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This Boston mayor’s race will be like no other

City Council president Kim Janey, who will serve as acting mayor when Marty Walsh leaves, has not announced whether she will run for the office.
City Council president Kim Janey, who will serve as acting mayor when Marty Walsh leaves, has not announced whether she will run for the office.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Get ready for a mayor’s race like nothing Boston has ever seen.

Sometime in the next month or two, Mayor Marty Walsh will pass the baton to the City Council president, Kim Janey, who will serve as acting mayor, becoming the first Roxbury resident to occupy the office since the legendary James Michael Curley.

That, of course, will be a footnote to Janey’s more important distinctions as the city’s first Black and female mayor.

But that’s just the beginning of the history that stands to be made this year, history that resonates as we ponder the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Walsh’s nomination as secretary of labor stands as a testament to his tireless and effective advocacy for the working families that have inspired his career. But it also opens the door to a new era of city government.

It has quickly become fashionable to search for parallels between this race and 1993, when an acting mayor, Thomas M. Menino, quickly rode the power of quasi-incumbency to a long reign at the helm of the city.

That race, which I covered, is a fond memory, and, yes, it was historic in its way. The transition from Ray Flynn to Menino brought significant changes to city government. But that was an evolution; given the likely field of contenders, this could be a real break.

Who’s running? City councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell have been in for months. Janey has not shown her cards yet, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that once she’s sitting in the office she will want to stay. Councilor Annissa Essaibi George is likely to jump in. Economic development chief John Barros and state Representative Jon Santiago are known to be testing the waters as well, with Santiago considered more likely to take the plunge. Police Commissioner William Gross is also considering a run.

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That isn’t simply a diverse field; it’s a field of nothing but diverse candidates.

And it reflects city politics that have been reshaped dramatically in just a few years.

As the Globe Spotlight Team reported in 2017, Boston is one of the few major American cities that has had nothing but white male mayors. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Minneapolis are all cities that have broken the mold at some point. Boston is an outlier.

But city voters have been rethinking what leadership should look like over the past few election cycles.

Wu has seen the change since her first campaign in 2013. Back then, her status as a non-native (she’s from Chicago) was a big deal.

“In my first run, many of the conversations focused on where I lived, where I grew up, where my mom lived, your connection to various communities and parts of the city, my individual background,” she said.

By 2019, when the most diverse council ever was elected, the questions had become very different, Wu said.

“What issues will you champion? What commitments will you make to making progress on the changes we need? What communities will you champion? And so we’ve seen an engagement and a recognition of just how much city government matters and how much difference communities partnering with city government can make in our city.”

Before the campaign gets fully underway, there is the pesky matter of a special election to deal with. Under state law, if Walsh leaves before March 5, the city must elect an acting mayor to serve until a successor is elected in November.

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Under the best of circumstances, that would be a poor use of public money. In a pandemic, it would be preposterous. Councilor Ricardo Arroyo has proposed a home-rule petition that would wipe out the special election, and the council and Legislature should pass it immediately.

And then we should proceed to the election that can reshape who holds power in Boston, the ultimate strong-mayor city.

Boston has had more than its share of great mayors, but they have all had one conspicuous quality in common: all white men. Soon, Boston voters can decide whether there is more than one way to be great.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.