Can a candidate of color run for mayor of Boston on the issue of equity and win?
A city that has never elected a mayor of color is about to find out.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey made equity the cornerstone of her announcement to run for a full four-year term. At a press conference on Tuesday, she spoke about the challenges faced “from COVID and racial inequities that have been inherited from centuries of structural racism.” In a campaign video released in conjunction with her announcement, she referenced a 2015 report that the median net worth of Black households is $8, compared with $247,500 for white households, and said, “This recovery is our chance to build a more equitable city for every resident.”
On her website, mayorjaney.com, Janey’s slogan is “Recovery. Equity. History.” As acting mayor, she has a unique perch to show what equity means to her. Boston voters will have a chance to decide whether her definition is what they want from City Hall. “Given Boston’s tumultuous history on race and equity, it’s on us as voters,” said Jeffrey Sanchez, a political consultant and former state representative from Jamaica Plain.
The five other candidates in the mayoral race also will have to decide whether Janey’s emphasis on equity is the key to victory, or if there’s political benefit in another approach.
Campaign slogans are just that, slogans. But they do frame the first message that a candidate tries to sell to voters. For John Barros, the pitch is “Rooted in Community. Driven by Hope. Ready to Meet the Moment.” For Andrea Campbell: “Our Moment. Our Future. Our Boston.” For Annissa Essaibi George: “Bold Vision. Hard Work. Real Progress.” For Jon Santiago: “a grassroots movement to bring our city together and lead us to a stronger and more equitable future.” For Michelle Wu: “Together, let’s build a Boston for everyone.”
All these candidates are also talking about equity. But they are also using words that reflect traditional thinking — some would say cautious thinking — about what it takes to win a Boston mayoral election, which, of course, has never been won by anyone who is not a white man. Recent mayors talked about creating a more equitable city, but no one did anything to really shake up the status quo. Deep inequities in housing, education, and other quality-of-life issues persist, as Janey rightly pointed out in her announcement.
Are Boston voters really ready to change that?
Janey’s ascension to acting mayor attracted national attention because she was the first person of color in Boston to get there. But it happened by accident, because she was City Council president when Mayor Marty Walsh left to become US labor secretary. What happens next?
All the declared candidates so far identify as Black, Latino, Asian, or Arab American. “A Black person — or a person of color — will win this race if a white person doesn’t run,” Byron Rushing, a former state representative who endorsed Wu, told the Globe. That “if” from Rushing reveals the depth of skepticism about how much Boston has really changed. Whether the field stays the same or changes, all the candidates, including Janey, will have to look at ways to broaden their appeal.
From a public relations perspective, Janey has made the most of her first weeks on the job, from her swearing-in to throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day at Fenway. From now until election day, she will have all the benefits and risks associated with being an acting mayor whose primary focus is “equity.” She has already started to show what that focus means to her.
For example, she recently announced that the city is offering free MBTA and Bluebikes passes to 1,000 workers in business districts that include Nubian Square, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, East Boston, and Fields Corner. On Wednesday, she announced initiatives to address equity in city contracting. On Thursday, she’s scheduled to join Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot on a panel hosted by MIT on the topic of “Going Local: Building More Equitable Cities.”
Janey is staking out bold ground. Now she has to get voters from across the city to follow her there.