Who should worry more now that Andrea Campbell has jumped into the Boston mayoral race: Michelle Wu or Marty Walsh?
Conventional wisdom would have you believe it’s Wu. Another female candidate of color could mean they cancel each other out and Walsh waltzes to a third term. We all saw what happened in the Fourth Congressional District race when a ho-hum male candidate eked out a win in the Democratic primary over four impressive female contenders.
Well, it’s time for some unconventional wisdom.
If he decides to seek a third term, Walsh is the one who has to worry.
Here’s why: With both Campbell and Wu in the hunt to unseat an incumbent, it will be more apparent than ever that Boston is changing and City Hall needs to change as well. Campbell and Wu represent the best of what Boston has to offer: two thirty-something former City Council presidents unafraid to challenge a mayor in a city that too often falls in line with who’s in charge.
The fact that Campbell and Wu are both women of color is a bonus in this race. Both got to where they are because they’re fierce and formidable leaders first, not because they’re women and not because one’s Black and one is Asian-American.
Remember that when you someone tells you this election is about identity politics.
This makes this campaign less of a referendum on Walsh’s record and more of who Boston is now and who we want to become.
As the population grows, Boston is no longer monochromatic, and it’s young. The number of white Boston residents has been declining, while people of color are now at about 56 percent, according to census data. Some 40 percent of the population is between the ages of 20 and 39.
The need for change — the transformative kind — will be more apparent than ever in 2021. We’ll most likely still be in the middle of a pandemic and reeling from the fallout of a once-in-generation racial reckoning.
It’s a chance to hit the reset button to truly make Boston a city for everyone.
Walsh, 53, has not announced whether he will seek a third term. It’s no secret he would like a job in a potential Biden administration and is waiting to see which way the political winds blow.
Walsh would be tough to beat if he runs again; he had an eye-popping $5.5 million war chest at the end of August. Campbell has about $285,000 cash on hand and Wu has about $346,000. (Wu, according to her campaign, raised more than $100,000 in the first two days of her candidacy, which she launched Sept. 15.)
Before the pandemic, Walsh presided over a city in full economic bloom, and after COVID-19 struck, 85 percent of respondents in a recent GBH survey approve of his handling of the crisis. If he runs, Walsh almost certainly will make it into the finals in November 2021, with Wu and Campbell duking it out for the other slot.
“A steady hand doesn’t talk to us about the future of who we are becoming,” said Wilnelia Rivera, president of Rivera Consulting and chief strategist for Ayanna Pressley’s audacious 2018 campaign to unseat Somerville Representative Mike Capuano.
“In this particular electoral and political environment, it’s about wanting to have the conversation about the future,” Rivera added. "We need to have transformative conversation … someone like Andrea and Michelle can lead us in that direction.”
You have to go back to 1949 when a sitting Boston mayor was unseated — and the circumstances were unusual, to say the least. City clerk and acting mayor John B. Hynes defeated incumbent James Michael Curley, who served time in federal prison while in office.
Don’t forget Campbell, whose district primarily represents Mattapan and Dorchester, was the original incumbent killer who unseated longtime City Councilor Charles Yancey in 2015.
It remains to be seen if Campbell, 38, a Mattapan mother of two young sons, can build a broad base since she has only been a district councilor. But she has a personal narrative as compelling as Deval Patrick, who rose from poverty in the south side of Chicago to become Massachusetts’ first Black governor.
Campbell was born and raised in Boston, and spent time in foster care after her father went to prison and her mother was killed in a car crash while driving to visit him. Campbell graduated from Boston Latin School and later Princeton and UCLA Law School. She ran for office after her twin brother, Andre, died at the age of 29, while in state custody awaiting trial for home invasion and other charges.
Wu, a Chicago native, Harvard Law graduate, and protege of Senator Elizabeth Warren, has become a legislative force, cosponsoring high-profile laws such as a short-term rentals ordinance and reforms to city contracting. She sees robust public transit as the great equalizer and has pushed for making the T free.
The 35-year-old Roslindale mother of two young sons is also an electoral superpower, a consistent top vote-getter. In her first citywide campaign in 2013, Wu finished second only to Pressley, then topped the field in 2017 with 65,040 votes, and again finished first in 2019.
The one thing about becoming mayor of Boston: You don’t need that many votes because turnout tends to be low. In 2017, Walsh won reelection with about 70,197 votes, trouncing Tito Jackson by a 2-to-1 margin.
How this could play out: Wu and Campbell spend a year energizing new voters. Wu runs as the true progressive, while Campbell is the champion of education and police reforms. They both portray Walsh as upholding the status quo.
The power of incumbency propels Walsh to the finals. Whether it’s Wu or Campbell, their supporters come together to help one of them make history as the city’s first woman and first mayor of color.
Boston, are you ready for this?
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.