A mayor of color

Why race matters in this fall’s election.

John Hersey

Little-known fact: Of the country’s 25 largest cities, only two in the North have never elected a mayor of color. Indianapolis is one. Boston is the other. Few who live here put Indianapolis in the same league as our city, except maybe in pro football.

Nineteen of the 25 biggest cities by population have had a chief executive who is African-American, Hispanic, or Asian. Those cities include Denver, Seattle, and Columbus, Ohio.

Besides Boston and Indianapolis, the other laggards in the top 25 are the Sun Belt cities of Phoenix, San Diego, and Fort Worth and the border-state city of Nashville. None of them is in Boston’s league in terms of progressive politics and government. Clearly, Boston is behind the political curve. This year, though, the city has a chance to catch up —  one that may not soon come again because, without term limits, our mayors have tended to cling to the office.


Would electing a mayor of color make a difference in Boston, given the country has a black president and the state has a black governor and recently had a black interim US senator?

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Certainly Governor Deval Patrick’s appearances around the country have raised his profile among Democratic activists. But he is not as well known as he should be in black communities outside of Massachusetts, and that’s partly because President Obama has overshadowed him. African-Americans have focused more on the black president than on the one black governor out of 50.

Patrick’s historic tenure — he is only the second black governor elected in US history — may also get discounted because Massachusetts elected a black senator, Edward Brooke, almost a half century ago. Brooke’s legacy as the first African-American in the Senate since Reconstruction also makes Mo Cowan’s brief term as interim senator a historical blip.

Obama’s presidency has inspired African-Americans, drawing more of them to the polls and lifting the aspirations of young people. But Boston’s residents of color can’t feel fully empowered when they look at a mayor’s office that one of their own has never occupied, a City Council where they are underrepresented, and a congressional delegation that has never had a House member of color. The strong symbolism of a black president has changed none of that.

A mayor of color would penetrate the national consciousness and update and maybe even erase the image of Boston that remains from the racial battles over school desegregation 40 years ago. That would be good for tourism and for business. Just ask the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau how long it has taken to start making inroads in persuading national black organizations to bring their meetings and money to town. Or ask Boston’s corporate recruiters, who have struggled to attract talented African-Americans from elsewhere.


Besides improving the city’s image, electing a mayor of color would represent an important step toward healing the lingering wounds of the busing crisis. Power dynamics would change, too. City employees, already from all races and ethnicities, would work under a chief executive of color for the first time, which in turn could embolden more people of color to run for office, building a pipeline.

Paul Watanabe, the keen political scientist at University of Massachusetts Boston, believes many white voters are ready for a black mayor in particular, partly based on their past support for Obama, Patrick, and City Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley. Watanabe thinks many of those voters are waiting to see which candidate high-profile African-Americans back. Thus far, African-American leaders have begun to line up behind Charlotte Golar Richie, the former state representative who is the only woman in the race. Most political analysts rate City Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo, with his Hispanic base and citywide name recognition, as the other top candidate of color.

To make it out of the preliminary election in September and into the November final, any candidate has to win deep support in at least one neighborhood or population group and broad, shallow support in the rest of the city. Shrewd candidates will campaign widely to plant seeds of support that can grow in the final voting.

Though city residents are majority minority, people of color make up less than half of registered voters, maybe as little as 38 percent. A united bloc of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians is not a given. In fact, research on how black mayors get elected indicates that a coalition of blacks and liberal whites is more likely to succeed. The basic political math means white voters will decide whether Boston elects a mayor of color.

A candidate of color in particular needs a commonwealth message, like the ones that worked for Patrick (“Together we can”) and Obama (“Yes we can”). Michael Hancock was elected Denver’s second black mayor two years ago on the slogan: “We are all Denver.” Notice each uses “we” in a universal sense.


Yes, Boston’s last two mayors have governed inclusively. But power sharing is a bedrock democratic principle. Communities that have thus far been shut out of mayoral power in Boston would feel much more a part of the “we” if a mayor of color finally gets an opportunity to govern.

Kenneth J. Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Boston Globe staffer. Send comments to