Which voters will be the queenmaker in the Boston mayoral race?
In this year’s unprecedented contest, keep your eyes on the Hispanic electorate.
The latest Suffolk University and Boston Globe poll indicates that Black voters are backing a Black candidate, with many galvanizing behind Acting Mayor Kim Janey. Asian Americans, meanwhile, are enthusiastically supporting one of their own, Michelle Wu.
Wu is also leading among white voters by a wide margin, with about 31 percent gravitating toward the Roslindale at-large councilor, whose progressive values have long attracted a formidable base of liberal supporters. The poll has Wu and Janey pulling ahead of a field of six major candidates.
But one out of three Hispanic voters is undecided, the largest percentage among demographic groups. This in a city where they make up about 15 percent of the electorate.
You might assume those votes would go to Representative Jon Santiago, a South End Democrat who is Latino and an emergency room doctor. While there was initial excitement about his candidacy, he has faded fast.
“The crown jewel is undecided Hispanics,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the poll of likely voters.
Courting the Latino vote, however, is easier said than done. Latino voters have roots in many countries and cultures and are hardly monolithic in their views. Some are conservative, evangelical, pro-life, and anti-LGBTQ rights, or some combination thereof. Others skew more moderate or liberal. The two Boston city councilors of Hispanic descent, Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia, lean progressive.
Meanwhile, for Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, who tend to identify as Black more than other Hispanic subgroups, criminal justice reform is an important issue.
At the same time, Puerto Ricans have high military service participation rates and civil service jobs, which could mean some may align themselves with a law-and-order candidate like Annissa Essaibi George.
Puerto Ricans and Dominicans also have high poverty rates and struggle with access to health care. They are often renters, battling gentrification and displacement. They are dealing with high unemployment after the pandemic crushed the hospitality and restaurant industries, where many work. Affordable housing and social welfare policies are also priorities.
Hispanic students make up 42 percent of Boston Public Schools, so education is another key issue.
“They definitely wouldn’t act as a bloc, but they can make a difference,” said Luis Jimenez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston who specializes in Hispanic politics. “Even though they are a tough group to figure out, they are worth figuring out. The Latino electorate going forward is going to be the electorate to watch for all kinds of races.”
Hispanics have been overlooked, in part, because they skew young and many are below voting age. They also tend to be new immigrants and noncitizens who are not eligible to vote. But Hispanics are a fast-growing constituency, and their voter turnout has been strong. In 2020, Hispanic residents in Massachusetts surpassed Black voters as the second-largest voting group, after whites, according to an analysis by the Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development & Public Policy at UMass Boston.
Jimenez said it’s hard to predict Hispanic turnout at the municipal level, and so far the community hasn’t been engaged in a historic race that will almost certainly result in the election of the city’s first woman and first person of color as mayor. The Suffolk/Globe poll indicated that Hispanic voters who have made up their minds are lining up behind Janey, Wu, or Andrea Campbell.
Jeff Sanchez, a former Boston state representative and House budget chief, said many Hispanic residents in Boston aren’t paying attention because they’re in survival mode. Their community was among the hardest hit by COVID-19, losing a disproportionate number of lives and livelihoods. Sanchez said they are exhausted and exasperated, and wonder if it even matters who is in City Hall.
The pandemic is also making it harder to campaign for the Hispanic vote, because candidates traditionally work the crowds at neighborhood festivals, but many of those gatherings have been canceled, said Sanchez, who is now a senior adviser at Rasky Partners.
Sanchez has been in touch with the major candidates, but he does not plan to endorse anyone. He said almost every conversation with a contender ends with someone “asking for my vote and support.”
Just 17 percent of white voters are undecided, according to the Suffolk/Globe poll. Still, in a tight race, those undecideds will matter.
After Wu, City Councilor Essaibi George has about 20 percent of white voters, followed by Janey, with 14.5 percent. Those who support Essaibi George tend to be moderate and conservative, while Janey’s voters tilt moderate to liberal.
Of course, white voters have always mattered because they make up a sizable part of the electorate, and like Latino voters, they don’t vote as a bloc.
“The white vote is very much the wild card in this election,” said Paul Watanabe, professor of political science at UMass Boston who follows city politics closely.
This mayoral election will be a squeaker, a testament to the strength of the candidates.
May the best woman win.
Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.