Sometime in the next few days, Boston will experience a scene that John Winthrop could never have envisioned: a woman of color walking into the mayor’s office and claiming it as her own.
When City Council president Kim Janey takes the reins from Mayor Marty Walsh, it will mark the culmination of a startling transformation.
People forget that as recently as eight years ago Ayanna Pressley was, for a time, the only woman on the Boston City Council. This city’s white, male power structure was as impenetrable as it was longstanding.
Now, for all anyone knows, Walsh could be the last white mayor of Boston.
Look at the field lining up to succeed him: Andrea Campbell, Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi George, John Barros, Jon Santiago.
Like any abrupt change, this has been coming forever. Even when Tom Menino was mayor, there was speculation that he could be the last white mayor, given the changes in the city’s population.
But demographics changed a lot faster than the city’s politics. Finally, Boston is on the cusp of a city government that looks like the city it governs.
Even though Janey will be acting mayor, no one can miss the magnitude of the moment. She grew up during the school desegregation crisis of the 1970s, in a family whose roots in Roxbury stretch back generations. All of which underscores how unlikely her ascent would have seemed not long ago. Now, she’ll be in charge.
How far behind is Boston? Welcome to one of the few major American cities that has never elected anything but a white, male mayor. In cities like New York‚ Chicago, and Los Angeles, this barrier fell a generation or more ago. Even cities that don’t boast particularly big Black populations, like Seattle and Denver, have elected Black mayors — in some cases, more than one.
Here, the old line held.
Sure, Boston has had many mayoral candidates of color. All of them were running to govern a city that wasn’t ready to share power. Two of them — Mel King and Tito Jackson — advanced to the finals. Both got crushed.
This time promises to be different, if only because there may not be any white candidates at all.
It’s a mistake to think of this as a homogeneous field. These candidates differ a lot in their politics, their agendas, and in where they believe the city needs to go. It’s a much more diverse field, ideologically speaking, than in many other mayoral races in which the candidates looked the same.
This campaign has been in a state of suspended animation while Walsh’s future is being determined. For a while, the only real action was a mind-numbing debate over whether to hold a special election that ended up being moot. (The notion that his confirmation would zip through Washington only made sense to people who don’t pay much attention to Washington, where nothing happens quickly.)
Campbell and Wu got an important head start by boldly deciding to run without knowing whether Walsh was leaving. But the other candidates have time to make up that ground, organizationally and financially. This campaign has been going on for months, but in some important way, it’s just starting now.
The great wild card in this race, of course, is Janey. She hasn’t said whether she’s running, or anything much of substance about what she plans to do. But it’s impossible to imagine the first female and first mayor of color, with the power of quasi-incumbency, taking a pass.
Of course Janey is running.
I suspect her advisors have big plans for introducing her to the voters of Boston, most of whom know next to nothing about her. That will start to change this week. Whether she gets the kind of boost Menino did in 1993 remains to be seen.
However the election shakes out, this feels like a moment of irreversible change. The old order is crumbling, for good.