The announcement of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s pending exit from City Hall for the Biden Cabinet sent the 2021 mayor’s race into high gear, with one declared candidate trying to cement her position as a front-runner and at least a half-dozen new hopefuls considering campaigns.
Walsh’s departure will leave the mayor’s race open for only the second time in nearly 30 years, stirring the ambitions of political aspirants and the hopes of communities of color that this is finally their moment.
The nation’s reckoning with racial injustice will provide a weighty backdrop for this year’s campaign, said John Connolly, the former at-large city councilor and mayoral contender who lost to Walsh in the last open mayor’s race, in 2013.
If the undercurrent of that year’s campaign was income inequality, he said, “the undercurrent during this election is going to be Boston confronting its history with racism.”
Mayoral contender and City Councilor Andrea Campbell announced she raised over $60,000 for her campaign within 24 hours of President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement and released a new video, highlighting her biography, her campaign theme of grappling with inequality, and her lifelong Boston roots. Campbell, a district councilor from Mattapan who was the first Black female Boston City Council president, declared her candidacy in September, as did At-Large City Councilor Michelle Wu, another former council president.
Kim Janey, the current council president, will be elevated to acting mayor upon Walsh’s departure, putting her in prime position to launch a campaign. Janey, a Roxbury district councilor, will make history as the first Black person and first woman to serve as the city’s mayor. She has not said whether she intends to run.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George of Dorchester is also “seriously considering” jumping into the race and has received a number of calls from supporters encouraging her to launch a campaign, according to a person close to her. Her campaign finance records suggest that she is building a campaign war chest; in December, she raised $54,484, according to her filings with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Like Wu, who has topped the ticket of at-large city councilors, Essaibi-George has repeatedly proven her ability to win citywide.
Among the other potential candidates for mayor are the Suffolk County sheriff and at least three Democratic state legislators from Boston.
Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins said Thursday he’s considering whether to run, saying he could bring a perspective as a Black man and executive. (He runs the state’s largest sheriff’s department and two correction facilities with 2,500 beds.)
”Whether it’s me or someone else, that’s a voice that should be heard,” he said. “I’ve gotten a number of calls. . . . You have to take it into consideration.”
State Representative Jon Santiago, a Boston Medical Center emergency room doctor who was born in Puerto Rico and lives in the South End, said he is weighing a campaign.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz of the North End, the House’s budget chairman, is considering a run, according to a person close to him. Michlewitz is viewed in the State House as a possible successor to newly elected House Speaker Ronald Mariano, but he could launch a campaign without giving up his House seat, and he could tap his campaign account of nearly $500,000 for a mayoral run.
And state Senator Nick Collins of South Boston has not ruled out a campaign, someone close to him told the Globe.
The open field could also draw some members of Walsh’s team in City Hall. Marty Martinez, the city’s chief of health and human services, is said to be considering a run. Martinez, who is gay and Mexican-American, would add more diversity to the field.
John Barros, one of Walsh’s 2013 competitors, who has served as the city’s chief of economic development throughout the Walsh administration, is also considered a possible contender. Barros, whose parents are immigrants from Cape Verde, did not return calls to discuss his thinking.
The potential entries of Janey and Essaibi-George, the daughter of Polish and Tunisian immigrants, would mean four women of color on the council would be competing for mayor — capping a stunning period of change in the council chamber, and reflecting the changing demographics of the city and its politics.
Eight women now dominate the Boston City Council, making up a majority for the first time in history. Boston has been a “majority-minority” city since 2000, but white men have always dominated its leadership; until 2018, only a smattering of female and nonwhite councilors served together at one time. US Census estimates in 2019 showed that white, non-Hispanic residents made up 44.5 percent of the city’s population; Black residents were 25.2 percent; Latinos, 19.8 percent; and Asians, 9.7 percent.
The city’s changing demographics — and the racial awareness spurred by repeated killings of Black people by police in other cities and protests of the past year — may have dramatically changed the landscape for candidates of color today, observers said.
Yet communities of color had high hopes in 2013 as well, when the city’s longest-serving mayor, Thomas M. Menino, announced he would not run again. Candidates of color made up half of the 12-person field, but the two who prevailed in the preliminary election were both white men, Walsh and Connolly. (Connolly told the Globe he does not intend to run this year.)
Joyce Ferriabough Bolling — a Democratic strategist whose late husband, Bruce Bolling, was the city council’s first Black president in the 1980s — said the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has helped reshape the political environment since Walsh took office. But she is concerned that if the field once again grows crowded, candidates of color could begin to “siphon votes from each other.”
”We have a lot of opportunity here, but we still need to be strategic,” Ferriabough Bolling said. “If we have 10 people of color running in the race, no one is going to win the seat.”
In his reelection bid in 2017, Walsh was challenged by former city councilor Tito Jackson, who is Black; Walsh defeated him by more than 30 points.
Potential candidates’ decision-making — and their odds of winning — could change based on the timing of Walsh’s departure. If Walsh leaves office before March 5, the city would be required to hold a special election. However, City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who is not interested in running, filed a proposal on Friday to override that requirement.
A few other rumored would-be candidates took themselves out of contention. Linda Dorcena Forry, a former state senator and state representative from Dorchester, said she was humbled and honored to receive calls from supporters, but she plans to stick with her private sector post. State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat, said she is not planning to be a candidate. District Attorney Rachael Rollins, the first Black woman to serve as Suffolk County’s top prosecutor, indicated she is not interested in running either; she said she is “myopically” focused on her current job and “happy where I am.”
Rollins suggested the next mayor doesn’t have to be a person of color to deliver for Black and brown residents. She pointed to the late chief justice Ralph D. Gants, a white man who championed addressing racial inequities in the criminal justice system before his death in September.
“I’m more interested in bold leadership that can execute,” Rollins said.
”This is about the work. It’s about understanding the moment,” she added.