Does a white male candidate stand a chance in the Boston mayoral race?
Not that long ago, we would have been asking something else: Where are the women, and where are the candidates of color?
So far, the 2021 Boston mayoral race is shaping up to be my field of dreams: The three declared candidates are women of color (Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu), while the acting mayor (Kim Janey) is a Black woman who might also run.
I’m not discouraging white candidates from running, but let’s pause to reflect on this momentous moment in Boston politics.
In 2013, the last time there was an open seat for mayor, there were 12 candidates in the primary, half of them white and only one a woman. Despite the diverse field, the top vote-getters were two guys of Irish heritage: John Connolly and Marty Walsh.
Fast-forward to 2021, and a white male mayoral candidate has become the exception, not the rule. That’s progress, folks, especially in Boston, one of the last major cities in the country yet to elect a woman or a person of color as mayor.
What’s even more progressive: The electorate is not left with token choices but exceptional candidates. Campbell and Wu — both thirtysomething former City Council presidents with Ivy League bona fides — have exuded a fearlessness by launching their campaigns in September to take on a popular incumbent going for his third term.
And it is paying off: Campbell, who is Black, and Wu, who is Asian, have been on a fund-raising tear. Campbell has $743,000 in campaign cash on hand, while Wu has $741,000.
Still, this might not dissuade white men from entering the race. President Biden’s nomination of Walsh to be US labor secretary, in the first week of January, set off a flurry of speculation about who else might get into the mayoral race. A handful of white male candidates have been mentioned — including state Representative Aaron Michlewitz of the North End and City Councilor Michael Flaherty — but neither are pursuing the post.
So far, one white man has filed papers to run: Dana Depelteau of Dorchester. And another might still be in the hunt: state Senator Nick Collins of South Boston. But I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in Boston there are other white men thinking that history is on their side.
“If every mayor has been a white guy, it stands to reason another could win in 2021,” said Erin O’Brien, a University of Massachusetts Boston professor who studies gender in politics.
The irony is that a white male candidate would stand out in a field dominated by women and men of color. But it could be a painful campaign to watch, one never-ending game of political Twister in explaining how he’s the one who can eliminate racial inequities after a pandemic that has disproportionately hurt Black and brown communities.
I asked O’Brien what advice she would give white male candidates exploring a bid.
“I wouldn’t give them any advice. I would say, ‘Don’t do it,’ " she said. “The tide has finally turned where much of Boston doesn’t believe it is their moment.”
One political operative told me it’s possible for a white male candidate with deep pockets to make it to the general election in November, perhaps by painting himself as a centrist with business community support. Even so, this operative couldn’t see a white man, in this moment of racial reckoning, winning it all.
Boston may be a majority-minority city, with only about 45 percent of its population white, but based on past local elections, white people show up at the polls more frequently than voters of color. In 2013, about 59 percent of those who cast votes in the general election were white, according to an analysis by the MassINC Polling Group.
Political observers believe that pattern will change in 2021, because a strong slate of candidates of color will draw more-diverse voters and participation is expected to increase with more voting by mail. Those dynamics could help pave the way for Boston to elect someone other than a white man.
Charlotte Golar Richie — who is Black and was the lone woman in the 2013 mayoral race — reminded me that candidates and their supporters back then recognized the importance of representation.
“What is different this time,” she wrote in an e-mail, “is that the election of a person of color may actually happen!”
Boston has come a long way since 2013. This mayoral race will show us just how far.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.