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Marty Walsh has kept Boston safe during the coronavirus — and that shows leadership

Walsh is banking on that as a campaign theme in what looks to be an upcoming challenge from Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh takes off his mask before speaking to the media in front of City Hall on Aug. 21.Matt Stone

The next Boston mayoral race isn’t about gender or skin color. It’s about leadership.

And Marty Walsh has shown leadership on the most critical issue facing Boston today: the coronavirus pandemic.

Of course schools, crime, and racial and social justice matter — a lot. But public health comes first. Walsh deserves credit for keeping Boston as safe as it could be from COVID-19. He spread the word about masks and social distancing. For the sake of public health, he sacrificed the city’s economic health. It’s a tough choice and one that takes courage to make.

Walsh is banking on that as a campaign theme in what looks to be an upcoming challenge from Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. Her challenge is to show she can be a better leader — not just play the role of critic.


She has an opening. Whatever his strengths, Walsh is far from perfect. There are political challenges ahead, as evidenced by the turn of events at his Tuesday press conference.

Held like others since the pandemic — outside City Hall and open to anyone in the vicinity — it began with good news from the mayor: Boston’s COVID-19 positivity test rate is down, city-wide and in East Boston, a COVID-19 hot spot. For a week, there were no reported coronavirus-related deaths. Then came some bad news: There were 12 shootings in the city over the long holiday weekend.

There was no basking in the positive, either, when a woman angrily shouted that she couldn’t get answers about the city’s plans for teaching special education students. Reporters also pressed him on the status of a police reform task force, and some griped to Walsh about his exclusive confirmation to the Globe that Wu called him as a courtesy to tell him she’s running for mayor.


The media chill won’t last. Unlike his predecessor, Walsh doesn’t hold grudges against the press, so it’s hard for the press to stay mad at him. As for Wu’s supporters, they should take what Walsh did as a sign of respect for the threat she represents. Instead of dismissing her candidacy, he tried to undercut it. That shows her what’s to come from a two-term mayor who has no intention of stepping aside — unless Joe Biden wins the presidency and offers him a suitable post in Washington.

Running for mayor is the big leagues. Wu should be ready for it.

Wu’s mayoral ambition is no secret. She has been lobbing bombs at Walsh for several years on issues like transportation, education, and assorted City Hall scandals. Wu is also tapped into the same progressive left as Senator Edward J. Markey. But will the Green New Deal have the same power in a city election that it did in Markey’s statewide primary victory over Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III? The next mayoral election will test that out.

It will also test the power of old-fashioned retail politics — at which Walsh is skilled — not to mention the power of incumbency. For all the talk about Markey’s alignment with progressives, his win was another one for an incumbent. It’s especially hard to throw one of those out of Boston City Hall. It hasn’t been done since James Michael Curley lost a bid for reelection in 1949, a data point popular with all subsequent mayors.


And yet, these are different times. Do Boston voters want someone new — and someone who isn’t white and male — to lead them through the challenging days ahead? They might. But I think it will be a mistake if Wu runs her campaign against the so-called patriarchy, and casts her candidacy in terms of gender and skin color. That may work when you’re Ayanna Pressley running for Congress. But voters need something very specific from a mayor. It’s faith that the person they elect can get the trash picked up and the streets plowed, along with improving the schools. Sure, they want someone with vision who can bridge the great economic divide between the rich and poor. But they also want someone who can keep them safe.

Walsh has done that in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis. His luck could change. But that’s the standard for leadership he set for this race. It will be up to Wu to challenge it or redefine it.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.