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Is black community wavering in its support for Walsh?

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Mayor Martin Walsh spoke at Almont Park in Mattaphan on May 5.David L. Ryan

Martin J. Walsh was propelled into the mayor's office with the help of a diverse coalition, including a large contingent of black Bostonians who responded to his story of triumph over adversity. But as the mayor prepares to run for reelection, the black community is divided about whether he has lived up to his promises, with some former supporters even recruiting candidates to challenge him.

In living rooms and meeting halls in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, some frustrated black residents say the mayor has been slow on matters of income inequality, better-paying jobs, and diversity.

Bob Marshall, a former teacher who campaigned for Walsh in 2013 and even opened his Roxbury home to the candidate, said he believed then that Walsh would push hard to boost teacher diversity and bridge the achievement gap. But Marshall said Walsh's actions so far have been purely "cosmetic."


"I was one of his most passionate supporters,'' Marshall said. "But if the elections were held today, I wouldn't vote for him."

The view of Walsh held by Mattapan matriarch Annie Kinkead is starkly different. She met Walsh for the first time when he was campaigning three years ago. He made a point to stop by her home and make a case for himself. And she has not been disappointed since, she said.

When Kinkead asked for help to fast-track the restoration of beleaguered Almont Park, the mayor delivered. The park now boasts winding trails, walking paths, and sparkling ball fields.

"It was my husband's passion,'' she said. "Now, it's the most beautiful park in the city."

The black community's responses to the mayor come as the local NAACP heads closer to releasing a long-awaited report card on Walsh.

In an interview at a cafe in the heart of Boston's African-American community, Walsh defended his record while acknowledging he has not moved as far as he would like on certain matters, particularly economic development and closing the income gap.


"We still haven't landed that GE" in the black community, Walsh said. "We haven't landed . . . those companies in Roxbury that could provide good-paying jobs so that we truly dive into the income inequality [issue].''

Sensing an opportunity, members of the black community have been courting some of Walsh's key allies to challenge him in the 2017 mayoral contest.

The mayor said he is confident he has the black community's support, and explained that in his first term, he is laying a foundation to boost education and bring prosperity to communities of color.

Walsh listed a series of achievements: diversifying his administration, with blacks in top positions; opening an innovation center in Dudley Square; and making Roxbury the next frontier for major development.

He also hailed the revival of the police cadet program, aimed at attracting a more diverse pool of candidates for the Police Department. The cadet program has recruited 42 potential candidates, including 31 people of color, the mayor said.

To gauge black Bostonians' opinions on the mayor, the Globe interviewed more than four dozen blacks across the city — residents, advocates, and political leaders — and posed a simple question: How is the mayor doing? Responses ranged from appreciation and high praise to frustration and utter disappointment.

When he ran for mayor in 2013, Walsh tapped a wellspring of support in the black community. After the preliminary election, black elected officials and community leaders lined up behind Walsh, helping to deliver heavily black precincts in his victory over John Connolly, then a city councilor. Blacks represent nearly a quarter of the city's population, and while plagued by low voter turnout, the black community remains a vital voting bloc in mayoral contests.


In the November 2013 elections, roughly 58 percent of voters in Roxbury-based Ward 12 cast ballots for Walsh, 17 percentage points higher than for Connolly.

"The election for me was interesting,'' recalled Walsh, during his interview with the Globe, flanked by two key black members of his staff. "The black community did rally behind me. . . . People felt a sense of connection to me, and I felt a strong connection to the black community."

At a February community meeting at First Church in Roxbury, more than two dozen residents and advocates gathered to discuss the mayor, according to four people who attended the meeting. They graded the mayor on issues such as job creation, affordable housing, education, and combatting violence, according to a flier announcing the meeting.

Their assessment: needs improvement.

"People are frustrated because we continue to have the same dialogue about the same issues,'' said Tony Smith, an advocate from Jamaica Plain who attended the Union of Minority Neighborhoods meeting. "The mayor introduced a lot of ideas for the black community. There's [now] a sense that there's not a lot of teeth to it."

Walsh, who came midway through the meeting, highlighted his record and said he needed to get the message out about work his administration is doing, according to the people who were present.


Supporters in the black community praise Walsh for improving city services, being present in neighborhoods across the city, and launching an initiative that steers young people with a checkered past to apprenticeships in the building trades.

"He's building up the community,'' Armory Woumnm said as she ran errands one afternoon in Dudley Square. "He's seeking jobs for people who don't have one, and he's finding homes for people who've lost homes."

Jennifer Charles, a Dorchester resident, said the mayor has established a presence in the black community. "He's doing a great job,'' she said. "There are some things that are missing [in his leadership], but I think there will always be things that are missing [in any administration]."

And Caltor McLean, a businessman in Dorchester's Four Corners, said Walsh devoted critical resources — including staffing and money — to improving troubled Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. And he moved quickly to address a racial crisis at Boston Latin School, McLean added.

"He just jumped right in," McLean said. "He's got my vote of confidence."

But in some corners, disaffection toward the mayor appears to be quietly growing.

Antoine Valbrun, a Mattapan addiction counselor who said he supported Walsh in 2013, said he no longer has confidence in the mayor's leadership, which Valbrun describes as "on-the-job-training."

"He is not leading the city the way he said he would,'' said Valbrun, who did not offer specifics. "I thought he was one of us; that he understood where we are coming from."


Jonathan Jemmott, a 33-year-old Roxbury resident who holds three jobs, said he has not seen much improvement since Walsh took charge.

"Young people still don't have jobs. Older people are looking for jobs," Jemmott said. "I'm not impressed.''

Onetime supporters say Walsh's delay in releasing complete diversity data about the city's nearly 20,000 workers — including the names and ethnicity of each worker — did not bode well. The mayor spent two years rebuffing the Globe's requests for that information, citing privacy reasons. That data had been repeatedly released by Walsh's predecessor. A judge recently ruled that Walsh must make the data public, and the mayor has complied.

The mayor's critics in the black community also said Walsh does not have a forceful African-American advocate from Boston working on their behalf — even if he has succeeded in diversifying his cabinet. They questioned his first pick for diversity chief, the administrator charged with making the city more reflective of Boston's mosaic of communities. Black critics say Walsh's choice for the post, a New Yorker, had little familiarity with Boston or the city's rough political terrain.

The mayor has since appointed Danielson Tavares, his former traveling aide, to take over the position.

Tavares and John Barros — the city's chief of economic development, who is black — accompanied Walsh to the Globe interview. Afterward, they pushed back against suggestions that Walsh lacks influential black advisers.

"He's got more black people in his administration than any mayor in the history of Boston," Barros said. "He's got more black people to make a real impact."

Still, in living rooms across the city, blacks who supported Walsh in 2013 are courting challengers, according to political and community leaders who were present at some of those meetings.

They have scouted for prospects and circulated names, including state Representative Russell Holmes of Mattapan and Roxbury City Councilor Tito Jackson, who has criticized Walsh's record on public education.

Jackson said in an interview that he is focused on his council job. Holmes acknowledged he is being urged to run, but said he has raised concerns about the challenge of fund-raising and mobilizing a campaign to take on the mayor.

"I've been in some of these living rooms and I've been asked on more than one occasion by these groups about whether or not I'll be running for mayor. . . . Clearly, [you'll be] running against an incumbent. My response to all of them is, 'If you go after the king, you have to kill him,' " said Holmes, paraphrasing a popular saying about the wisdom of challenging someone who holds a powerful position.

Fissures in the mayor's ties to the black community came to light earlier this year as Boston Latin School reeled amid allegations of racism. The local NAACP and some black clergy demanded the headmaster step down. The US attorney promised to investigate. Walsh was feeling political heat from the black community to take action.

As outrage swelled, Walsh sprinted from meeting to meeting with black leaders, his private calendar shows.

The toughest criticism of Walsh, even from many of his black supporters, surrounds public education. Barbara Fields, a former educator and onetime ardent Walsh supporter, said diversity and closing the achievement gap are sticking points for her.

Roughly 21 percent of the school district's 4,573 teachers are black — a figure that has remained largely unchanged since the 2013 budget year, according to School Department data. About 35 percent of the school system's 57,000 students are black, the data show.

The city hired an assistant superintendent charged with improving achievement among students of color, but that official does not have a budget or staff. The School Department said the upcoming budget provides money for two additional staff members. But that does not go far enough, Fields said.

"There has to be drastic changes in the action of the mayor in meeting his promises around these two issues,'' she said. "In the absence of that, I couldn't support him" in the next election.

Walsh countered that an independent audit showed his administration has hired more blacks in the School Department in the last year than earlier administrations. And the numbers will improve, he promised.

"We are not where we need to be, but the numbers have gotten better,'' the mayor said. "So we feed off the positives and continue to move that trend. That's going to change the trend moving forward."

Asked how he plans to win back his black critics, the mayor said he is not worried. Internal polling supplied by a mayoral aide shows Walsh's support remaining high in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

"I don't think I lost them,'' Walsh said. "They might be frustrated with what is happening, but . . . I think when they start seeing what this could be [and what's in my plan], they'll understand."

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