John Connolly was wrapping up his stemwinder at Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen on Tuesday night, high off a strong performance in his first debate against mayoral opponent Marty Walsh. His voice and heels rose, buoyed by the enthusiastic crowd of mostly young, mostly black supporters who had gathered at the South End bar to watch the debate and fete him afterward.
“At the end of the day, we’re all connected,” he said. “I want to be a mayor who works with you so that we have a city where my children are your children, and your children are my children.”
Then he addressed the elephant that had been crowding the room all evening: Despite Connolly’s strenuous efforts, Walsh had won the endorsement of the three top candidates of color in the mayoral preliminary. The next day, state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry would endorse Walsh, too. In a race that could hinge on votes in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, that was a coup for Walsh.
Connolly tried to sound unfazed. “I’m not going to have the big elected official endorsements,” he told the crowd of activists, to cheers. “But I’ll take your endorsement.”
But he has to know the lopsided endorsement tally means trouble, with candidates who pulled voters in several directions in the preliminary now united against him.
Connolly has worked mightily to make inroads in communities of color. In 2011, he ran a kind of tandem campaign with Ayanna Pressley. In return for a raised citywide profile, the African-American at-large councilor gave Connolly cred in neighborhoods outside his mostly-white strongholds. In September, he held his victory party at Roxbury’s storied Hibernian Hall. He has covered the city, spending time with homicide victims’ families in Dorchester, and with kids in schools like the Trotter on Humboldt Ave., where his daughter Clare is in kindergarten.
The voters at Darryl’s support him for the same reasons white residents do: because they believe he’ll do a better job on education, or has smarter ideas about growing neighborhood businesses, or because they worry Walsh is too close to unions. “I think Marty is a great guy,” said Darryl Settles, who owns the bar and supported third-place finisher Charlotte Golar Richie in the preliminary. “But his hands are going to be tied.”
They’re also voting for him because they believe he’ll do more to advance the lot of communities of color. Campaign volunteer and youth worker Donnell Singleton said he tried for months to get city officials to come see his Boston Raiders football program, but “no one came except John, and he kept coming. He showed me he had an interest in my community.” Some who worked for Golar Richie and John Barros joined Connolly’s campaign. As did a group of black ministers. The Bay State Banner has endorsed him.
But, still, the Walsh endorsements sting. Some key black and Hispanic leaders have long relationships with Walsh and trust him more. Some simply find Walsh more down to earth. And some Connolly has rubbed the wrong way: Barros, for example, was on the School Committee when Connolly was the schools’ loudest critic. And the city councilor’s forceful criticism of former superintendent Carol Johnson, who is black, lost him serious love, with some casting him as racist — although some who rose in Johnson’s defense have come round on Connolly.
“We kept dialoguing,” said the Rev. William Dickerson, one of the ministers who criticized Connolly just over a year ago and now supports him. “He’s not being hypocritical: He takes his daughter to the Trotter school every morning.”
Ministers make for good photo ops, but they don’t drive turnout the way they once did. Connolly’s people counter that they have stronger support among grass-roots activists. But Walsh’s camp says the same.
And so this is shaping up as the second power check this fall for black and Hispanic voters, many of whom are still smarting from the fact that no candidate of color ascended to the final. Whether for Walsh or Connolly, if the minority vote is critical — even decisive — in November, 2013 will be remembered as a breakthrough year.
Which is something this old city, for too long defined by racial divides, could use.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com