh closed the schools. He instituted a curfew. He has pushed, and modeled, social distancing.
Meanwhile, the issues that were expected to define city politics this year — affordable housing, school achievement, managing development — have either receded into the background or been transformed. One year before Walsh is expected to seek a third term, there is suddenly only one issue, and he is its face in the city.
This is not how 2020 was supposed to be playing out — or so it seemed just a few months ago. A new City Council with a progressive majority was expected to push Walsh to the left on a daily basis. Multiple members of that body were said to be laying the groundwork to oppose him.
All of that talk is now as quiet as shuttered Newbury Street. What council? It’s all about the mayor — a turn of events that can only be good for Walsh, and bad for his would-be opposition.
Not surprisingly, Walsh was reluctant to talk about the political impact of the crisis.
“I’m not really focused on 2021,” Walsh said when I called him Sunday. “Certainly, when it comes we’ll be ready, but I’m focused on keeping people safe and alive and what we’ll do as we transition to the new normal, whatever that’s going to look like.”
Make no mistake, though: Walsh fully intends to run for mayor next year. He has told donors and other insiders that he has no intention of leaving, that he has no desire to put his hand up for a Cabinet post if his friend Joe Biden were to win the White House in November.
Incumbent mayors have a host of advantages, always, and Walsh is no exception. The most tangible, of course, is money. Walsh has roughly $5 million in his campaign account, even after donating $500,000 Friday to the Boston Resiliency Fund.
But his council rivals — former council presidents Michelle Wu and Andrea Campell — are also forced to cope with a substantially lower profile, as the mayor claims the spotlight in a way he didn’t hold it before. You could call it an iron rule of Boston politics: When the mayor looms larger in stature, the council shrinks.
Wu, who insists that she has made no decision about her political future, noted that the council this year has, as promised, pushed a progressive agenda. But things have changed, indisputably.
“The 2019 city elections were a big deal,” Wu said. “It delivered for the first time a majority people of color, majority women, majority progressive council. We had big plans that certainly have been delayed as resources and attention have shifted to the pandemic.”
On the other hand, the pandemic is teaching hard daily lessons on the issues of inequality that Wu and others have talked about for years.
“We’re seeing racial disparities and poverty as the chief causes of devastation — though technically it is the coronavirus,” Wu said. “The real driver of this is poverty and inequality and racial disparities.”
The pandemic has moved those issues from the margins to the center, a development Wu welcomes. She noted the decisions to temporarily block evictions and to suspend fare collection on some bus routes as positive signs.
“When we choose to focus on big crises, we can do a lot to fix things.”
Likewise, Campbell said she views the crisis as an opportunity to address issues that have long festered.
“I truly think this is the moment to tackle the racial disparities we’ve seen in this city for generations, in such a way that we not only eradicate them but move to true racial justice and equity.”
But, like Wu, she wouldn’t say she plans to address those issues by running for mayor, insisting that she is focused for now on the pandemic and its effect on her constituents.
The pandemic has indeed raised issues that the city is going to have to confront, even though they are not new. Boston has been becoming a city of haves and have-nots for at least a decade. We’re seeing now how that divide can play out, as poor people and communities of color have been left reeling, for reasons both medical and economic.
Those issues could make for a classic mayoral campaign, but that might not happen. The mayor has risen in stature, while his opponents are stuck in neutral. That’s not a promising launching pad for an insurgency.