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OPINION

Will the Tom Menino model work for Kim Janey?

A surprise ending to the Boston mayor’s race still seems possible.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey is, of course, following the formula that catapulted the late Thomas M. Menino from acting mayor to Boston’s longest serving mayor nearly three decades ago.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Play Santa Claus and consolidate your base of support.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey is, of course, following the formula that catapulted the late Thomas M. Menino from acting mayor to Boston’s longest serving mayor nearly three decades ago. Will it work for the first woman and first person of color to serve as the city’s chief executive? That remains the key question in this race. The first test comes on Sept. 14, the date of Boston’s preliminary election, when the two top vote-getters will be chosen and then face off against each other in the general election. Between now and then, Janey’s four rivals will try to chip away at her advantage — especially City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is challenging Janey’s support in the Black community.

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On Wednesday, state Representative Chynah Tyler of Roxbury — which is Janey’s home base — endorsed Campbell. Earlier in the week, Janey was endorsed by Tito Jackson, the former city councilor who ran an unsuccessful race against Mayor Marty Walsh in 2017. And Janey, who succeeded Jackson as District 7 councilor, also won the endorsement of Right to the City Vote Boston, a coalition of community-based organizations led by people of color.

As Lisa Kashinsky pointed out in Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook, Campbell has also become Janey’s toughest critic, blasting her for linking the idea of requiring proof of vaccination to slavery and birtherism — an analogy for which Janey expressed regret after it made national news, and not in a good way. Is that — plus Campbell’s criticism of how Janey handled several Boston police scandals — enough to shake Janey’s hold on the office she uses every day as a campaign platform? And is Campbell the beneficiary of her own attack strategy? Those questions are currently swirling around Boston’s mayor’s race.

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Menino is everyone’s frame of reference, but everyone also knows it’s a dated one. When he became acting mayor in July 1993, just two months before the preliminary election, Menino took credit for whatever he could and consolidated support across the city, especially with Italian American voters. Janey became acting mayor last March, giving her even more time to “put her name on everything,” said Jeffrey Sanchez, a former state representative and senior adviser at Rasky Partners, who also served as Menino’s liaison to the Latino community during the 1990s. Still, Sanchez believes, “Anything can happen.”

Polls put Janey and City Councilor Michelle Wu ahead of Campbell, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, and John Barros, who served as Walsh’s chief of economic development. Yet a surprise ending still seems possible. With four female candidates, and all five candidates identifying as people of color, there’s never been a race like this in a city still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, thinking of either the Black or Latino communities as monoliths is a mistake, said Sanchez. “The bases have changed. The city has changed,” he said.

What hasn’t changed is the power of the acting mayor to dole out “goodies,” as Commonwealth magazine recently put it, comparing a 1993 announcement from Menino about a freeze on water rates to Janey’s recent announcement of free bus service from Mattapan Square to Nubian Square. Promoting news like that is a Janey staple. At a Tuesday press conference, for example, she announced a new task force to recommend how to invest an additional $440 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act — and a mayoral “listening campaign” to find out for herself how people want to see the money used. It doesn’t get much better than that for a mayoral candidate.

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At that press conference, Janey also dodged a question about a controversial plan to house people who are homeless at “Mass and Cass,” the troubled intersection at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. “We will continue to work with residents in the area — we continue to work with nonprofit leaders who are experts in this space to see if there’s an opportunity to use this as supportive housing,” Janey said. Pressed again on the matter by a Boston Herald reporter, Janey said, “I’ve already answered that question.” Which, as the Herald correctly reported, she did not.

Will the good news from City Hall outweigh any controversies? That’s another question only the voters can answer.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.