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Santiago, a South End lawmaker, launches bid for Boston mayor

Jon Santiago, an emergency room doctor and second-term state representative, is joining the Boston mayoral field.
Jon Santiago, an emergency room doctor and second-term state representative, is joining the Boston mayoral field.

Jon Santiago, an emergency room doctor and second-term state representative, said he is joining the Boston mayoral field, pitching his experience as an antidote as the city faces a potentially long recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Santiago, 38, is the fourth candidate — and fourth of color — to declare in a still-malleable field that cracked wide open when President Biden said he would nominate Mayor Martin J. Walsh to be his labor secretary.

His campaign launch also continues what’s been a rapid rise through city politics for the South End Democrat. Santiago was elected to office in 2018 with a pledge to help address a separate health crisis — the state’s opioid epidemic — and by unseating longtime incumbent Byron Rushing, then the Legislature’s highest-ranking lawmaker of color.

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In an interview, Santiago said his experience working overnights within Boston Medical Center’s emergency department has given him a clear view into not only the devastation wrought by the pandemic, but the deep-seated inequities it’s exposed.

“Boston is going to need a leader, a public servant. And it’s not just about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s about the next two or three or four years, and what Boston comes out of the post-pandemic shadows,” Santiago told the Globe. “This will be the most consequential mayor’s race in our history.”

Santiago will join three city councilors in the race: Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell, and Annissa Essaibi George, the last of whom declared weeks after news of Walsh’s nomination broke.

John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development since 2014, is also said to be close to joining the field, and Kim Janey, who will serve as acting mayor once Walsh departs, could also enter the fray.

In a campaign launch video that tracks Santiago on his walk home from the hospital, the candidate details parts of his varied resume: The Yale University School of Medicine graduate has served in the Peace Corps, and is a captain in the US Army reserve. He has worked for six years at BMC, the region’s largest and busiest provider of trauma services, offering him a ground-level view of the pandemic — and since last year, making him a regular voice on local TV stations about the state’s response, helping to elevate his profile.

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“I think it’s important to recognize that many of these issues that we’re talking about in the city of Boston were [here] pre-COVID,” Santiago said in a Globe interview. “How do we address transportation equity? How do we fix the Boston public school system?”

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said Santiago comes in the mayoral contest with “an incredibly strong resume” but added that the South End lawmaker has “a large hill to climb” in getting voters across the city to know who he is and what he’s about.

“He’s certainly not a citywide name, but he’s not the only candidate with that issue,” Arroyo said, noting the increasing diversity in the campaign.

“It’s impressive that we are now this deep into the race and we have very qualified, brilliant folks of color that are [in the competition or] looking to run," said Arroyo, adding that he’s glad there is a now candidate in the race who can speak directly to the Latino experience in Boston.

Jacquetta Van Zandt, a Boston political operative, said she is not surprised about Santiago’s entrance in the race, noting that he could pose a challenge for other progressives in the race, particularly City Councilor Michelle Wu.

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“That’s his base,” Van Zandt said. “He talks about being a progressive kind of candidate, even when he was running for state representative. …I’m not surprised [he’s running], but I wonder how he’s going to compete with Michelle for those progressive votes.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Santiago moved as a child to Boston, where he said he and his family lived in subsidized housing in Roxbury. His family later moved to Texas, where he earned an undergraduate degree from University of Texas at Austin, before he returned to Boston in 2010.

He and his wife, Alexandra, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, live on Tremont Street.

Santiago has been preparing a campaign for weeks, including bringing on staff and advisers and retooling his campaign web site. He began this month with $160,000 his campaign account, but is regarded as a capable fundraiser.

Santiago said he plans to scale back his clinical hours at BMC as he readies his campaign. On Beacon Hill, he was named this month a vice chairman on the Legislature’s new committee for COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness Management, which is preparing a high-profile oversight hearing on the Baker administration’s vaccine rollout plan.

If any of the current candidates win the mayoral election, they would make history in a city that has never had a mayor who was not a white man.

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“I think this is about the candidate who can have the most appeal to the most neighborhoods,” Santiago said. “I think we bring that — a candidate based on hope and making sure equity is at the [forefront].”

The campaign will continue what’s been a hectic year for Santiago. He returned in December from a deployment to the Middle East, and between working overnights at the hospital during both surges of the coronavirus, he underwent an appendectomy last summer, the climax of days of trying to fight off stomach pain during the House’s debate on a wide-ranging policing bill, he said.

It appears likely that he and other candidates will at least not have to vie in a special election. The Massachusetts House approved a home-rule petition on Monday that would override the requirement for a special contest should Walsh leave his post before March 5; the Senate is expected to approve it as well, perhaps as early as Thursday, when the chamber is scheduled to meet next.

Should lawmakers pass the measure and Governor Charlie Baker sign it, the candidates would only need to vie in the preliminary mayoral election already scheduled for September. Then, the field would be winnowed to two for the general contest in November.

It’s unclear when the US Senate will hold its vote to confirm Walsh as secretary.

Meghan E. Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.