Boston’s first open race for mayor in eight years has been about a lot of things. There is the historic nature of the field of candidates. There are different emphasis and approaches on some of the top issues in the campaign, including public schools, housing, development, policing, climate resiliency, drug usage, and mental health. There is also the sub-drama of just how well Acting Mayor Kim Janey has done in the job during the past six months.
These will be the issues that will likely decide which two candidates will advance to the November run-off election. However ahead of Tuesday’s election — and with a good number of ballots already cast by mail — now is also a good time to also examine what issues didn’t drive this contest. After all, the exercise might show as much about politics in Boston in 2021 do the issues that are deemed by candidates and voters to be top of mind.
So here are three topics that didn’t get as much attention.
1. Marty Walsh
For a lot of this contest, Walsh, as the two-term incumbent, was really the only thing that mattered. A year ago there were basically two scenarios of how the Boston mayor’s race would play out this year: one with Walsh in it and one with him out of it.
Once Walsh was nominated to serve as Biden’s secretary of Labor we got the answer to that question. Walsh was in Washington and not running for a third term. It should be noted that at that point there were already two additional people running for mayor, long before Walsh exited. In the back of Councilor Michelle Wu and Councilor Andrea Campbell’s minds have been that Walsh would move on, but that was far from certain. After all, that was all premised on Joe Biden winning the presidential race, which ended up being a tighter contest than most expected.
Still, even with Walsh in Washington he could still have driven this contest in two major ways. First, he could have bestowed an endorsement and handed over his political operation to his chosen candidate at a crucial time. Second, he could have seen his tenure utterly tarnished, as George W. Bush did during the 2008 presidential election. Any existing problems were, by definition, something Walsh didn’t fix.
In the end, Walsh didn’t endorse and his tenure as mayor was something that was always there, but no one really drove home a message about it. This may make sense when you consider that in a multi-candidate field there is an incentive to spend your time bolstering yourself instead of tearing down others.
But in other contests, even for mayors, the previous incumbent usually is the point of reference for all discussion.
The pandemic was something that was discussed at pretty much every forum and debate, and obviously had the biggest impact on Bostonians this year more than anything else. Still, you have to get very much in the weeds to see how the candidates are different on this issue, therefore it is likely to not impact many votes.
To be clear, COVID has had a huge impact on elections. Donald Trump, for example, was in his strongest ever position to get reelected in February of 2020, right before the COVID lockdowns took place. During COVID, Trump’s approval rating tanked, meanwhile governors of both parties got very high marks and some vulnerable governors have COVID to thank for why they won reelection.
In Boston, however, even though there is a robust conversation about vaccine mandates and mask mandates, it didn’t drive the discussion on the campaign trail as one might expect, except for one moment nearly a month ago.
As a general rule, municipal elections in America are usually about one of three things: schools, crime, and taxes.
While it is true that crime is not as big of an issue for voters in Boston as it has been in other communities this year (think New York), the utter lack of discussion about taxes is particularly noteworthy.
Over the past decade, Boston has undergone the largest building boom in its history. Some of these projects came with some tax incentives, but many did not. With more property in the city comes more tax revenue.
The city keeps seeing its revenue go up and this should continue. But there was basically no discussion about specifically how to invest this new money or even — gasp — work to lower taxes.
Unlike discussion in a recent debate about how to spend new federal stimulus money, this tax money isn’t a one-off. Debate this year from the candidates could have been over big long-term investments.