Never before during my years in Boston have so many out-of-state friends asked me some variation of this question: “So how’s it looking up there?” They want to know what’s happening in Boston’s mayoral campaign.
On Sept. 14, acting Mayor Kim Janey, City Councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu, and John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, will vie in the preliminary election. The top two finishers will face off in November, but whatever the results, this much is already known: For the first time in Boston’s history, a person of color, most likely a woman, will be elected mayor.
If not quite a racial reckoning, it’s a critical moment for Boston. And even those who don’t live here feel as if they, too, have a stake in the outcome.
That’s been apparent since March when former mayor Martin J. Walsh departed City Hall to become President Biden’s labor secretary. As succession protocol dictates, Janey, then city council president, was sworn in and became Boston’s first person of color and first woman mayor. Even before she was the last candidate to announce her mayoral campaign, Janey garnered national headlines with her appointment, hers a different face representing what many hoped would lead to a different Boston.
Janey is one of nine Black women leading one of the nation’s 100 largest cities, including Lori Lightfoot (Chicago); Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta); Muriel Bowser (Washington, D.C.); London Breed (San Francisco); LaToya Cantrell (New Orleans); and Tishaura Jones (St. Louis).
All of those cities have previously had Black mayors. Only twice have Black candidates even survived to a final mayoral election in Boston. Both Mel King, in 1983, and Tito Jackson, in 2017, lost to white men.
Now Bostonians seek a leader who better reflects the city’s shifting demographics. In their television ads, both Campbell and Janey speak frankly of their personal tribulations. Campbell talks about growing up in public housing in Roxbury and how her twin brother, Andre, died while incarcerated. Janey cites her experiences as a child of Boston’s acrimonious school desegregation era who briefly lived in a shelter and became a mother when she was 16.
Wu, Essaibi George, and Barros have all touted their histories as small-business owners connecting them to many who even before the pandemic toiled to survive rising rents and rampant gentrification. Voters who have felt disenfranchised due to racism or sexism not only see candidates who look like them, but have also had to navigate similar struggles in this city.
Each has seasoned their campaigns with lived experiences viewed not as deficits but trials that have shaped them and serve as assets that make them empathetic to constituents. This neither looks nor feels like past mayoral contests.
Of course, the next mayor already knows that if racial progress is halting in America, in Boston it can be glacial. Not until Ayanna Pressley, now a congresswoman, won in 2009 had a Black woman been elected to the city council. Though people of color are the majority, the city remains as segregated as any in the nation. And in the past decade, the city’s Black population declined 3.3 percent, more than any other group.
When it comes to race in this city, the dead past is never allowed to bury its dead. Boston is — and isn’t — the same place I moved to decades ago despite warnings from friends that the city would offer a young Black woman nothing but tears and disappointment.
Results of a single election can’t atone for Boston’s complicated history. It won’t erase the indelible image of an angry white man trying to impale a Black man with an American flag. It won’t silence the persistent echoes of racial epithets at Fenway Park, or wipe away memories of a white man throwing a water bottle at Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets as the former Celtics player walked off the Garden floor last May.
Anyone who remembers Barack Obama’s “postracial” election and the ferocious white backlash that birthed the Trump presidency eight years later should know better.
Yet with history’s eyes set on Boston, a cautious embrace of this unique moment is still an embrace. In the national spotlight, this race is not only a referendum on transforming City Hall. It can counter with action a reputation long characterized by racial animus and white hegemony. And if the first elected mayor of color in Boston, of all places, can lead this city toward equity and justice, perhaps America will follow.