Some things about Boston politics stay the same. Acting Mayor Kim Janey is using the antique mahogany desk named after James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston pol hailed as hero and rogue — just like her predecessor, former mayor Marty Walsh.
Janey made history as the first woman and person of color to sit behind that desk as mayor. But even as she connects with Boston’s past, she also makes a point of bringing a new vibe to her workspace. Now the Curley desk holds a “Wake. Pray. Slay.” sign and a piece of Roxbury puddingstone, the official state rock of Massachusetts, which forms the bedrock under most of Roxbury and surrounding areas. As Janey told me as she pointed out “the little pebbles stuck together in one big piece” during a recent meeting in her office: “They come together to make a strong rock.”
Janey is one of six mayoral candidates running in a race that so far lacks a clear front-runner. But as acting mayor, she gets to unpack her bags in the fifth floor office long before anyone officially votes. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, she’s staking her claim in a very intentional way.
Hanging on a wall behind the desk is a portrait of Michelle Obama, on loan from its creator, Maya Das O’Toole, a Boston public school student. There’s a standing chessboard — a gift from Janey’s mother — plus a beam that holds Martha’s Vineyard stones, a visual message “to remember to be balanced.” A poster on the wall shows Kamala Harris, the first woman and Black American to become vice president, walking behind Ruby Bridges, who integrated a New Orleans elementary school in 1960. On another wall is artist Paul Goodnight’s “Watch My Back,” an apt theme for anyone negotiating their way through Boston’s treacherous politics.
“This building by design is Brutalist,” said Janey. “It’s big and concrete, hard and cold. It needed to be brought to life and warmed up.” So there are plants, including sage, “an important cleanser”; family photos; a portrait of Janey when she was 5, done by her stepmother; and a pair of her favorite sneakers. Of course, there’s also a Zoom set-up, with two halo lights, a wooden platform to raise the chair, and a cushion on that chair to boost Janey, who is 5 feet, 3 inches tall, higher for a better camera angle.
Overall, the décor is a reflection of how Janey sees herself and the path that brought her to this time and place in Boston history. “I never thought I’d see a Black mayor of Boston and I never thought it would be me,” she said. Speaking to that thesis is a copy of Commonwealth magazine from 2003, with a cover story headlined: “Black Power — Why doesn’t Boston have more of it?” There’s also a copy of Bill Brett’s book, “Boston: Game Changers,” with its prescient cover photo of six women of color then on the Boston City Council, including now US Representative Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. The other women are Janey, Andrea Campbell, Lydia Edwards, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu. The councilors, except for Edwards, are now running for mayor.
Janey sounds a little wistful when she mentions “the shared goals and values” they all pursued at the time the photo was taken. Now they are rivals for the office she occupies, and her fellow councilors are challenging the city budget she submitted.
Our meeting was supposed to be off the record. But when I asked if I could write about her office, she agreed, and one thing led to another, including her decision to put some responses on the record — like how she would grade herself so far on tough issues like the schools and police.
“I’ve done a good job of handling not my crises, but those left in my lap,” she told me. On the schools, she didn’t offer details, other than noting that all students will be back in the fall, and that there’s a process in place to fill several now-vacant school committee seats. She had more to say about her decision to fire Police Commissioner Dennis White over domestic abuse allegations that go back more than 20 years.
“I was dealing with a commissioner I did not appoint, who held the job for two days,” said Janey. “I think I’ve handled that perfectly fine.” She noted that, in a BPD internal affairs report and in an independent investigation done for the city, White admitted to some of the accusations made against him. Yet in public statements, White still denies everything. “People can grow,” she said. But “we did not hear that growth [from White].” Instead of acknowledging “a toxic relationship” with his former wife, “It was, ‘No, she’s the villain, she’s the bad guy. . . .’ There was cause for his termination. You have shown me you cannot lead,” she said. So, no regrets? “I had no choice,” she replied.
Janey said she wants to be more than a “first.” She wants to be a mayor who leads Boston to a better place on a host of issues, including racial justice. She’s not the only mayoral candidate who’s saying that. But she’s the only one who can say it from a room that contains the Curley desk, which was brought back to City Hall by Walsh after a hiatus of at least 30 years.
She’s the only one who has already put artwork on the walls, and still has a pile left to hang. And right now, she’s the only one who can plan an open house so the mayor’s office is not just “a mystery hiding behind multiple sets of doors.”
As she also told me: “I’d love to get an aquarium, but first things first.”