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Boston mayoral race intensifies, with hopes for excitement not seen in nearly 40 years

People waited in line when the polls opened at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in the Dorchester neighborhood on Sept. 1, 2020.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The highest vote tally that Boston has ever seen for a mayoral election was in 1983, when activist Mel King launched an electrifying run that galvanized Boston’s grass-roots communities. He prevailed in a preliminary contest with eight other contestants to become the first Black mayoral candidate on a general election ballot, though he lost that race.

Today, Boston once again stands on the verge of history, with voters poised to elect the first mayor who is not a white male, and possibly a woman of color. But whether the city will see the level of excitement that drove the record-setting turnout in the 1983 race remains an open question amid an unusual campaign season that has been marked as much by extreme weather and a pandemic as it has been by politics and policy.

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With recent polls showing that 25 percent of the electorate is still undecided, candidates are scrambling in an intense get-out-the-vote effort, strategically fanning out across Boston’s neighborhoods, aiming to generate the excitement the city saw nearly 40 years ago, when more than 160,000 voters came out in a preliminary election. Nearly 200,000 headed to the polls for the 1983 general election which Raymond Flynn won, double what the city has seen in some more recent contests.

The efforts include rallies and block parties, phone banking and canvassing, particularly in neighborhoods that have proved to be traditional voting strongholds, and in neighborhoods where — recent elections show — new strongholds are arising.

Liberal-leaning neighborhoods that have consistently seen heavy turnout in recent years, such as Jamaica Plain and Roslindale and parts of West Roxbury, could be critical for candidates seeking the progressive vote, namely Acting Mayor Kim Janey and City Councilor Michelle Wu.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, considered the more politically moderate of the candidates, will look to traditionally conservative neighborhoods such as South Boston, parts of Dorchester, and West Roxbury, where former mayor Martin J. Walsh, an ally, dominated in past elections with support from longtime voters.

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Voters in Black and Latino communities, particularly in Roxbury, could play a critical role in boosting voter turnout — and deciding the next mayor — said analysts, who noted that the Latino vote, typically at 7 percent of the electorate, is largely undecided, and that Black communities, who make up 25 percent, are also split.

“That’s an area [Roxbury] where you could see this be a higher turnout than you would typically see in a preliminary,” said John Connolly, a former city councilor who bested several opponents in the 2013 preliminary race for mayor and then narrowly lost to Walsh in the final. Connolly is openly supporting City Councilor Andrea Campbell, though he discussed voter turnout hopes for all candidates.

In the 2013 preliminary election, the first open race in 20 years, only 113,319 people voted in a city with more than 300,000 registered voters at that time. In 2017, when Walsh ran for re-election, only 56,400 people voted in the preliminary. There are now more than 400,000 registered voters, according to city election data.

No mayoral election in Boston has come close to the record turnout of the 1983 campaign. Though King won just 35 percent of the vote in the final, his 69,000 votes were just a few thousand short of what Walsh received when he first won the office in 2013, and more than Connolly, his challenger, got.

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Connolly predicts that 110,000 to 130,000 voters could head to the polls for this year’s preliminary on Sept. 14, and by November, the city will see a race that rivals the interest of 1983, he said.

“When you get to the final, this will be crystalized, it will be clear that Boston will have an election that will signify real change in the city and its leadership,” he said. “I think this, potentially, could set a record.”

Horace Small, a longtime grass-roots advocate and executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, was more skeptical, though he noted the historical significance of the race.

All of the campaigns will need to ramp up their efforts if they want to see the level of excitement that surrounded King’s race, he said, recalling the lines of people outside Twelfth Baptist Church, in the heart of Boston’s Black community, seeking to help King’s campaign. He doesn’t see that kind of energy now.

“I don’t see the level of excitement that I would think a race of this magnitude would require,” he said.

He has seen candidates door-knocking, shaking hands, but, “that’s not the same as having people legitimately excited.”

“You need a field organization, coverage at the polling stations, a strategy to get your voters out. You need to see all that,” he said. “I think the best field [game] wins, at this point.”

The stakes are high, as recent polls indicate the race remains competitive, with Janey losing ground amid political attacks, according to recent polling, and Essaibi George climbing, in a virtual jump-ball for second place.

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An Emerson College/7News poll released last week showed Wu with 24 percent of support of 600 likely Boston voters, followed by Essaibi George with 18 percent, Janey with 16 percent, and Campbell at 14 percent. John Barros, a former economic development chief for the city, drew just 2 percent. The margin of error was 3.9 percentage points.

The poll, the first public results released since late June, found that “somewhat likely” voters favored Wu, at 35 percent. But among “very likely voters,” the contest appears much closer, with 22 percent saying they plan to vote for Wu, while 21 percent support Essaibi George, 17 percent Janey, and 15 percent Campbell.

The survey follows recent internal polls quietly discussed by campaign insiders that similarly show Janey losing ground, and Essaibi George climbing.

Those results could help shape get-out-the-vote strategies, operatives and analysts said, as some candidates battle over undecided voters while others, such as Essaibi George, engage core constituencies in neighborhoods that have proved dependable in the past. In Essaibi George’s last at-large City Council race in 2019, she did well in the same precincts and neighborhoods that propelled Walsh to victory.

“The voters who say they are with Annissa stay with Annissa,” said one campaign operative, who was not authorized to publicly comment on the status of the race.

The election could also be the first true citywide test of the strength and consistency of new politically progressive voting strongholds that have emerged in recent years, particularly since the rise of former president Donald Trump.

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A ribbon of liberal-leaning precincts that stretches through Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and part of West Roxbury, dubbed “lefty strip” by one political pundit, has helped propel liberal candidates to office in recent competitive elections, including Representative Ayanna Pressley and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who both bested established insiders.

The high voter turnout in those precincts has begun to rival the turnout in long-established strongholds in Dorchester and South Boston, another factor in which voter outreach efforts will be key to the race: In the last City Council contest, Wu did well in the Jamaica Plain and Roslindale strip, while Essaibi George did better in South Boston and Dorchester.

Rachel Poliner, of the Roslindale/West Roxbury chapter of Progressive Mass, a political action group that endorsed Wu, said that the neighborhoods’ excitement in the race has been high, amid intense debates over key policy areas such as exam schools, and that members of her group have been paying attention.

She also pointed out that the dozens of candidates running for City Council seats could also generate energy in the race. Her group has interviewed many of them already and handed out endorsements.

“The conversations are lively. . . . I think that [people] see the historic moment,” she said. “I think that voters in these three neighborhoods care a lot about issues, that they do see big difference between candidates, and that they are really paying attention to issues about schools, climate change, housing — so many issues. I think they’re paying attention and will turn out.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.