Another week, another round of waiting at Boston City Hall.
Like a fog that just won’t lift, a question has hovered above the city’s political milieu since early this year: When will Mayor Martin J. Walsh leave?
Rumors have swirled about how the timeline would unfold since President Biden tapped Walsh to be his labor secretary in early January, but still no answers come. When will the Senate confirm the Dorchester Democrat? When will Walsh officially resign? And when will council President Kim Janey become acting mayor?
“There’s no clarity, actually, when it will be,” said Janey during a walk around Nubian Square this week.
Guessing when Walsh will exit has become a bit of a parlor game among city politicos. First, the going bet was Walsh would be confirmed by the end of the first week of March — setting off a frantic scramble to pass legislation to avoid a special election required by the city charter.
The days ticked by, early March arrived, and Walsh’s nomination didn’t budge. Then officials buzzed that surely this would be the week Walsh left town. But Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who controls the floor schedule, on Tuesday tweeted the names of a trio of Cabinet nominees he expected to be confirmed this week. Walsh’s name was not among them.
And the cycle of predictions started anew.
As of early March, Biden’s Cabinet was taking shape at the slowest pace of any in modern history, although Politico reported Wednesday that the Senate is “on track to catch up to its pace of confirmations at the beginning of the Trump and Obama administrations.”
Reasons offered for the delay have been myriad: a lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition; Donald Trump’s impeachment trial; and the fact that Senate Democrats did not win a majority of seats in the chamber until the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections, after which it took nearly a month for Democratic and Republican leadership to agree on a resolution governing the organization of the upper chamber.
The result has been “an odd limbo” in city politics, said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“As long as he’s still here, when you’re mayor, the focus is on you,” said Cunningham.
“It’s weird,” he said. “He could have gone in the last three weeks, and now it’s next week again.”
The awkwardness has extended to Walsh’s handling of the media as well in recent weeks. While awaiting confirmation as labor secretary, the mayor has at times avoided questions from reporters at recent COVID-19 briefings, a stark departure for Walsh, who for months during the pandemic fielded inquiries on an array of topics during his regular City Hall news conferences.
But the dynamic may be weirdest for the growing crowd of candidates in the rapidly developing race to take Walsh’s place for a full term.
Lou DiNatale, a longtime political analyst and veteran Massachusetts pollster, said that Walsh remaining in City Hall has slowed the development of the mayoral race. It’s difficult, he said, to get the attention that is given to the mayor.
“It’s hard to get ink with Marty still sitting on the top of the pile,” DiNatale said.
The mayor’s idling at City Hall has given more time for potential candidates to decide whether and how they’re going to run, and to set up their fund-raising operation, he said.
“Marty is a problem insofar as the politics of the city can’t shift gears into the next cycle,” said DiNatale. “His shadow remains.”
Brian Conley, a political science professor at Suffolk University, said Walsh having one foot out the door has created a power vacuum.
“It’s resulted in a lot of people looking at Marty as a lame duck,” he said.
Walsh’s departure date did, at one time, hold very real consequences for the mayoral race. If he left before March 5, the city charter mandated that a special mayoral election, which would include preliminary and general contests, be held on top of this fall’s regularly scheduled municipal elections.
Wanting to avoid the public health risks and costs of the city holding four municipal elections in one year, the City Council pushed for a home rule petition to do away with the special election requirement. Home rule petitions can be arduous; they require both local and State House approvals. This legislation nonetheless moved quickly, and Governor Charlie Baker ultimately signed it, a little more than three weeks after the council approved the measure.
But March 5 came and went, and still Walsh remained, making the matter moot.
Biden’s decision to tap Walsh, a former union leader who in a past career worked on construction sites, for the top job at the Labor Department upended city politics. Until then, Walsh was expected to use his $5 million-plus war chest to seek a third term; he was considered the front-runner in this year’s race. At that time, only two candidates had declared their mayoral bids: City Councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell.
Walsh’s anticipated departure cracked open the contest. City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, state Representative Jon Santiago, and Walsh’s economic development chief, John Barros, jumped into the race. The field may grow more crowded still: Janey, Walsh’s equity chief Karilyn Crockett, and state Senator Nick Collins are all said to be seriously considering launching campaigns.
Not everyone has waited for Walsh’s departure to make their plans. A raft of City Hall officials have announced that they are leaving their posts, and some have already left. That list of officials who are going or already gone includes Crockett, Barros, chief of staff Kathryn Burton, policy chief Joyce Linehan, and the city’s corporation counsel, Eugene O’Flaherty. William Gross, the city’s first Black police commissioner, also abruptly announced his retirement, saying he always planned to leave the department when his “brother” Walsh decamped.
While acting mayor, Janey will no longer preside over the council meetings. That duty will fall to the council’s vice president, Matt O’Malley.
As a city councilor, Janey has an annual salary of $103,500, according to city records. She will receive a pay bump while she serves as acting mayor. Mayoral pay means she will be earning about $3,800 a week — or about $197,000 — in that role. But, of course, that too is on hold until Walsh moves on.
This week in Nubian Square, Janey, in between talking about her life, political career, and challenges facing the city, briefly addressed Walsh’s impending Senate confirmation.
“The hope is it’s going to be in the next round,” she said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.