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Kim Janey set to be first Black person, first woman to serve as Boston mayor

Boston City Councilor Kim Janey has served as president for two years.
Boston City Councilor Kim Janey has served as president for two years.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh for his Cabinet means that City Council President Kim Janey is poised to become the first Black person and first woman to serve as the city’s mayor, making history amid a social justice movement sweeping the state and the nation.

Under city rules, if Walsh resigns to become labor secretary, he would be replaced by the council president, the post Janey has held since January 2019. She would serve as acting mayor until a new election.

The second-term councilor, who raised a daughter as a teenager in Roxbury, would bring to the mayor’s office an unprecedented perspective of Boston, a city still struggling to heal its racial wounds.

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“Every mayor of this city has been a white male,’' said Michael Curry, president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. Curry noted that Janey comes from a Roxbury family steeped in community and activism. “She is no novice to politics and she’s not new to the community.”

Janey campaigned for City Council on the platform of bringing equity and wealth to Boston’s neighborhoods, and “making sure everyone has a seat at the table.”

In a statement Thursday, Janey, 56, congratulated Walsh and said, should his appointment be confirmed by the Senate, “I am ready to take the reins and lead our city through these difficult times.”

She gave no indication of whether she would run for a full term as mayor later this year, though friends say they would be surprised if she does not give it strong consideration. Two of her colleagues on the City Council, Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, are already in the race, and the field could expand.

The elevation from district councilor to mayor would be a swift, life-changing turn of events for Janey, a direct and outspoken activist known to set up shop at the Dudley Cafe restaurant in her neighborhood. As acting mayor she will have a driver, her own elevator to a sprawling City Hall office, and, most significantly, the attention that comes with running the city and control over the vast bureaucracy.

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Wilnelia Rivera, a political strategist who befriended Janey during a campaign for another candidate several years ago, called her a “lifetime advocate” who has an opportunity to seize the moment and carry her Roxbury-based activism into the city’s most powerful office.

“I think this is a moment that represents a lot for that particular neighborhood,” she said. “I really look forward to seeing what it means to be a city led by Kim Janey.”

Janey would serve in an acting role until a new election, which would be scheduled according to when Walsh officially leaves. If the mayor leaves after March 5, Janey would remain in office until the scheduled November general election. But if he leaves before then, the City Council could call for a special election within 120 to 140 days of his departure, City Clerk Maureen Feeney said.

Feeney said her office had not been officially notified of Walsh’s departure, which would start the process.

The last time a sitting mayor left office in Boston, in 1993, then-district councilor Thomas M. Menino used the perch to steamroll a large field of candidates to win the job outright.

As acting mayor, Janey would be a formidable opponent if she chose to run, said John Nucci, who ran for mayor in 1993 and is now senior vice president for external affairs at Suffolk University. In Boston, incumbent mayors have advantages that will be difficult for any candidate to overcome.

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”They have all the perks of incumbency but yet they can still run as an outsider,” he said.

Janey would take over the city’s top job amid significant challenges, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 1,000 lives in Boston, new rules meant to rein in police abuses, and a building boom that could sputter amid the economic slowdown caused by the virus.

In her three years on the council, she has proven willing to confront some of the city’s most important policy areas head-on, guiding the diverse council — with the greatest number of women and people of color in city history — to enact reforms in public safety, and health and education programs.

She was often at odds with the mayor, moving to give the council more authority in developing housing and economic policies.

Early in her tenure, she helped craft the city’s first ordinance to overhaul the process of picking prospective marijuana operators, giving the City Council unprecedented power and pushing back against the mayor’s own proposals.

And after protesters took to city streets in the spring to demand reforms to the police department, she led the councilors to draft a bluntly worded “Black and Brown Agenda” for the city to explore new ways to build up neglected communities. The letter was delivered to the mayor on the Juneteenth holiday.

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She worked with Wu, who announced her candidacy for mayor in September, to expose the embarrassingly low percentage of city contracts for minority and women vendors; the work led to new initiatives to help support small businesses in Boston.

In the last council election, she shared campaign headquarters with Wu in Roxbury, and Wu nominated Janey for council president in January 2019.

Janey has also worked with Campbell, who also announced her mayoral campaign in September, on several police reforms.

In past interviews with the Globe, Janey said that voters gave her and the council a mandate to take bolder action to boost equality and opportunities.

She called her district “ground zero” for the issues confronting Boston: economic and racial inequity; an affordable housing crisis; an opioid epidemic; and a transportation mess that has clogged city streets. Janey said she is well aware of the community’s plight: Growing up in Roxbury, she witnessed firsthand the struggles that families in the neighborhood face. The pandemic and difficulties with remote learning have only magnified those difficulties, she has said in council hearings.

She said she learned from a young age to be an advocate, specifically on education. Her parents were both educators who fought for her to attend better schools. Before she was elected to the council, she worked as project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

As a councilor, Janey has faced criticism of what has been called the gentrification of Roxbury. And that pressure is likely to escalate when she serves as acting mayor.

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Priscilla Flint-Banks, cofounder of the Black Economic Justice Institute on the Roxbury border, knew Janey as a strong advocate in public education and had expected the same level of advocacy for economic development in Roxbury when Janey was elected to the council, and, later, council president. But she said Janey could have done more.

Now with two other women already in the mayoral race, Flint said she will wait and see how Janey handles the role of acting mayor.

“It’s really a time for a change in our city,” said Flint, who also leads the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition. “This is an opportunity for us to have a Black person sitting in the mayor’s seat. . . . If I were her, I would do the best that I can while I’m acting mayor so that I can be mayor — if that’s what she wants.”

Meghan Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.