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Boston loves its incumbent mayors. Is that phenomenon all that unique?

Mayor Thomas Menino, left, met with Mayor-elect Martin Walsh at City Hall, the day after Walsh won the city's 2013 mayoral election.
Mayor Thomas Menino, left, met with Mayor-elect Martin Walsh at City Hall, the day after Walsh won the city's 2013 mayoral election.Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

It was past midnight when Boston Mayor James Michael Curley finally conceded he had lost his reelection bid, sending a telegram from his Jamaicaway residence to the Druid Street household of the man who would succeed him: John B. Hynes.

It was November 1949, and the longtime pol, who had weathered decades worth of political fights, had held out on admitting defeat on Election Day, telling his supporters in the evening that the fight was not over until the last vote was counted. Now, with the final precinct tabulated, he sent a straightforward note to Hynes’s Dorchester home: “Congratulations upon your election as Mayor of Boston.”

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That was the last time a sitting Boston mayor was unseated.

How unusual is a seven-decade stretch of incumbency dominance? A Globe review of 18 of the nation’s most populous municipalities found a mixed bag when it comes to the reelection success of sitting mayors.

Some cities have term limits; Boston does not. Others have a hired city manager who runs the day-to-day municipal operations, which diminishes the mayor’s executive power; Boston does not. Others simply kick out incumbents regularly or sporadically; Boston does not.

In some instances, scandal-battered mayors in other cities have not waited for people to vote them out, opting instead to resign in disgrace, a political fate that Boston’s mayors have avoided in recent decades.

But the review also found that a handful of other large cities, like Philadelphia, Dallas, and San Jose, share something close to Boston’s love of an incumbent.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has not said whether he plans to run for a third term. If he does run, there will be competition: Councilors Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu have already declared their mayoral bids for next year’s contest.

Katherine Levine Einstein, a political science professor at Boston University, said while it’s not unusual to have incumbents win consistently, there are a collection of underlying factors that help explain Boston’s decades-long run of favoring the reigning mayor.

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“Our mayors have a lot of institutional powers,” she said.

Strong mayors, she said, have a powerful advantage at the ballot box, as they can easily claim credit for constituent services and policy accomplishments. A powerful, incumbent mayor may also have a name recognition advantage, she said.

Kevin White talked to campaign workers in 1979.
Kevin White talked to campaign workers in 1979.

Additionally, Boston has its elections in off-cycle years where there are no presidential or mid-term elections. That has meant lower turnout, which amplifies an incumbent’s advantage, she said.

Hynes, after defeating Curley, would serve as the city’s executive for a decade. He was succeeded by John F. Collins, who was mayor for eight years. Collins declined to seek a third term and his tenure was followed by 16 years with Kevin White in charge. White won reelection amid the turbulence of the city’s schools desegregation crisis of the 1970s. Then came Raymond Flynn, who left City Hall on his own terms in 1993 to become the US ambassador to the Vatican. That was in the midst of Flynn’s third term.

Boston Mayor Ray Flynn greeted voters outside the Keystone apartments in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood in 1991. He was reelected for the third time.
Boston Mayor Ray Flynn greeted voters outside the Keystone apartments in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood in 1991. He was reelected for the third time.Bill Brett/Globe Staff

Enter Thomas Menino, whose 20-year-plus reign as Boston mayor would mark the longest in the city’s history. Menino declined to seek a sixth term, and in 2013, Walsh became the city’s 54th mayor. He was easily reelected to a second term in 2017.

Certainly, the power of the incumbency is a real dynamic that plays out elsewhere. Jessica Trounstine, political science professor at University of California at Merced, said that in California elections between 1995 and 2011, 82 percent of incumbent mayors who ran for office won.

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Still, Trounstine thought Boston is somewhat unusual in modern America for its propensity for sticking with incumbents.

Term limits mean some have to move on. In other instances, big city mayors use their office as a launching pad for higher office, she said. Lastly, Trounstine said, running big cities can be extremely challenging, meaning some mayors will chose not to run for reelection even if they are eligible.

Many major American cities do not have to go back to the 1940s to find the last time voters gave the boot to an incumbent mayor. In Los Angeles, for instance, Mayor James Hahn, was beaten in his 2005 reelection bid by Antonio Villaraigosa. L.A., where Tom Bradley was mayor for five terms from 1973 to 1993, now has a two-term limit for its mayor.

In New York City, Mayor David Dinkins was denied a second term by Rudy Giuliani in 1993. Dinkins had defeated his predecessor as mayor, incumbent Ed Koch, in a 1989 Democratic primary en route to securing that seat. New York mayors are currently limited to two terms.

It’s happened in Chicago as well. While Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M. Daley, each ran that city for more than 20 years during the last century, others enjoyed a more truncated success. In 1979, Jane Byrne unseated the incumbent, Michael Bilandic. Four years later, Byrne’s reelection bid was scuppered by a Democratic primary loss to Harold Washington. In 1989, another incumbent, Eugene Sawyer, also took an “L” during a primary, losing to the younger Daley.

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There are, however, some parallels between Boston and other major American cities. Mayoral incumbency in Philadelphia is also entrenched; one has to flip back the history books to 1884 to find the last time a sitting mayor lost. Part of the reason can be found in legislation passed in the 1880s that barred a mayor from serving successive terms, a prohibition that was not lifted until the 1940s, according to city records. Philadelphia’s city charter was revised in 1951, limiting a mayoral tenure to two consecutive terms, meaning there have been no Menino equivalents in the City of Brotherly Love in recent decades.

Still, since then, every sitting mayor who has sought reelection has been successful. In 1985, Philadelphia police bombed a row house, an action that would leave 11 dead. The subsequent fires destroyed dozens of homes and left scores homeless. Despite that controversy, the incumbent, W. Wilson Goode Sr., narrowly won reelection in a general contest in 1987.

In addition to term limits, there is another caveat that differentiates Philadelphia from Boston: candidates who hold office but want to run for another post have to resign in order to run, a factor that may have aided incumbents who seek reelection.

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“That makes folks more cautious, they are less than likely to take a flier on a new job if that means giving up” the one they currently have, said David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of Seventy, a good government group in Philadelphia.

Of that city, Thornburgh added, “I don’t know what it would take for an incumbent to have a really strong primary challenge, but we’ve never seen it. You’d have to not only lose the faith of people but also lose the confidence of the local Democratic Party.”

Incumbent losses are also rare in Austin, Texas, where three sitting mayors have been defeated in the history of the community, the last coming in 1988. There was a 45-year period, between 1926 and 1971, where residents did not directly elect a mayor in Austin, and today it has a city manager who runs the day-to-day municipal operations. The mayor is technically a member of the City Council and presides over the council meetings. About 190 miles north, Dallas has gone decades without a sitting mayor losing a reelection bid, according to the city’s archivist.

In San Jose, where there is also a city manager, an incumbent mayor has not lost a reelection bid since that city returned to a directly elected mayor in 1967.

Jane Levey, historian for the DC History Center, said the nation’s capital has had only one person who was considered to be a “mayor for life”: Marion Barry. He won four terms as Washington, D.C., mayor in a political career that saw him weather struggles with addiction, a drug arrest, and a prison sentence.

That city went more than a century without its citizens directly electing a mayor, something that changed in 1974. Since that time, incumbents have been ousted. Sharon Pratt, Vincent Gray, and Adrian Fenty all lost reelection bids.

The city’s laws and budgets are subject to congressional approval, meaning federal lawmakers have the power of veto, and if Congress wants to try out an initiative in D.C., there is nothing to stop it, she said.

“They can’t do as much for constituents and can’t attract as much loyalty as in other cities,” she said of the city’s mayors. “So much of what happens here is ultimately controlled by Congress and the White House.”

Seattle might be the anti-Boston when it comes to its incumbent mayors. That city, said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, “tends to not let mayors stick around very often."

“We don’t really like strong executives very much,” said O’Mara. “Our City Council has a great deal of power and can be an opposition force to the mayor.”

That city lacks political machines, she said. Since the turn of the century — just 20 years ago — sitting Seattle mayors Paul Schell, Greg Nickels, and Mike McGinn have been voted out.

“We churn them out,” she said.

The James Michael Curley bench in Dock Square in Boston. He was the last incumbent mayor to be unseated in 1949.
The James Michael Curley bench in Dock Square in Boston. He was the last incumbent mayor to be unseated in 1949.Wendy Maeda

In Boston, Curley’s defeat in 1949 was framed by unusual political circumstances; the mayor had completed a federal prison bid for mail fraud earlier in the term. Instead of resigning, he ran for reelection. Hynes, the city clerk who ended up beating him, had served as acting mayor while Curley was behind bars.

Just before the election, Curley’s camp predicted he would win by 75,000 votes. Whether they were banking on the incumbency advantage to carry the day is an open question, but one thing is for sure: Hizzoner exuded hubris until the very end.

“The people can be trusted to retain competent leadership today,” Curley said on the eve of that contest, which he lost.

Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.