scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Globe Magazine

Kim Janey’s journey from community organizer to acting mayor — and now Boston mayoral candidate

She’s had five months as acting mayor to show she’s the right fit for the city’s top job. Will voters agree?

Kim Janey has had five months as acting mayor to show she’s the right fit for the city’s top job. Will voters agree?Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

For a cover story appearing in print on Sunday, Aug. 29, the Globe Magazine profiled Kim Janey in her role as Boston’s acting mayor, set against the backdrop of her campaign.

For candidate profiles by our Metro department and more coverage of the mayor’s race, subscribe to On the Cusp, the Globe’s weekly newsletter covering all aspects of the contest, and visit our Mayoral Race page for the latest developments.

When then-councilor Kim Janey first heard the news that would change her life — and make Boston history — she was at a Walgreens. “[I was] probably buying some potato chips,” she half-jokes. “I don’t know what I was doing.”


It’s clear that Janey enjoys revisiting this day — the cold afternoon in January when President-elect Joe Biden tapped then-Mayor Marty Walsh as his pick for labor secretary. Janey, as president of the Boston City Council, would take on mayoral duties once Walsh left for Washington.

Months later, Janey may not remember what she bought at the pharmacy that day, but she does recall clearly what she felt. It wasn’t panic, though she hadn’t expected the Walsh news. And it wasn’t fear, though she only had three years’ experience holding political office. It wasn’t even the wariness that would soon accompany her newfound levels of fame and responsibility.

“It was this unbelievable calm,” Janey says in an August interview at City Hall. She felt ready for whatever came next.

Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey is the first Black person and the first woman to lead the city after a 200-year run of white, male mayors.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Calm hardly describes the backdrop of Janey’s transition into executive office earlier this winter. New coronavirus infections were ripping through the city, and the rollout of vaccines was off to a shaky start. Meanwhile, an armed mob had stormed the US Capitol on January 6, the day before Biden announced Walsh’s appointment, and Janey, like many Americans, was still in something of a daze.


But Janey says her “laser-like focus on the transition” sustained her through the weeks ahead. The transition of power in Boston was a national news story, with Janey as its center. She would be the first Black person and the first woman to lead the city after a 200-year run of white, male mayors. From Biden’s announcement onward, her phone trilled with near-constant notifications from well-wishers. Reporters, photographers, and TV crews began to appear outside her Roxbury home. She thought of buying more curtains.

And then on March 24, the day arrived. Janey was officially sworn in as Boston’s acting mayor. Even now, that modifier — acting — and the frequency with which it is used as a rhetorical cudgel by her campaign opponents rankles her. “There was no time for an act. There is no time to play politics,” Janey says, citing the pandemic and the crises of poverty and inequality it has deepened. “I’m not here for pretend. I’m not here to hold any seat warm. I’m here to serve the residents.”

Then-City Council president Kim Janey is sworn in as Boston's new mayor at City Hall while her granddaughter, Rosie, holds a Bible, on March 24, 2021.Elise Amendola

Janey never uses the word “acting” to describe herself, nor do city officials. Press releases, the city website, gifts inscribed to residents at public events — all of it reads simply, “Mayor Kim Janey.” Her decision to drop “acting,” however, has stirred up controversy. Some in the city are quick to point out that Janey was not elected to her position, and “acting mayor” is the legal title. Others state matter-of-factly that Janey is doing the mayor’s job regardless of how she arrived at it.


The battle over one simple word has become something of a catchall for a wide range of feelings about the woman in the city’s top job. Adding political urgency to the fight is the city’s upcoming election: Janey’s provisional term ends in November when the election results are certified; she is one of five candidates running to be elected mayor.

For those who see Janey as floundering, faking it, or trying to leverage the power of the mayor’s office ahead of the Sept. 14 preliminary election, hers is an administration with an asterisk. To those more sympathetic, she is the mayor, plain and simple, good or bad. To say otherwise, some suggest, is to deny the hard work of a Black woman tasked with steering the ship through historically roiling waters.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey's Converse shoes.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Of course, for the vast majority of Bostonians, official titles make little difference. Janey is simply new, and they are eager to get to know her and figure out whether she’ll fight for them. She is eager to get to know them, too, traveling constantly between the city’s parks, businesses, and squares to celebrate residents’ triumphs and listen to their concerns. In these moments, she moves confidently and smiles freely. She shouts out neighborhood heroes and welcomes local artists to share her stage.

After one public event, at Mother’s Rest Park in Dorchester, Janey even manages to slip away from her watchful staff at the invitation of Rachel Tate, a longtime resident of the area who would like the mayor — a Black woman like her — to see her garden. Tate points to her house, just a few doors down from the park. They walk there together, Janey pointing out impressive landscaping and asking about life in the neighborhood. In these off-script, off-schedule moments, she shines.


But Janey’s time in office has also apparently taught her caution, and just underneath her eagerness to be available to constituents lies a level of guardedness. In the rare moments when Janey gets lost in some memory or swept up in the urgency of some problem, she quickly snaps out of it. If her own instincts fail, a staffer is quick to nudge her back on course.

Her young administration has already weathered news cycles dominated by public speaking gaffes, including recent comments about vaccine requirements in which she evoked slavery. Her City Hall has been criticized for bureaucratic delays in releasing information related to police accountability. And then there is the election that has turned some of Janey’s former allies into her competitors and the mayor’s office into a coveted but double-edged sword.

Given the opportunity to describe the past five months in her own words, Janey chooses to tell an origin story — one about how she stepped into the mayor role. “It really was very much like me putting my foot in the glass slipper, and it fit,” she says. She may be wary of misspeaking, but she also projects total confidence in her abilities. “Here I was, just content doing the work,” Janey continues. “Then [I] got to put on the slipper, the glass slipper, and it fit.”


It’s a metaphor Janey says she only came to recently. And with the time on her acting mayoralty already running out, it is a fairy-tale beginning that is still in search of its ending.

In her 56 years, Janey has had her fair share of brushes with Boston history. In the 1970s, when she was 11 and in the sixth grade, she was bused to Charlestown at the height of Boston’s brutal school desegregation battle. As a teen, she was the only Black girl to graduate in her class at Reading Memorial High School, which she attended through the METCO program. Decades later, in 2018, when she was sworn into elected office for the first time as a Boston city councilor, she became the first woman to represent District 7, which includes Roxbury and parts of the South End. For the first time, six of the council’s 13 members were women of color.

But when telling her own story, Janey focuses more on her private history. She waxes nostalgic about taking the bus to visit her great-grandmother in the South End. She talks about being looked out for — and held to high expectations — by teachers who worked with her father, who was also an educator. She proudly speaks about information she only recently learned: At least six generations of her family have called Roxbury home.

Janey, a mother and grandmother herself, describes her family as a large one filled with teachers, advocates, and artists. In Roxbury of the ’60s and ’70s, families, including hers, were organizing for better education, protesting highway development that threatened to destroy their neighborhood, and fighting for equal footing in the city that was their home. Though it would be years before Kim Janey found her own path into community advocacy, she knew from a young age that public service was a family inheritance.

Her parents, Clifford and Phyllis Janey, divorced when she was young, but Janey still enjoys recounting how they met — at a dance when they were teenagers. She tells the story in a cadence that almost evokes the Motown music she imagines setting the mood. A girl from an upwardly-mobile Cambridge family. A talented boy who grew up in Roxbury’s Orchard Park projects. A preacher’s daughter. An ambitious student. A set of “star-crossed lovers.”

If Janey inherited a commitment to public service from her family, the fallout from her parents’ divorce showed her what it means for a young person to have doors of opportunity closed in front of her — and how public policy can play a role in opening them.

As a divorcee, her mother struggled to make ends meet. She had left college after becoming pregnant, though later earned her degree from UMass Boston, and she moved often with her daughters, Kim and Kaidi. There were times they lived in subsidized housing and relied on food stamps. A strong family network also kept them afloat. Janey’s father, meanwhile, spent her childhood climbing the ranks of Boston Public Schools. He began as a reading teacher and later became a principal and BPS administrator. He would eventually go on to be superintendent of Rochester, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Newark public schools. He also remarried and had three more children. “My experiences were very different depending on which parent I lived with,” Janey says.

Amid this shuffle between parents Janey confronted one of the biggest challenges in her young life: becoming a mother at 16. “I was living with my dad when I got . . . when I was . . . got pregnant,” she says, with uncharacteristic hesitation. Clifford Janey died in February 2020, at 73. “You know, having to tell him that is still one of the toughest conversations, one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do.”

As a young mother, and with her family’s support, Janey completed her junior and senior years. She studied hard, knowing that both her future and that of her daughter, Kimesha, hung in the balance. Janey graduated on time, eventually got an apartment with rent paid in part by Section 8, and took college courses when she could, though she did not complete a bachelor’s degree. She attended two years of community college and two more at Smith College through the Ada Comstock Scholars Program for nontraditional students.

Janey learned to persist despite limited opportunities and diminished expectations — slights that are clearly still with her today. From the mayor’s office, she recalls a recent speech she delivered to a group of teenage girls in a mentorship program, Working on Womanhood. She told them “not to let anyone’s limited expectations of them define who they are and what they can achieve,” Janey recalls. “That is advice I wish I had as a young mom.”

In the early days of her career, Janey trained as an organizer with the Children’s Defense Fund in North Carolina and spent nearly five years with Parents United for Child Care, a grass-roots Massachusetts organization that fought for better, more affordable care options. From there, she went on to Massachusetts Advocates for Children, where she spent 17 years working for public policy that would improve school supports for English language learners and students with disabilities, as well as close racial opportunity gaps.

In 2017, she made the decision to put her name forward for City Council. That choice would eventually land her in the mayor’s office, but Janey says it was her city’s needs, not her own ambitions, that motivated her. During her run, she spoke about a changing city whose deep-rooted inequalities were sidelining people in her community. “We are at a crossroads. All over our city we are seeing an economic boom,” she told the Globe in 2017. “But we are being left out of that prosperity.” She won that election with over 55 percent of the vote.

Kim Janey walks down the steps of her 125-year-old Roxbury home as she prepares to go campaigning on a Saturday afternoon. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Janey now owns a house on a hill in the heart of the district that launched her into public office, noting proudly that she purchased it with assistance from a first-time homeowner’s program. Her yard is big enough for a garden, and she has space to gather with her mother, daughter, and three grandchildren. She chose to care for her own family in the community that built her.

Whatever she didn’t have growing up, Janey says, she always had her family and her neighborhood, a place where people knew “whose you were, not just who you were.”

Time spent on the job with Janey makes it difficult to deny her mantra: “I’m here to do the work.” Her schedule is like a marathon, if marathons were made up of back-to-back sprints. The day frequently stretches from 7 a.m. beyond 10 p.m., passing in a blur of speech prep, ribbon cuttings, COVID-19 and crime briefings, and constituent meetings. She says many of her weekends are barely distinguishable from weekdays.

Janey returns calls in stolen moments riding in the car between events — with members of her security detail and staff in earshot — and plans “bio breaks” nearly an hour in advance. On one Tuesday in August, when I spend the day with her, it takes until afternoon for her to finish an iced tea she began drinking around 9:30 a.m., sipping it absentmindedly in the rare seconds when no one needs her to speak.

Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey discusses upcoming schedules during a staff meeting at City Hall on Aug. 3, 2021. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

And she clearly loves the work. She pores over COVID-19 case numbers and vaccination rates — pressing city department heads for answers while also thanking them for their work. She directs a sprawling staff cobbled together from new hires and Walsh-era holdovers, leading City Hall as a workplace, one that now requires vaccination. She notices when vital information is missing from briefings, such as the amount of relief funding a business has received from the city. And she notices when walking with a constituent down a Dorchester street that a stop sign is hidden by tree branches. She insists on both issues being addressed, and her team is quick to respond.

In moments like these, it is difficult to imagine that five months ago, she had never sat behind the mayor’s desk. Or that four years ago, she had never held public office at all.

This comes as no surprise to people like John Mudd, a friend and former colleague from Massachusetts Advocates for Children. In the 2010s, he was preparing to retire and Janey was set to take over as senior project director of the group’s Boston School Reform Project. Mudd wondered if Janey had any concerns about picking up the torch. Her answer was a resounding no — she was ready. Mudd says Janey was never flustered, but often careful. “She clearly wasn’t worried,” he says, “but she wanted to do it in a considered way.”

Janey also hit the ground running as a district councilor, says Mike Ross, whom Janey consulted during her 2018 efforts to build a process that ensured more equitable access for entrepreneurs of color. Ross, a cannabis licensing attorney and now also an adviser on Janey’s campaign, initially balked at her plan to write policy and create an entirely new city board to evaluate applicants. “Having been a city councilor I just felt like that would never happen,” Ross says. “Then she implemented it. It became reality.”

From Roxbury rep to the city’s chief executive is a big move up. And not everyone agrees that Janey is a perfect fit.

Janey enjoyed easy reelection in her district and, for a time, seemingly sound relationships with her peers on the council. She drew praise for putting up a fierce fight for more equitable policies surrounding cannabis businesses. She spoke out on behalf of her constituents against gentrification and helped support neighborhood-led initiatives like the renaming of Roxbury’s Dudley Square to Nubian Square.

Janey was reelected in a landslide in 2019, with 74.5 percent of the vote. She won another election shortly afterward, this time thanks to her fellow councilors. In a 12-to-0 vote, with one “present” vote from Frank Baker, she was named City Council president — the position that would put her in line to become acting mayor just over a year later. The press heralded her leadership as another sign of Boston politics moving in the right direction.

These days, that gentler political reality seems very far away.

Janey came under scrutiny early in her tenure, when it seemed like major issues were slipping through the cracks. Even before she was sworn in, at least one scandal already awaited her: a domestic abuse allegation against the Boston Police Department’s then-commissioner, Dennis White. Walsh had appointed White on his way out of town, and placed him on leave on February 3, two days after White was sworn in. It was May before the Janey administration released a report outlining allegations of domestic violence and other offenses, which White denied.

Though Janey immediately moved to fire White after releasing the report, his termination took several rounds in court to finalize as he fought the claims. Janey ultimately won, but in the intervening weeks, critics alternately called her too inexperienced to handle such a legally fraught conflict, too slow in holding key players accountable, and too bold in her role as an acting mayor. Similar critiques have followed her handling of other issues that began under previous administrations: an ongoing lawsuit over policies at Boston’s prestigious exam schools, and a report on BPD’s mishandling of alleged sexual assault by officer Patrick M. Rose, who is now awaiting trial on additional charges (he has denied the allegations).

Perhaps more striking — and damaging — has been a political tug-of-war between Janey and the City Council. Three councilors who served with Janey are also running for mayor: At-Large Councilor Michelle Wu and District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell, both of whom launched their campaigns before news broke that Walsh might leave for Washington, and At-Large Councilor Annissa Essaibi George. All are women of color, and all have served on the council longer than Janey. (John Barros, the remaining candidate for mayor and a Black man, is the city’s former chief of economic development.)

Since Janey announced her candidacy in April, council members have levied various criticisms — accusing her of taking credit for others’ policy ideas, limiting their access to COVID-19 briefings and other information, and failing to respond to requests for meetings. Janey has been called to task for using the mayor’s office to preempt criticisms in a way her opponents cannot, most recently by correcting missing city records on properties held in her name while leaving other candidates to face repercussions for similar oversights. And of course, all of her rivals refer pointedly to her as acting mayor.

In June, the City Council gave itself the power to take that office away. Ten of the 13 councilors — including all three running for mayor — voted to allow the council the power to remove its president, and thus the city’s acting mayor, at any time. Another asterisk on Janey’s administration.

This is an election year with a crowded, historic, and qualified field. Each candidate is fighting to secure their political future, and each is deeply aware that Janey holds a powerful card: the weight of the mayor’s office.

Incumbency — even if brief and acting — confers significant political advantages. No incumbent has lost a Boston mayoral election since 1949, and Thomas Menino parlayed his position as acting mayor into the longest tenure as mayor in Boston history. And though Janey’s position is more complicated than the traditional incumbent (she won’t even be listed as acting mayor on city ballots), her performance with likely voters seems to reflect the powers of the office. She led the field in May and June fund-raising, though in total funds, she still lags behind candidates who announced their runs earlier. A June poll of likely preliminary voters conducted by Suffolk University and the Globe showed Wu and Janey pulling ahead: 23.4 percent favored Wu, and 21.6 percent favored Janey.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey has come under scrutiny over her handling of several issues in the works before she took office.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Janey is careful not to mention her candidacy at events she attends in her official capacity. Even so, every word she says from the mayor’s podium influences voters’ perception of her, for better or for worse, and the lines between public official and candidate blur. “She has an opportunity that no one else running for mayor has, which is she’s doing the job. That’s the good news,” says Mary Anne Marsh, a longtime Democratic strategist. Marsh adds a quippy twist: “The bad news is, she’s doing the job.”

As the person leading the city, Janey attracts criticism for decisions her opponents are not in a position to make. Marsh, who is not working on any mayoral campaign, says Janey alone has to prove to voters that she is right for the job: Go big or, quite literally, go home. But Marsh says this test was made far more difficult by the City Council’s threat of removal, a move that demands Janey tread more lightly in wielding the power of the office.

“The political strategy for Kim Janey is that she has to reach as hard and as far as she can in all fronts to keep the job — and that’s where the conflict is,” Marsh says. “So the City Council put her on notice. And the question is whether voters will, too.”

One Janey supporter, Denella Clark, sees in the rifts something more personal and troubling at play than political posturing. “It’s politics, but as a woman and as a woman of color . . . I thought it was shameful.” Clark is a political heavyweight in her own right: She is CEO and president of the Boston Arts Academy Foundation, as well as chair of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, the first Black woman to hold the position. Clark, who has a role with Janey’s campaign, says she has supported Wu, Campbell, and Essaibi George in their earlier runs, and she laments the fracturing of Boston politics at a time when so many women of color are representing the city — and a Black woman, for the first time, is leading it.

When asked about the tension with her City Council colleagues, which must have been on some level hurtful, Janey answers indirectly. “I invite any and all who want to do this work, who say they care about our city, to join in and let’s do it,” she says. “I don’t want to sit around and worry about titles or credit or all of this other stuff. Let’s get busy and get the work done. That is what I see and continue to see as my charge.”

Clark can be more open about the fractures. “For me,” she says, “it was deeply painful.”

Janey’s office in city hall is a visual statement on her place in Boston history. At least two items are holdovers from the Walsh days: an American flag painting and an intricately carved desk said to originally belong to the infamous Mayor James Michael Curley. Janey juxtaposes these nods at the past with vibrant odes to the present. Beside the red, white, and blue sits a smaller tricolor of black, red, and green — the Pan-African or Afro-American flag. And behind the desk is a bright portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama by Maya Das O’Toole, who, Janey points out, was a Boston Public Schools student when she painted it.

Behind Acting Mayor Kim Janey's desk is a bright portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama by Maya Das O’Toole, who, Janey points out, was a Boston Public Schools student when she painted it.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Other Black women who broke barriers appear elsewhere: Vice President Kamala Harris on a coaster, Representative Ayanna Pressley on a book cover, poet Amanda Gorman on a canvas. Custom Chuck Taylors that read “Madam Mayor” sit in one corner. Framed T-shirts from decades of community events are lined up on a wall. A hunk of Roxbury Puddingstone, made of many rocks, represents strength in unity. A chess board in the corner doubles as a subtle tribute to another Black woman Janey admires — her mother, who taught her how to play the game.

In this space, it is clear that Janey is keenly aware of her place in her community and history. It is also clear just how careful she is of the image she projects.

Janey is, in many ways, a difficult person to get to know. One afternoon, on a T ride between events, she slips into harmless stories about the miraculous and ridiculous things she has witnessed in a life spent taking public transit. Soon, one of her ever-present staffers reaches for her phone — a signal to get back on message.

With a knowing smile and glance my way, Janey cuts herself short. “That wasn’t for the story,” she tells me. And then she launches into a few seemingly well-rehearsed lines about the importance of public transportation.

Janey’s restraint is layered, careful but never cold. There are political considerations to it — the already contentious relationship with her rivals and a press willing to stoke the flames. There is her relative inexperience with crafting statements on the fly, something that showed in her response to questions about vaccine passports. There is her personal desire to preserve some sense of privacy. (She jokes that city-sponsored family events are now the only places she can spend time with her grandchildren.)

And then there is Janey’s position as a Black woman on the rise. Few people occupy her place in the world, and scarcity often makes those that do more cautious. “We have always had to make a way out of no way. We have always had to overcome adversity,” Janey says. She begins to note that Black women often lead while “facing harsher criticism” and “more scrutiny” — but seems to hear herself veering into sensitive territory. She quickly pivots to a more positive message: “I am just, you know, I’m honored and humbled that I get to serve.”

Only nine out of the country’s 100 largest cities are currently led by Black women — and that’s actually an all-time record. No state has elected a Black woman governor. Only two, Illinois and California, have elected Black women senators. The handful of Black women in high-profile elected positions perform their jobs while dodging the racist sexism that seeps into constituents’ perceptions, journalists’ coverage, and opponents’ lines of attack — all of which Janey finds familiar.

With all of this in mind, being on guard seems only natural — and politically prudent.

To fill out her support network, Janey has sought out other women of color who are mayors. When she was set to replace Walsh, she asked Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer to serve as honorary co-chairs of her transition. Spicer, who was voted in as Framingham’s first mayor in 2018, is the only Black woman to have been popularly elected to lead any city in the Commonwealth.

Spicer, friends with Janey long before either entered politics, is facing her own tough race for reelection after four years on the job in Framingham. In that time, she has led her city while encountering some people who are incredulous that she, a Black woman, is leading it. She recalls multiple times when she has introduced herself as mayor, only for someone to follow up with, “Oh, which mayor do you work for?” Other times, people have come to her office in search of “Yvonne.” Her staff corrects them: It’s Doctor or Mayor Spicer. It’s a matter of respect, perhaps not so different than the choice between using mayor and acting mayor.

Laughing, Spicer says she and Janey will sometimes address one another with a string of honorifics: “She’ll refer to me as . . . Madam Mayor Doctor Spicer.” But their exaggerated formality is more than a joke. It’s a reclamation of what others sometimes deny them. “When we say ‘Madam Mayor’ to each other, it’s a term of endearment,” Spicer says.

What does Mayor Kim Janey’s Boston look like? Some Bostonians are still figuring that out — and wondering if Janey is doing the same.

Janey was considered a solid progressive when she joined the City Council — not the furthest left nor most outspoken, but a reliable ally on issues like rent control, police reform, and fighting gentrification. But some choices she has made since March have left some questioning where she really stands as both the mayor and a candidate.

In candidate forums, she has equivocated on whether she supports rent control. Janey cited calls for defunding the police as a reason she voted against Walsh’s 2020 budget, which left the Boston Police Department’s funding largely intact. But her own budget, passed in June, maintained a similar level of funding for police. On affordable, accessible child care, one of her career-long focuses, Janey has remained relatively absent. She ended remote work at City Hall this summer without enacting supports for working parents, and she is the only mayoral candidate who has yet to release a plan for universal preschool. (She recently expanded a pilot care program for 3-year-olds.)

As a result of these decisions, some former Janey fans have lost faith. “It’s really easy to make a vote on something when you don’t have direct control over it,” says Mark Martinez Jr., a State House staffer who lives in Janey’s district in Roxbury. Martinez says he adored Janey the District 7 councilor. She was upfront on where she stood and mostly landed alongside his progressive values.

Superintendent Nora Baston, left, sits with Boston Mayor Kim Janey during the Boston Police Department's 38th Annual National Night Out Luncheon at the Boston Public Library.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But Janey today? He has watched her backtrack on issues she once championed and shy away from offering specific policy proposals. Though Martinez concedes that her silence may reflect a political strategy — playing it safe until after the election — he is wary. He has scoured the policy page on her campaign website and found little that sticks. “It says nothing about what the Boston that she’s going to run looks like. It just says what she’s done as acting mayor,” he says. “That’s a good indication of what you’re going to do moving forward. But it doesn’t articulate a vision.”

Janey has yet to drive home the story of where exactly she will lead. “Equitable” is perhaps the word her supporters use most often to describe what her Boston would look like. This year, she has launched several initiatives related to housing insecurity, including a fund for rental assistance and a plan to generate over $65 million for affordable housing. She has allocated city funds to a collection of other initiatives — from library fine forgiveness to a fare-free bus line — that also broaden access to city resources. She appointed Lorena Lopera and Rafaela Polanco Garcia, two bilingual immigrants, to the Boston School Committee, building on her career-long support for English language learners.

For her part, Janey says her goal is simple: She wants to use her time in office, whether 10 months or longer, to build the city back better and fairer than before.

Janey says Boston has a chance to imagine a future beyond the pre-pandemic “normal” that never should have been normalized: a racial wealth gap, opportunity gaps in schools, unaffordable housing, and high unemployment rates for Black and Latino people. “We don’t want that. We want to do better. And here in my administration, that is our focus,” Janey says. “We’re not going back to normal, we’re going better.”

“Is that the mayor?”

That’s still a common question to hear whispered in the crowds at Janey’s public appearances. Wherever she goes, she is trailed by parents, educators, retirees, business owners, community organizers, and other curious citizens. Some recognize her right away. Others confirm a suspicion with their neighbor. Many who turn up seem to have never heard Janey speak in person before.

Kim Janey greets community members during a neighborhood block party in the North End neighborhood of Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Janey is already halfway through the time her limited term guarantees, or once did before the City Council changed the rule. She is also mere weeks away from the September preliminary election that will narrow the field of candidates to two, and serve as a first step in deciding whether she gets to keep the job that she inherited. If she advances, as polls currently predict, it will be a sprint to Election Day in November. Nothing is guaranteed.

Janey is in a race against time to tell her story, and it is in many ways a complicated one to tell. It’s the story of a daughter of Boston, a daughter of Roxbury, who is doing her best to get it right. The story of someone who champions equity, who wants to enact a “Joy Agenda” to bring vibrancy and community back to a city scarred by the coronavirus, who is learning on the job. It’s the story of the glass slipper, but the ending is not as easy as happily ever after. She has to make the case for why she is the right choice, not just for the duties of mayor, but for the substantive work of leading a city.

Boston residents know that it is they who will ultimately decide Janey’s political future. At events, some community members stand at a distance, watching her work the crowd, reserving their final judgments for the ballot box. Janey knows it, too. She is attentive, smiling, prepared to take pictures, patient even when a constituent asks a tough question.

It is that patience that seems to surprise people. When they confront Janey with a problem, she begins by taking their side. At one event, North End residents complain about social distancing rules limiting their time in public pools. She sympathizes: It’s hot out, sometimes dangerously so, and everyone deserves some recreation after months of dealing with a pandemic. Only after commiserating does she bring up how challenging it could be to fix this problem; if she can’t solve it, she at least wants to explain why. By then, most listeners seem certain: She’s here for them.

More than once, a resident stands at the edge of the crowd, muttering about a problem they wished to take up with the mayor — a neglected park, a dangerous crosswalk. They approach Janey with irritation. Nearly as often, they leave her with a smile.

It might be at these events — the ribbon cuttings, library dedications, business re-openings, and spur-of-the-moment garden visits far removed from the tug-of-war at City Hall — that Janey comes closest to embodying the analogy she drew. A fairy-tale fit for the job.

Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe Magazine, an earlier version of this story misidentified the painter of a portrait of Michelle Obama. The artist is Maya Das O’Toole. This story has also been updated to correct a reporting error in the date when Janey’s term as acting mayor ends.

Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.