That illustrates how Acting Mayor Kim Janey ran her campaign for mayor and why she lost it.
It was a Rose Garden strategy, patterned on the one that worked for Acting Mayor Tom Menino way back in 1993. Janey made sweeping announcements about her commitment to equity, handed out lots of money, and launched positive-sounding programs. But when it came to actual governing, she was cautious and reactive and, unlike Menino, didn’t define herself or her plans for a future administration.
It’s true, the Rose Garden of 2021 was thornier. Still, it was Janey’s race to lose and she lost it.
Because she was also the first woman and first Black person to serve as Boston’s mayor, it’s fair to ask if the same safe strategy would have worked for a white male candidate, even in today’s more troubled times. But the rush to ascribe the outcome to racism and/or sexism, is complicated by the fact that Janey’s toughest challenge came from another Black woman, City Councilor Andrea Campbell. A Black man, John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, also questioned her leadership.
Cumulatively, the Black candidates received more votes than the two finalists, Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George. That will lead some to conclude that once Janey became acting mayor, the two other Black candidates should have dropped out. Yet if Janey had been stronger in outlining a clear agenda for change, she could have consolidated support. She grabbed the microphone, but she also seemed wary of using it. During press conferences, she was carefully scripted and abruptly ended questioning. The one time she went off script, she got into trouble, equating vaccine passports with birtherism.
The general view is that Janey’s campaign was too consultant-driven and based primarily on the premise that what worked 28 years ago would work today. That strategy didn’t account for the fact that a woman — and a woman of color — would be judged differently than a white man. And it didn’t allow her to be herself.
I believe there is a side to Janey that didn’t come across in the campaign. During one extended sit-down I had with her in June, Janey was engaging, and less risk-averse than expected. She made the call on her own to change the ground rules from off the record and proudly showed me around her office. It still contained the antique mahogany desk named after James Michael Curley — the quintessential Boston pol — but was now decorated with a portrait of Michelle Obama; a poster of Kamala Harris walking behind Ruby Bridges; plants and Martha’s Vineyard stones. Together, it all conveyed seismic political change in Boston.
Yet good governing requires more than feel-good imagery. When Marty Walsh left to become US labor secretary, he left Janey with several messes to handle. The most immediate involved Walsh’s botched naming of Dennis White as police commissioner. Because Walsh didn’t resolve the matter, it was left to Janey to fire White, after an independent investigation outlined an array of old but troubling domestic violence allegations against him. Janey also had to deal with fallout from a scandal involving Patrick M. Rose Sr., a police officer who stayed on the job for years after he was accused of sexually assaulting children. The Boston School Committee became a political problem. So did schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who it turned out had let her license lapse. The school year opened with anxiety over late school bus arrivals.
In other words, Janey had to deal with the nuts and bolts of governing. While she inherited a gummed-up engine, she was the one making the case that she wasn’t just “acting mayor,” she was “mayor.” Campbell, in particular, made sure that’s how she was judged.
There’s an understandable sense of loss in the Black community. A Black woman held the reins of power in Boston. But neither she nor the other two Black candidates made the final cut. The election of Wu or Essaibi George represents change, but Boston’s legacy as a city that has never elected a Black mayor continues.
It was going to take more than a Rose Garden strategy to change that history. It was going to take a candidate who showed up for every minute of every day in her role as acting mayor, in good times and bad.