Andrea Campbell wanted change, and she didn’t want to wait. So in 2015, the Roxbury-born education lawyer took the toughest path into Boston politics: She challenged, and then handily defeated, an entrenched 32-year incumbent for the City Council seat representing Mattapan, one of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.
A restless impatience with the status quo and a willingness to charge headfirst into political risks to make life better for Bostonians have been the hallmarks of Campbell’s inspiring career. Last year, before anybody knew that Mayor Marty Walsh would be leaving City Hall, she announced she would take him on, frustrated by the slow pace of change in the public schools and police department on Walsh’s watch.
In a recent meeting with the Globe editorial board, Campbell, 39 and a mother of two young boys, described the moment she decided to launch what would have been another uphill battle. She looked at her children, and asked herself, “Are you going to continue to stand on the sidelines?”
“I said, I was done waiting.”
That is Campbell: She radiates a sense of urgency, a palpable hunger to confront Boston’s hardest, most politically fraught challenges — its uneven schools and a law enforcement system that has lost the trust of too many residents. That drive, paired with her nuanced thinking about what can make the city more vibrant and equitable, is what distinguishes her from her opponents in this year’s mayoral election — and why the Globe editorial board enthusiastically endorses her candidacy in the Sept. 14 preliminary election.
It’s an impressive and historic field, and some of Campbell’s opponents, particularly City Councilor at Large Michelle Wu and John Barros, Walsh’s head of economic development, also have the potential to be excellent mayors. After Sept. 14, the two top vote-getters will proceed to the final election in November. No matter who wins, history will be made: Boston will elect a mayor who identifies as a person of color for the first time in its history.
Walsh, who is now the secretary of labor in the Biden administration, leaves that successor a mixed legacy. In his almost eight years in office, he increased the city’s housing supply to help meet the needs of the region’s growing population. And as Campbell herself is quick to acknowledge, the city also weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than many cities of comparable size. Walsh also kept Boston on an even keel financially and invited economic growth. Those are all real, concrete accomplishments that the next mayor should seek to preserve and build on.
But Walsh’s record on public education — the single biggest part of the city’s operating budget and arguably its most important obligation to its residents — was a profound disappointment. He cycled through school superintendents, depriving the system of needed stability. When the schools did attempt reform, like moving high schools to later start times, he folded at the first whiff of opposition. Walsh showed little appetite for tough decisions on education, such as consolidating schools in a system with huge overcapacity or reducing the bloated school transportation budget. By some measures, the schools are worse now than when he took office in 2014; a state audit found the city had no “clear, coherent, district-wide strategy for supporting low-performing schools.” Despite per-pupil spending that is among the highest in the state, a third of Boston students attend schools in the state’s bottom tier.
On policing, Walsh did implement a body camera program — with the prodding of Black elected officials like Campbell, who chairs the council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee. But he shied away from more transformative reforms, like pushing to eliminate the system of disciplinary arbitration that has made it difficult to fire abusive officers. The culture of impunity is so flagrant that the police patrolmen’s union’s own former leader was an officer who the department found had sexually abused a child in the 1990s.
It’s no wonder Campbell was becoming impatient. So were many Bostonians. So were we.
Schools and policing may be the two most basic services that the city provides; they are certainly among the most intimate. That was true even before the pandemic shut classrooms and the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota focused national attention on police misconduct; after those traumas, Campbell’s priorities are clearly aligned with the needs of the moment.
And this moment has been a long time coming. Mayors have to pick their fights — and it’s almost a truism of Boston politics that despite the central importance of education and public safety, politicians who want to keep their job shy away from dramatic changes to the schools or police. Kevin White focused on downtown development. Ray Flynn pushed for neighborhood quality-of-life improvements. Tom Menino focused on meat-and-potatoes city services. Marty Walsh was in his element talking about housing or addiction treatment.
Campbell’s vision for the schools includes tutoring and summer programs to make up for lost learning time during the pandemic; giving school principals more power over curriculum, budget, and hiring; reducing the transportation budget; channeling some of the district’s $400 million in pandemic recovery money directly to parents in the form of “student acceleration accounts” for services like counseling and afterschool programs. On policing, she wants to rein in overtime, expand the body camera program, shift some police construction details to civilians, and change the civil service process, which can stand as an obstacle to a more racially diverse force.
There is a depressing school of thought that holds that the city’s educational inequities are so intractable, and the power of public-safety unions so formidable, that a mayor’s time is better spent on more solvable problems. Certainly, the deck is stacked against change, and police unions and other special interests know they can wait out even the most reform-minded mayor. But in its recent history Boston has never had a mayor willing to devote political capital to either — and it’s far too defeatist to imagine Campbell couldn’t succeed. Her career as a graduate of Boston Latin School who followed an unlikely path from public housing to Princeton, and then into the administration of Governor Deval Patrick, suggests she just might be the mayor to pull it off.
Like all her competitors, Campbell has also outlined a vision for other challenges and opportunities facing the city. She places an admirably strong emphasis on recruiting talented city leaders. The opioid crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic; Campbell says she wants to charge a public health expert with leading the response, and decentralize addiction services from their current epicenter, the “Mass. and Cass” intersection. To start closing the city’s yawning racial wealth gap, she wants to increase support for homeownership programs. On climate, she aims to electrify the city’s vehicle fleet, including school buses, and make city operations carbon-neutral by 2035.
If elected, she will hopefully borrow ideas from her competitors — especially Wu and Barros, both of whom are thoughtful leaders with impressive records. In the schools, Wu has proposed creating a “navigator” system to help connect children and families to city services, which would be especially helpful for low-income and immigrant families daunted by the challenge of navigating the school bureaucracy. Barros, whom this editorial board endorsed the last time he ran for mayor, in 2013, wants to separate Madison Park, the district’s chronically underperforming vocational high school, from the rest of the school district and place it under a separate governance structure.
The two other major candidates, City Councilor at Large Annissa Essaibi George and Kim Janey, the Roxbury city councilor who has been acting mayor since Walsh’s resignation, both bring years of experience to the table and would be capable of serving as mayor. Essaibi George, a former teacher, is especially convincing when she talks about the need to focus on literacy in schools and stop assigning Black and brown boys to special-education classrooms. Janey, who lost a relative to an opioid overdose, talks with conviction about the need to help the people who congregate at Mass. and Cass seek addiction treatment.
Janey, though, has run a cautious campaign, and if she makes it to the final round will need to present a more expansive vision for how she would use a four-year term if she’s elected. Essaibi George enjoys the tacit support of police unions, but bristles at the suggestion that she’s the status-quo candidate in the race; if she makes the final, she will need to convince voters why that label is as unfair as she says it is.
This endorsement, though, is fundamentally not about the drawbacks of any of the other candidates, but instead about the promise and possibility that Andrea Campbell represents.
On the campaign trail, Campbell often talks about her twin brother, Andre. While Campbell thrived in the Boston Public Schools, her twin didn’t catch the same educational breaks and became enmeshed in the criminal justice system before dying in custody, at age 29. When she talks about the inequities in the schools, the injustices of the criminal justice system, and the sheer precarity of systems that could send one sibling to the Ivy League and another to an early death, it is with the authority of someone who understands from personal experience just how far short from its potential this city still is. Boston can do so much more to lift its residents; it can also be a city that draws and keeps talented people here from diverse backgrounds, bent on making it even better. Campbell’s own life story shows what is possible.
For Bostonians who are done waiting for the city to reach its potential, Andrea Campbell is the right mayor for the moment.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.