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WAKANDA II seeks to back sole Black candidate for mayor

The effort works to unite the Black vote in a crowded field

Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson has been organizing the effort by a group of Black leaders to coalesce behind one candidate in the race to replace Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson has been organizing the effort by a group of Black leaders to coalesce behind one candidate in the race to replace Mayor Martin J. Walsh.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

For members of Boston’s Black political establishment, the time is ripe to elect the city’s first Black mayor.

Black leaders have been holding virtual planning sessions, fine-tuning a candidate questionnaire on key issues, and spearheading a determined effort to coalesce behind a single Black candidate since President Biden tapped Mayor Martin J. Walsh to be his labor secretary.

The race to replace him after his expected confirmation is wide open, stoking optimism that Boston could soon elect its first nonwhite, nonmale mayor.

“We have an opportunity here to upend and reshape the whole composition of the city government, and we’re going to take it,’' said former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who is leading the effort and is also targeting four potentially open seats on the City Council.

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The initiative is called WAKANDA II, which Wilkerson said is based on the fundamental principles of Black empowerment and self-determination. (Wakanda is also the name of the fictional country ruled by a Black super hero in the 2018 blockbuster “Black Panther.”) A similar initiative, WAKANDA I, was launched during the 2018 campaign for Suffolk district attorney and coalesced support around Rachael Rollins, who won the race. Rollins was one of five candidates in the Democratic primary, which included two other Black contenders.

As the field of hopefuls for mayor expands, WAKANDA II leaders say a unified approach is their best chance to make history.

“If the ultimate goal is to elect a Black mayor or a Black woman or Black man, organizing support around that one individual in a crowded primary makes a lot of sense [in a winner-take-all contest],” said Erin O’Brien, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor who did not previously know about the effort.

Only one of the three declared candidates for mayor — City Councilor Andrea Campbell — is Black. The others are Councilors Michelle Wu, who is Asian, and Annissa Essaibi George, whose parents were born in Poland and Tunisia.

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Council president Kim Janey, who is Black, will become acting mayor when Walsh is confirmed as labor secretary. She has not yet said if she will run to keep the seat. John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development, and state Representative Jon Santiago are also expected to enter the race. Barros is Black and Santiago is Latino.

Andrew Leong, a professor of Latino and Asian-American studies at UMass Boston, said coalescing around a single candidate is a good concept, but it could create a perception that there is “too much emphasis on the Black community and not enough in the other communities.”

If there is an actual coalition of diversity, then it needs “to responsibly represent all the voices and not just the race of the person in the office,’' Leong said.

The past year has laid bare the grave challenges facing the Black community — COVID vaccine inequities, policing reform, and a digital and racial divide in remote learning. And Black leaders say it’s past time to have a mayor who looks like them to address these issues.

“If it’s not now, when?” said Charlotte Golar Richie, a former city and state housing chief who placed third in the preliminary mayoral contest in 2013. “This is the time we could all coalesce around a person of color — in my view, a woman — and there are several who I think are supremely qualified.”

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Campbell, in a statement, said that she welcomed the opportunity to be in a “group of talented women running for mayor” and that she entered the race last fall to seize on a “unique opportunity in Boston to confront our own history of racism and segregation that created persistent inequities.”

When asked about the effort, Janey said in a statement: “It is always a good thing when residents are engaged in the political process.’' Wu did not respond to a request for comment. Essaibi George’s campaign said that she is dedicated learning from the Black community, and that if elected she would be mayor “for all who call this city home.”

“We have an opportunity here to upend and reshape the whole composition of the city government, and we’re going to take it,” said former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who is leading the effort and is also targeting four potentially open seats on the City Council.
“We have an opportunity here to upend and reshape the whole composition of the city government, and we’re going to take it,” said former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who is leading the effort and is also targeting four potentially open seats on the City Council.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Wilkerson said she recognizes the mayoral race is just getting started and expects other Black candidates to enter, including Barros.

“We are not going to ask anybody to drop out,’' said Wilkerson, emphasizing that the group has not yet selected its candidate. “We expect people will make whatever decision that makes sense for them, but we will be clear that once we’re settled on a candidate, we’re going all in.”

Segun Idowu, who ran unsuccessfully for state representative in Hyde Park, said he supports the effort to develop an agenda, force commitments from the candidates, and then “get behind whoever fits.”

“The next mayor has to be a person of color. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” said Idowu, who said the candidate does not necessarily need to be Black.

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But Linda Champion, a former prosecutor who ran for Suffolk district attorney in 2018, said she rejects the idea of coalescing around a single candidate, citing the isolation she felt when Black and other political leaders rallied behind Rollins in the race for district attorney.

“I don’t care if 30 candidates of color want to run. Let’s celebrate that,’' said Champion, who is of Black and Korean heritage, “because we fought hard for the opportunity to be a part of this process. Why can’t we be on the ballot? Why not?”

Wilkerson said she launched WAKANDA I because she’s heard from residents who did not want a repeat of what transpired in 2013, when Walsh and John R. Connolly, two Irish-Americans, emerged from a diverse pack of 12 contenders in the preliminary mayoral contest. Nearly half of the field was Black or Hispanic.

And some Black leaders felt they blew a golden opportunity for Golar Richie, who finished nearly 4,000 votes behind Connolly. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Golar Richie supporters called a meeting to make the case for backing one candidate. But tensions exploded when her competitors felt they were being asked to drop out.

Charles Yancey, who competed in the 2013 preliminary race while also running to keep his longtime council seat, described the effort as “presumptuous” and did not bow out.

“It’s overly simplistic to assume that you can merely have one candidate if that candidate doesn’t really resonate with the community as a whole‚’’ said Yancey.

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Four years later, Roxbury district councilor Tito Jackson, who is Black, went down in defeat to Walsh in the general election.

The first WAKANDA effort targeted the 2018 Suffolk district attorney’s race, which also included former state representative Evandro Carvalho. The candidates were sent an extensive questionnaire on a range of issues. Champion did not respond.

Champion said at the time she felt the group had long made up its mind about Rollins, a claim Wilkerson rejects. Champion added that during the race she was isolated, iced-out, and pressured to step aside by some Black political leaders and advocates, including one who questioned whether she was really Black, she said.

“It was brutal,’' she said, adding that whenever a Black person runs against another Black person “all of a sudden it turns into high school mean girls.”

Both Carvalho and Champion remained in the race. Rollins triumphed based largely on a broad coalition of support. WAKANDA I participants said their effort helped Rollins achieve victory.

Wilkerson, who said her group’s 2018 decision was based on the candidates’ responses to the questionnaire, stressed that the effort will not back down. Roughly 150 people in the Boston area are participating, Wilkerson said.

A list of questions on education, criminal justice reform, housing, systemic racism, and other key issues will soon go out to Black candidates, including those on the cusp of running. The group will make its decision soon, she said.

“This is all going to play itself out,’' she said, noting that the group is on an aggressive schedule. “We are not wasting a whole lot of time.”

Globe staff writer Stephanie Ebbert contributed to this report.


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.