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House Speaker jokes he was ‘afraid my car’s gonna get stolen’ while endorsing Jon Santiago in South End

State Representative Jon Santiago.
State Representative Jon Santiago.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Boston mayoral candidate Jon Santiago‘s attempt to brandish his support from several legislative leaders Tuesday was quickly overshadowed by a comment from Speaker Ronald Mariano, who joked he was “afraid my car’s gonna get stolen” during the South End event.

The comment, which was captured on livestreaming video and was audible at the event, drew immediate condemnation from some Boston Democrats and at least one of Santiago’s mayoral rivals, and prompted Mariano to apologize hours later.

Santiago had gathered 16 legislators at Plaza Betances, the center of the Villa Victoria housing complex in the South End, to tout their endorsements. Mariano, who ascended to the speakership in December, earned a bachelor’s degree from nearby Northeastern University, and noted at one point in the event that he “did attend school right around the corner from here.”

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“I won’t tell my story about my cars in this neighborhood,” the 74-year-old, who lives in Quincy, quipped.

Later, after Santiago thanked Mariano for “coming all the way to the South End,” the speaker jokingly added in an aside, “I was afraid my car’s gonna get stolen,” prompting chuckling from other lawmakers in the group. Santiago continued talking, and did not give an indication he heard the comment.

John Barros, a former economic development chief for the city who is also running for mayor, said in a statement Tuesday that Santiago should decline Mariano’s endorsement given the comment. “Representative Santiago said nothing, which speaks volumes to the lack of leadership we could expect from him if he were elected mayor of Boston,” Barros said.

Jonathan Cohn, the chairman of the Boston Ward 4 Democratic Committee, which covers parts of the South End, Back Bay, and Fenway, and who has endorsed another candidate, Michelle Wu, called the comment “racist.”

“Representative Santiago and his colleagues should disavow such comments, and Speaker Mariano should apologize,” Cohn said.

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In a statement later Tuesday afternoon, Mariano said he was sorry for the comment, calling it a “poorly delivered attempt to humor” and was a reference to having his car stolen as a college student in the 1960s — a story, he said, he had shared with lawmakers as they milled around before the event.

“I’m sorry and I regret my comments,” Mariano said. “My intention was not to portray the neighborhood or the city in a negative light, but to endorse the candidate who I believe should be the next mayor of Boston.”

Santiago, in a separate statement Tuesday afternoon, said he still accepts Mariano’s endorsement and called him a friend. But he said Mariano’s attempt at a joke was disappointing and “emblematic of the kind of thinking we’re trying to move beyond.”

“Shortly before our event, I was proudly showing him how much our community had changed since he was here as a student fifty years ago. He agreed,” Santiago said. “Friends are honest with each other and I’ve expressed my concern to him. He’s said he’s sorry and I accept the apology.”

Santiago had enlisted several House leaders from beyond Boston to help boost his mayoral bid, arguing that his support within legislative circles outside the city would still give Boston a leg up on Beacon Hill.

Mariano and majority leader Claire Cronin, an Easton Democrat, had led the group appearing with Santiago in the South End, extolling the second-term lawmaker’s ability to quickly navigate the 160-member House.

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“Jon has the unique talents to take this city by the neck and lift it,” said Mariano. “Because he’s a worker. . . . He understands how to compromise. He understands how to get things done.”

Santiago, a South End Democrat, has leaned on his backing in the State House early in his campaign, touting endorsements from state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat and the chamber’s budget chairman, and Michael Moran, a Brighton Democrat and its assistant majority leader.

West Roxbury’s Edward F. Coppinger, Allston’s Kevin Honan, and Charlestown’s Dan Ryan have also backed Santiago in the six-person mayoral field, giving him swaths of support within the chamber’s moderate Democratic leadership.

“Boston is the economic engine of the entire Commonwealth,” Santiago said. “It’s important that the mayor of Boston has strong relationships with the Legislature. . . . As the only candidate from Beacon Hill, we have that.”

The majority of those who appeared with Santiago on Tuesday do not represent Boston, and it’s unclear how much sway endorsements from beyond the city’s borders will play into voters’ decision-making, even with the sway Mariano, Cronin, and others have over what becomes law in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

On Tuesday, Santiago also added the support of lawmakers such as Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan of Stow, Representative Frank Moran of Lawrence, and Representative Jim O’Day of West Boylston.



Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.