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Once an outsider, Barros now runs for Boston mayor from the inside

Surrounded by family members, John Barros announced his campaign for mayor of Boston on March 4.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

John Barros’s campaign for mayor might be the first test of Marty Walsh’s legacy.

The former economic development chief has joined a crowded field of contenders to succeed his former boss, the new secretary of labor.

He enters the race with significant support from current and former City Hall types. Barros also has his fans in the city’s business community — not surprising given his close connection to them in recent years.

For Barros, this is his second run for the office — but different in nearly every way from his first bid in 2013.

Then, he was an upstart. He headed the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, but was little known outside Roxbury. Barros ran an energetic, impressive campaign before finishing fifth. He endorsed his former opponent, and went to work in City Hall overseeing economic development.


Now he’s running as an established member of the city’s power structure, a role that brings both rewards and risks. He remains close to the politically popular Walsh, but that means explaining the administration’s failures. He stands to inherit part of Walsh’s political base, but also has to present as his own man.

He also has to navigate the complicated racial dynamics that have already come to bear in this race.

Barros’s signature accomplishment was working to bring General Electric to Boston — a move that has probably had less impact on the city than initially expected. More broadly, he worked to promote development in an economic boom — but a boom that has also raised deep concerns about inequality. (One question looming for Barros will be explaining the city’s poor performance on supporting minority- and women-owned businesses.)

Barros claims that his administration might be more dynamic on such issues than the one he just served in.

“Whether we’re talking about the Climate Action Plan or the Diversity plan, the Barros administration would lean in and be decisive about making the kinds of changes that we need,” he said.


The son of Cape Verdean immigrants, Barros grew up in Roxbury before attending Dartmouth. He returned to the neighborhood to run the Dudley Street organization, an innovative community land trust that has created affordable housing in what was then Dudley (now Nubian) Square.

His 2013 campaign divided activists. Some saw him as a strong outsider. Others insisted that his candidacy, among others, only served to split Black voters, opening the door for two white men — Walsh and John Connolly — to move into the final.

That issue hasn’t gone away in the last eight years — witness the pressure for Andrea Campbell to exit the race to ease the path of Acting Mayor Kim Janey — a push I consider unfair and wrongheaded.

“I think it’s important to recognize that candidates of color in this race represent where Boston is in terms of its population and its diversity,” Barros said. “But it’s also about having the right mayor.”

Barros argues that, despite its outcome, the diverse field in the 2013 race helped to make Boston politics more representative.

“I argue that the 2013 race (led to) more people of color on the council, because a bunch of us activated folks who weren’t participating,” Barros said. That engagement, he said, has been good for the city — and for democracy.

This campaign is a wild card like few races before it. The city has had acting mayors before, but none who represent the break with its history that Janey does. That clearly gives her an edge.


This election also follows the departure of a popular mayor whose supporters — and former aides — seem poised to splinter. Barros combines deep experience in city government with the background of an outsider. But will his association with Walsh ultimately help him or hurt him?

“Ultimately, people want someone with experience who can come in and run this city and address some of the social issues that we have to address,” Barros said. “I believe I’m the person for that.”

Being an outsider helped Barros in 2013. He’s betting that time on the inside can propel him now.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @Adrian_Walker.