Two very good things happened to Tom Menino in 1993. First, President Clinton nominated then-Boston mayor Ray Flynn to be the ambassador to the Holy See thereby elevating Menino, then the Boston City Council president, to serve as acting mayor. The second good thing to happen was that four months after becoming the acting mayor, Menino won the position outright in an election that featured many candidates, but that eventually, he won in a landslide.
On election night, Clinton called Menino to congratulate him and mentioned how he wanted to work together to do big things for cities and the country alike. Menino didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Thank you, Mr. President, for making the mayor ambassador.” After that, he became the longest-serving mayor in Boston history.
So far in 2021, one good thing has already happened to Kim Janey. President Biden selected Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to serve as the nation’s labor secretary, thereby elevating Janey, the City Council president, to serve as acting mayor.
Janey has not announced whether she will follow Menino’s footsteps and run for mayor this year, but it would be surprising if she decided not to. At the very least she could use her time as mayor, especially in the next few months, to preserve her ability to run, if not greatly enhance it.
With this as the premise, there are three things that Janey must do to follow the Menino model and hold onto City Hall.
1. Do no harm.
If Janey came into office and basically did nothing at all for eight months she would automatically a front runner for re-election. Some of this has to do with the fact she is a semi-incumbent, but also because financially the city is doing really well, even if not all is well among the city’s residents. Yes, Boston in 2021 is a city of inequity. At the same time, the city is booming economically (it was pre-pandemic anyway).
At the tail end of the city’s largest building boom in history, the property tax base has grown and along with it are high quality and high paying jobs. Businesses want to relocate to Boston, developers want to build in Boston. But in the short term, she could just sit on any proposed changes to the economic boom, blame anything that goes wrong on Walsh, and vow to make changes in the future.
For example, Janey will no doubt want to address the city’s inequities, from race to housing to income to education, there is something to be said about addressing those issues with urgency while at the same time ensuring the business community feels like it has a partner.
This is not suggesting any compromise on any inequity, but it’s just political best practice. If Janey can avoid major changes for a few months and then she will be an incumbent mayor with a crazy amount of power to do very bold things if she wants.
2. Make the race a referendum on you.
Speaking of something very bold, it may be smart for Janey to propose something that pushes the boundaries just to get people talking.
Bottom line: whether it is through a bold policy proposal, leadership during a particular moment of crisis, or however she gets there, Janey needs to quickly make the mayor’s race a referendum on her and her ideas.
Just consider the math. If there are eight candidates, and voters are asked to pick either the pro-Janey camp or the anti-Janey camp, then seven other candidates are in one of those camps and she slides through to the general election.
The good news for Janey is that she actually does control some of her destiny on this. If she simply gets aggressive and makes aggressive announcements and decisions worth debating, then she will force people to choose.
If Janey and her advisors are really thinking she will run for mayor in the fall, they should go through the thought exercise of a preliminary or general election debate and play out what questions are being asked. If a good chunk of those questions are about Janey’s ideas, then that is a huge win.
3. Publicity, publicity, publicity.
Janey walks into the mayor’s office with a huge political gift. The historic nature of her ascension as the first woman and the first Black person to be Boston mayor lends itself to a lot of big picture takes from the press both locally and nationally.
She should not only sit for every interview but have her campaign spend a lot of time looking for national opportunities that can enhance her profile, not as just lucky on timing (other mayoral candidates also served as city council president) but as a national rising star worthy of both national coverage and of donations from Democratic activists.
No other candidate for mayor can get the free publicity that she can draw just in terms of the historic nature of her mayoralty. She also has the added advantage of serving as acting mayor during a pandemic where she can hold press conferences all the time that will get wide coverage, with some stations carrying every word she says live.
If she plays her cards right, it will be a tenure in office that could last as long as she wants it to.