Just beneath the surface of Boston politics, at least a dozen possible mayoral candidates are scrambling to assess their odds. Who would have the Dorchester vote? Who would take East Boston? A small crowd, possibly including the soon-to-be acting mayor Kim Janey, will join declared candidates Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, both Boston city councilors.
But there’s a Boston lawmaker and emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center who seems to be perfectly positioned to meet the current moment and run for mayor: Jon Santiago.
A Yale-educated doctor born in Puerto Rico and raised in Boston’s public housing, Santiago was elected in 2018 to the Legislature to represent the South End and parts of Roxbury and Back Bay, defeating iconic state representative Byron Rushing. People are pushing the 38-year-old doctor to jump in.
“I’m still considering it,” Santiago said in an interview. “Things are still preliminary and I’m talking with family.”
Few elected officials and community leaders want to take sides this early in the race, but admiration for Santiago’s qualities and potential is abundant. Accolades include “very humble,” “a practical progressive,” and “he’s like Captain America.” He actually is a captain — in the US Army Reserve, which gives him yet another impressive dimension. Santiago recently returned from deployment in the Middle East, where he participated in community meetings via Zoom and phone calls.
Boston is a classic portrait of inequity, and was so even before the coronavirus pandemic made it all the more apparent. The city is a study in the great benefits and brutal shortcomings of the global economy. A mecca for higher education versus public schools with shocking racial and ethnic achievement gaps. Gleaming buildings that produce world-saving scientific advances just a few miles from neighborhoods where residents die prematurely due to a lack of health care.
And so this year’s mayoral race will be about holding up a mirror to Boston at a very raw time in its history. It will be about equity. Mayors have come and gone and yet poverty persists: In 2000, Boston’s poverty rate was 19.5 percent; last year it was 20.2 percent.
The race will also be about authenticity. Voters will want candidates who walk the walk, and not just talk (and talk). Lived experience is the watchword. Several of the candidates will have it, but Santiago has been having a uniquely intense lived experience during the pandemic, day in and day out.
“The ER largely reflects what is going on in the community,” Santiago said. “Most ER visits are simply an acute exacerbation of the poverty, racism, lack of education, and economic opportunity that plagues society.”
That’s never been truer than today, where economic and health inequities profoundly express themselves in COVID wards. “The patterns you see [in the ER] are not random,” Santiago said. “And serving patients there will quickly educate you on what’s not, and what should be, happening in the halls of government.”
The opioid crisis sparked Santiago’s passion for political engagement. But as the only physician in the Legislature, he played a key role last year shaping lawmakers’ response to the pandemic. “I was one of six reps selected by the speaker [of the House] to serve on the COVID-19 advisory group that was crucial in making sure that the government would still operate by establishing a remote voting system and protocols to keep members safe on Beacon Hill, and advise on COVID-related legislation,” Santiago said.
“The final COVID-19 voting bill, which led to a significant increase in voter participation, was largely based on an initial bill that I wrote that included expansion of early voting, mailing applications, and setting up protective measures,” Santiago said. More recently, he rallied the community around MBTA service reductions, saving bus #43, which runs through Roxbury and the South End, from being cut.
“The one word I use is energetic,” said Kate Walsh, president and CEO of Boston Medical Center, about Santiago. “I don’t know how he finds the time to do everything he does and then tweet about it. His willingness to connect with patients and constituents, in any way he can, speaks volumes” to who he is, Walsh said.
If he runs, Santiago could face the challenge (and perhaps opportunity) of a default to identity politics. Either way, Santiago should run. Lest we forget, this is a city where 20 percent of residents and 43 percent of the student population in the public schools are Latino. (Another Latino is also weighing a run: Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services.)
No one doubts that Boston’s preexisting conditions of poverty and inequity need some powerful medicine. Santiago may have what it takes to cure them.