The rhetoric is often soaring, the pledges copious, and the hailing of accomplishments extensive. Controversies and shortcomings of Boston and City Hall are either ignored, glossed over, or framed as things that either have already been overcome or surely will be at some point in the future.
The annual State of the City address is typically a victory lap of sorts for Mayor Martin J. Walsh. But after a hellish year that saw an unprecedented pandemic disrupt daily life, take the lives of more than 1,000 city residents, and dent the local economy in ways large and small, what is there to highlight? And given that this State of the City will likely be Walsh’s last — with the news breaking last week that President-elect Joe Biden wants Walsh to be his labor secretary — what does the mayor have in store for what could be the public coda to his seven-year tenure at City Hall?
Those may be the central questions facing Walsh ahead of Tuesday night’s speech, which he will deliver virtually. A spokesman for Walsh’s office said in a Monday e-mail his remarks will focus on the city’s response to the public health crisis and reflect on the “challenges overcome and the challenges that still lie ahead.” Walsh is expected to recognize the efforts of essential workers, first responders, and residents who were part of Boston’s pandemic response.
Walsh, in his second term as city executive, will also acknowledge his anticipated transition to the Biden Cabinet and reflect on his time as mayor, according to the spokesman.
If the past is any precedent, the Dorchester Democrat will also discuss two issues the city has long wrestled with — the city’s struggling schools and the soaring cost of housing.
Last year, Walsh announced $100 million in new revenue for direct classroom funding, and noted that Boston Public Schools have been “a tale of two districts” for far too long.
In 2016, he said BPS was his priority, saying he previously had not been satisfied with the district’s performance.
On the housing front, he has in the past highlighted the city’s residential boom and emphasized how many units were being built while also acknowledging that people were struggling to pay rents and find homes they can afford. Last year, he also announced a $500 million plan over five years to create thousands of homes across Boston during his speech.
Policing has also been a through-line in past addresses, with Walsh highlighting the number of guns officers took off the streets or decreases in crime numbers. But while crime in Boston has remained relatively low during his administration, both homicides and shootings increased last year. Additionally, the annual speech comes at a time when there is a broad ongoing discussion regarding police reform, following months of demonstrations protesting police brutality and systemic racism.
Walsh assigned a task force to take a look at police reforms in the city and declared racism to be a public health crisis in June. The city has moved on some reforms. Most recently, Walsh signed a proposal into law establishing an independent police watchdog that will include a civilian review board. He’s also proposed a change in the state’s civil service system that governs the department’s hiring that would see a preference included for city high school graduates in an attempt to further diversify the force, though he vetoed a separate measure that would have restricted the use of chemical agents like tear gas and projectiles like sponge rounds in crowd control situations.
On the eve of what is likely to be Walsh’s farewell State of the City, local observers took stock of his tenure.
David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College, thought Walsh’s legacy would be connected to the city’s economic boom during his administration, in addition to Boston being “relatively placid, politically, for the most part,” during his mayoralty. Walsh, he said, has tried to stay out of political controversy, a good strategy to remain fairly popular.
Hopkins thought the two largest challenges of Walsh’s mayoralty have occurred during the past year: the COVID-19 pandemic and demands for substantial policing reform.
“He’s leaving those things unresolved, so it’s hard to make a final judgment,” he said.
However, Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, had no such hesitation, giving Walsh high marks on his pandemic mitigation.
“He’s been willing, more so than other leaders . . . to impose the kind of measures in Boston that irritate businesses, irritate some residents but are necessary for public health,” he said.
Walsh, said Cunningham, has helped Boston become a more welcoming place to the LGBTQ community and immigrants, including those who are undocumented.
“Marty Walsh has stood up for people, I think that’s a good thing to be able to say about someone when they’re wrapping up their job,” he said.
Brian Conley, who teaches political science at Suffolk University, said that while Walsh presided over a period of economic growth in the city defined by explosive housing development, “there’s definitely been deepening inequities” in Boston in recent years.
“Wages have not kept pace with the cost of housing,” he said.
Natasha Perez, a local political consultant, thought Walsh in Tuesday’s speech should hone in on the campaign pledges he made to add diversity to City Hall. While noting there is room for improvement at City Hall when it come to diversity, such as increasing the number of people of color who receive city contracts, Perez said Walsh “has done a very good job of diversifying the workforce he controls.”
“I think he can honestly look back at that say he has done what he’s set out to do,” she said.
Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at UMass Boston, agreed, saying Walsh’s mayoralty has acted as a bridge between “new Boston and old Boston.” She said Walsh looks like many a previous Boston mayor: white, Irish, and male. But she thought his appointments and policy proposals have tried to promote diversity in city leadership and embrace political progressivism.
Indeed, diversity has been featured in past State of the City addresses. In 2015, Walsh said, “We’ve made city leadership more fully representative of the people than ever before. We created the most diverse command staff in the Boston Police Department’s history. With eight chiefs of color, my cabinet is the most diverse ever in City Hall. And I’m not done yet.”
“Mayor Walsh managed to look ‘old Boston’ and walk decidedly ‘new,’” O’Brien said.