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For Mayor Walsh, success, caution in first year in office

Ryan Perry took a group photo with the mayor at Dennis Street Park in Roxbury when Walsh visited at the end of June.
Ryan Perry took a group photo with the mayor at Dennis Street Park in Roxbury when Walsh visited at the end of June.David L. Ryan/Globe Sfaff

Mayor Martin J. Walsh jetted back on a late flight from San Francisco, sleepy but invigorated after pitching Boston for the 2024 Olympic Games. Hours after landing that cold December morning, Walsh bolted to a North End school to perform a mundane but expected task for a Boston mayor.

Brandishing a small pair of scissors, he snipped a yellow ribbon on a new solar panel. For 20 years, his predecessor, the late Thomas M. Menino, cut so many ribbons he often traveled with his own oversized shears.

“This program started under Mayor Menino,” Walsh told the crowd. “Mayor Menino is looking down at us smiling today.”

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In his first year in office, Walsh has governed in Menino’s shadow. Even as he tries to shape his own identity, Walsh returns to the nitty-gritty of city governance that so famously defined his predecessor. He has, he boasts, fixed more sidewalks, paved more roads, patched more potholes than anyone who has ever occupied the fifth-floor office at City Hall — more even than Menino, the self-styled urban mechanic.

In a series of year-end interviews with the Globe and other media outlets, Walsh has said that he broke records by fixing 4,000 sidewalks (“more than ever”), paving 60 miles of streets (“more than ever”), and filling 18,000 potholes (“more than ever”), which the mayor said doubled the previous mark.

Follow-up data provided by Walsh’s administration showed that he had exaggerated the rate of increase in pothole filling. Through mid-December, public works crews had filled 18,789 potholes, an increase of nearly 6,300, or 50 percent — not double. Walsh made the same mistake when he claimed to have doubled the number of new LED street lights.

Regardless of the mayor’s math, the year-old administration said its most significant accomplishment is infusing a data-driven culture into City Hall to make it more responsive.

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh pledged in his inaugural address at Boston College’s Conte Forum last year to listen, learn, and lead.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh pledged in his inaugural address at Boston College’s Conte Forum last year to listen, learn, and lead.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A year ago, Walsh took the oath of office and pledged in his inaugural address to listen, learn, and lead. But the rhetoric of the campaign has yielded to the incremental reality of governing.

Some residents, including at least a few Walsh supporters, have grown impatient with what they regard as the mayor’s plodding pace.

“The first year has mostly been listening and learning,” said Megan Wolf, a Boston public school parent and education activist who supported Walsh in the final mayoral election. “Honestly, a lot of us are waiting for the actions to back up the speeches.”

Late last month, Walsh announced a breakthrough with the teachers union that will increase classroom time by 40 minutes at 60 elementary and middle schools.

The Rev. Miniard Culpepper, who campaigned for Walsh’s opponent, John R. Connolly, in black and Latino neighborhoods, said he has been disappointed in the mayor’s stewardship of schools because the search for a new superintendent has taken longer than originally promised. He said he has been frustrated, too, that Walsh took nearly a year to hire a chief diversity officer.

“At this point, the community of color is not approving of his administration,” Culpepper said. “I think people are getting concerned.”

Still, there are plenty of Bostonians who speak glowingly of the new mayor.

“People are bullish on Boston,” said John F. Fish, the Suffolk Construction chief executive who is spearheading Boston’s push to host the 2024 Olympics. “He’s putting his foot on the gas.”

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At the same time, Walsh’s union support has not wavered. Walsh ran for mayor as a longtime labor leader, and unions propelled him into office.

Richard Stutman , president of the Boston Teachers Union, described Walsh as open and collaborative.

“I can’t say he’s fallen short anywhere,” Stutman said.

During the campaign, Walsh’s likability became his biggest asset and has continued to pay dividends.

“What you hear is, ‘I didn’t really know him, but like him,’ ” said former city councilor John M. Tobin Jr. “Those are the three words: ‘I like him.’ ”

Likability goes only so far, said Horace Small, executive director of the advocacy group Union of Minority Neighborhoods.

“He’s a really nice guy,” Small said. “As a leader, the jury is still out.”

In Walsh’s first year, challenges came quickly: A blaze killed two firefighters, homicides increased, and a condemned bridge resulted in the hasty evacuation of homeless people from the city’s largest shelter.

Walsh faced an emboldened City Council, engaged gambling magnate Steve Wynn in a high-stakes standoff over a planned casino, pushed for a gay rights group to march in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade, and made a play for a ready-made legacy by trying to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston.

Balancing the frenetic pace of the new job, Walsh wrestled with the legacy of Menino, Boston’s longest-serving mayor. The moment he learned of Menino’s death in October, Walsh said, was the first time he truly felt he was mayor. Last month, Walsh discussed his first year with Globe reporters at a deli in Mattapan. A man from Roxbury stopped to tell Walsh he was “doing a good job.”

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“I hear that every single day. It makes me feel good because they say the streets are clean and things are happening,” Walsh said. “The press had a lot of doubts that I could handle this job. I’ve proven a lot of people wrong.”

As evidence, Walsh pointed to what he described as a new era of inclusion at City Hall. He described diversifying the Police Department’s command staff and appointing Boston’s first diversity chief to guide hirings and promotions.

Although Walsh’s first wave of hires included predominantly white men, the mayor said the city’s workforce is now 3 percentage points more diverse than a year ago. The administration has not responded to a records request made a month ago for the most recent round of hires, and it has begun withholding racial and ethnic data for employees, a decision that the Globe is challenging in court.

Despite pledges of more openness, Walsh’s staff has begun redacting information from the mayor’s calendar, the Police Department will not release the names of officers charged with drunk driving, and the mayor has not disclosed specific dollar figures for complimentary lodging and other freebies given to him on a trip to Ireland.

Since Walsh took office, the City of Boston has sparked 46 public records appeals to the secretary of state’s office. The mayor rejected a question about a lack of transparency.

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“If there’s a problem with accessing public records,” Walsh said, “it’s an internal problem that I will fix.”

The mayor swore in new members of the school committee and then signed an official form on Jan. 5, 2014.
The mayor swore in new members of the school committee and then signed an official form on Jan. 5, 2014.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

At age 47, Walsh has tufts of gray at the temple — not there a year ago — framing his red hair. The mayor said he is growing into the job, working 18-hour days. He said his other accomplishments include a comprehensive plan to add 53,000 units of middle-class housing in the city by 2030 and overhauling the process for getting permits from the city.

The administration launched a review of municipal government by initiating the audit of nearly a dozen agencies to assess areas for improvements, including the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Boston Public Library. And it has launched 13 task forces and steering committees that include nearly 300 people studying everything from keeping bars and restaurants open later to the search for a poet laureate.

“The thing that we’re most proud of is installing what one could call a ‘Moneyball’ culture in City Hall,” said Walsh’s chief of staff, Daniel Koh, referring to Michael Lewis’s book that chronicled how the Oakland A’s used data and statistics — not the wisdom of scouts and coaches — to build a championship team.

Criticism that the administration has moved too slowly had not reached the mayor.

“This is new to me. I’ve never heard that. I’m in the community,” Walsh said. “I don’t hear it. Not one person. Let’s see if somebody comes up to me in this building and says, ‘You’ve gone slow in schools.’ I just don’t hear that.”

In the 2013 race for mayor, Walsh’s opponent in the final election, John R. Connolly, made education his central issue. Walsh responded with his own ideas.

He vowed to hire a schools superintendent by September to replace Carol R. Johnson, who left in August 2013. And he told the Boston Herald he planned to tear down City Hall and sell the prime property to private developers, using the proceeds to pay for full-day kindergarten in the city within three years.

Once in office, the realities of governing slowed, or even derailed, some of Walsh’s more ambitious campaign promises. Walsh extended the search for a new superintendent to attract more applicants. The administration has no plans to tear down City Hall. It launched a 27-member advisory committee to figure out how to implement universal kindergarten by 2018.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio made universal kindergarten a reality in his first year. The Legislature appropriated $300 million, and the city launched a program for 53,000 children.

“Go ask them how it’s going for them right now,” Walsh said. “They’re having issues. . . . We decided, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to pay for this and how we’re going to do this so we can do it right.’ ”

Walsh made clear he had been frustrated by the School Department and cited the student scheduling fiasco at Madison Park Vocational Technical High School and the fight over the proposal to put seventh- and eighth-graders on public subways and buses to save money.

“It’s a disgrace that we don’t have a better school system in Boston,” Walsh said. “I inherited a system that we have to make better. I’m not going to turn the school system around in one night. It’s going to take five years.”

Elected officials are expected to hit the ground running and demonstrate clear accomplishments after their first year in office — at the very time they are learning the job, said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political scientist.

Walsh has had a steady approach to governance, but has not used his first year to articulate a broad vision of what he wants for the city, Berry and others said.

“It’s not clear to me that he’s had any big achievements,’’ Berry said. “He’s kind of an incrementalist — the tortoise, not the hare. One of the drawbacks of that is that events can overtake you before you make your mark.”

Small, who runs the grass-roots group Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said his supporters came out big for Walsh during the campaign, but since the election, the new mayor has not met with him.

“The mayor has not done enough to connect with people on the grass-roots level. He should be talking to everybody, even if he doesn’t like their ideas,” Small said.

Mayor Walsh spoke to inmates in the Boston Reentry Initiative at South Bay House of Corrections on Feb. 26, 2014.
Mayor Walsh spoke to inmates in the Boston Reentry Initiative at South Bay House of Corrections on Feb. 26, 2014.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Some Walsh supporters appear frustrated that the mayor has not moved fast enough to address the lingering effect of crime, such as trauma that plagues many affected by violence.

Immediately after taking office, the mayor met with mothers whose children had been fatally shot. He relaunched a controversial gun-buyback program after a 9-year-old Mattapan boy was shot and killed by his brother.

In 2014, crime declined 4 percent compared to 2013, police data show. But records also show homicides increased from 40 in 2013 to 53 last year.

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, former executive director of the antiviolence group Boston TenPoint Coalition, praised the mayor’s willingness to work with clergy and community advocates to address violence. After protests erupted in response to the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Walsh faced a tense crowd at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury and urged participants to share their grief.

Walsh also called clergy members to his office to meet with top prosecutors to discuss how police are investigated after fatal shootings.

But Monalisa Smith, founder of the antiviolence group Mothers for Justice and Equality, said despite Walsh’s efforts to move violence prevention to the forefront, the mayor has yet to tackle trauma as a critical issue. She said little has been done to assist mothers unable to work after a child’s violent death or to help grieving siblings unable to focus on school.

“When he first came into office, murders were happening. Then, his focus was on getting guns off the street. Now, the focus has to be more about the people affected by the violence,’’ Smith said. “I’m not saying he’s not sensitive to the issue of trauma. I’m just saying let’s make it a top priority.”

Walsh’s latest challenge was the closing of the Long Island Bridge and the hurried evacuation of hundreds of people receiving services.

Recovery advocates blasted Walsh for leaving them without a permanent solution. Homeless advocates criticized him for taking too long to find space and beds for the displaced.

In a December press briefing in the mayor’s office, Walsh sunk into his chair, looking tired and frustrated. He ran his hands through his hair and announced he had found space in an old city transportation building in the Newmarket District to ease the homeless crisis.

When pressed about what he would do about recovering addicts who were displaced, the mayor seemed defensive.

“I have people second-guessing me all day long,’’ he said. “My main concern is making sure we have a safe place for people to be.”

Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said he had been impressed with the mayor’s first year. He noted that Walsh’s decision to postpone the hiring of a new schools chief allowed the interim superintendent, John McDonough, to implement reforms that have given schools more autonomy in hiring teachers.

But Grogan wondered about Walsh’s willingness to fight for his priorities, absorbing dissent for the greater good. In his first year, Walsh backtracked on several issues after meeting resistance. He abandoned a plan to open a homeless shelter in Roxbury. He scaled back an initiative to have middle school students take public transportation instead of yellow buses, and he walked back a proposal to exempt top staffers from the city’s residency requirement.

“There’s a question about what resolve will he have in the face of opposition,’’ Grogan said.

With Walsh’s second year dawning, some political observers said the public is likely to be less forgiving if there is no progress on issues that matter to them.

“That’s when people start to judge you more harshly,’’ said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College political scientist. “He would be at the end of his honeymoon period. You’ve got a year before the problems really become your own.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated who the Rev. Miniard Culpepper campaigned for in black and Latino neighborhoods. He campaigned for Walsh’s opponent, John R. Connolly.