The mayoral forum hosted last Saturday by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a housing advocacy group, offered a big audience for the candidates to impress: some 200 people in person, another 500 watching remotely, and potentially thousands more with access to a recording of the event.
Yet alone among the five major candidates, one was a conspicuous no-show — again.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey has missed more than 30 of roughly 60 such public events since announcing her candidacy on April 6, according to a Globe review of the forums, town halls, and one-on-one interviews the candidates attended. Her four major campaign rivals, by contrast, have logged near-perfect attendance.
“It’s her loss,” said NACA chief executive Bruce Marks, noting the number of attendees Saturday. “They heard from all the other candidates, except for Kim Janey.”
In August alone, Janey skipped eight of 15 community forums. Her campaign explained that her absence was due, in part, to conflicts with her City Hall duties. (Some of the events were held during the morning or midday, for instance.) She also missed others due to a death in her family, the campaign said.
Janey did attend 29 forums, the Globe review found, including at least three where she either came late or left early. She declined an invitation to one event — the Boston Pride forum in June — amid protests over the lack of diversity in the group’s leadership, as did City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who also is running for mayor.
Forum organizers said her absences are troubling, irking some in Boston who view them as an indication that she does not care enough to engage with them.
“Communities talk, and if one candidate is missing and consistently missing one out of two [events], that’s the message that gets out there,” said Erin O’Brien, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor.
Janey and her campaign say that unlike her competitors, she has been hard at work leading the city through a pandemic in a difficult year filled with crises while also running for political office.
“Only one of the candidates, Kim Janey, is leading Boston as mayor during a global pandemic,” said her campaign manager, Kirby Chandler. “While she hopes she could attend every forum, her first priority is to ensure the health, safety, and prosperity of the residents of Boston.”
The campaign said that Janey, as the acting mayor, has held 10 neighborhood coffee hours “to take questions from residents across the city,” and that she holds regular briefings with the news media.
Chandler also took a jab at the three city councilors in the race — Campbell, Michelle Wu, and Annissa Essaibi George — who are campaigning full time while retaining their council jobs.
“Given the serious issues Boston is facing, we are surprised that the candidates who are on the City Council are able to prioritize campaigning over working — especially when many of these forums were held during work hours,” Chandler added.
To be sure, there are a lot of forums, including multiple events in the same week or even on the same day.
But with roughly 25 percent of likely voters undecided, every opportunity to engage with them is key, said O’Brien. Undecided voters “have two or three candidates that they like, and if they don’t get to hear from one of them, that’s fairly problematic,” she said.
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who is one of Janey’s staunchest supporters, said many voters will be paying far more attention to her performance as acting mayor than the number of community forums she’s attended.
“I have yet to meet a voter whose sole engagement with a mayoral candidate is a forum,” Arroyo said. “It’s going to be [about] the things that she’s done that have touched their lives.”
Years ago, political rallies and gatherings drew hundreds into school auditoriums and neighborhood centers to listen to candidates make their case for being mayor, said Jim Vrabel, a local historian and author of “A People’s History of the New Boston.”
“All of the candidates felt compelled to attend,” he said.
The candidate nights exploded in 1983, with 78 total community forums, when four-term mayor Kevin White decided not to run, opening the field to a slew of contenders, Vrabel said.
“The candidate nights were what gave Ray Flynn and Mel King the chance to compete with the better-funded candidates,” Vrabel said of the two finalists in the election. “They were able to get their message out without having to worry about paid advertising.”
Since then, Vrabel estimates, there have been fewer forums and less pressure on candidates to attend each one.
Former mayors Thomas M. Menino, in 1993, and Martin J. Walsh, in 2013, attended forums during their initial campaigns. But once in office, they essentially ignored their opponents, sometimes refusing to appear at community town halls at the same time as their challengers.
Maura Hennigan, a former city councilor who ran against Menino in 2005, famously chased him across the city demanding a series of debates. (She once appealed to him in Latin.) Menino conceded to two meet-ups, one that aired on the radio, the other on TV, she recalled.
“That’s all he’d agree to‚’’ said Hennigan, while Janey, whom she supports, has appeared at more than two dozen events with her opponents. “I think she’s doing pretty good.”
But Hennigan understands why Janey is under pressure to appear at even more.
“It’s a really big city and there are a lot of organizations. I sympathize because I’m sure from the minute all the candidates get up, there aren’t enough hours in the day to get to everything,” Hennigan said. “To be fair to Kim, she has to be a candidate, plus she has to do the job at the same time.”
A district councilor, Janey had to get up to speed on the mayor’s job after taking over in March, in the middle of a pandemic, no less. Still, when possible, voters want that traditional experience of seeing their candidates up close, activists and historians say.
“You have to show up,” said Marks of NACA.
Among the five major candidates, John Barros has perfect attendance at nearly 60 forums he was invited to, according to the Globe review. (He was not invited to the Women of Color mayoral forum held on Aug. 18.)
Wu has attended at least 65 mayoral forums, interviews, or candidate meetings so far this year, including one at which she stayed briefly and left early. She missed only one forum since launching her campaign last September.
Essaibi George, who jumped into the race in January, missed one forum — held by WAKANDA II — due to a scheduling conflict.
Campbell, who announced her mayoral bid in September 2020, also has nearly perfect attendance, declining to attend the forum held by the now-defunct Boston Pride and one by the First Responders group, both in June, based on concerns about the organizations.
On Saturday at the NACA event, Janey’s public schedule showed her appearing at three events, though none was held during the two-hour morning block of the NACA event.
She also was not present Monday at a forum hosted by the Boston Society of Architects. On Tuesday evening, she attended the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization’s forum, which had 800 viewers. (The organizers had threatened to leave an empty Zoom square for candidates who did not show up.)
Janey has been criticized for arriving late at some events. Last week, she joined an online forum on reproductive rights so briefly that she didn’t field any of the questions the other four candidates answered.
“Mayor Janey is running a little late,” moderator and state Representative Liz Miranda warned viewers when Janey missed the candidates’ introductions.
Janey appeared on Zoom a half-hour late, visibly buckled into a car.
She was the only one of the five major candidates to miss the Aug. 2 outdoor forum of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council. Sitting in a row, the other four candidates fielded a host of questions on employment, housing, and education as the evening sun faded in the background.
At the end of the row, there was only an empty blue chair where Janey was supposed to be sitting.