Incumbency, in black and white

Senator Elizabeth Warren greeted City Councilor Tito Jackson Monday during the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast.
Senator Elizabeth Warren greeted City Councilor Tito Jackson Monday during the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Timing is everything in politics, and City Councilor Tito Jackson had to feel pretty good about his timing, announcing his campaign for mayor of Boston last Thursday, just as a long holiday weekend of events honoring Martin Luther King Jr. was about to get under way.

After all, Jackson is a personification of Dr. King’s legacy, striving to become Boston’s first black mayor, or at least the first African-American to get into a Boston mayoral final since Mel King in 1983.

But as the MLK events began to roll by, the daunting nature of Jackson’s task began to take shape.


At an MLK breakfast at the YMCA in Roxbury on Friday, Mayor Marty Walsh was a featured speaker. Jackson was not. As the black city councilor who grew up in Roxbury could only look on, the white mayor who grew up in Savin Hill told the crowd that King inspired him to start a program to get more minorities into the building trades.

Things didn’t get better for Jackson on Monday at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Again, Walsh was a featured speaker, and again Jackson was relegated to the audience.

It got worse when Walsh invited Jackson and other city councilors up on stage for a surprise. Jackson stood there and listened as the mayor announced that he was going to name a street after Mel King. The crowd cheered.

Instead of being an event where Jackson could raise his visibility and viability as a candidate, the MLK breakfast offered Walsh an opportunity to be magnanimous toward Jackson and to single out and honor Mel King, an icon in Boston’s African-American community.

Former mayoral candidate Mel King (right) was honored at Monday’s event.
Former mayoral candidate Mel King (right) was honored at Monday’s event.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A few hours later, Walsh welcomed a standing-room-only crowd to Faneuil Hall for an MLK celebration that featured the magnificent Boston Youth Symphony and a speech by the Harvard scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Maybe Jackson had had enough by then, because when Walsh recognized other politicians in the audience, Jackson wasn’t there.


When Lee Pelton, the president of Emerson College, introduced Walsh as a champion of the people and an “admirer of Dr. King,” the predominantly African-American audience in the Great Hall cheered.

The political wise guys are already saying Tito Jackson doesn’t stand a chance because the $65,000 in his campaign chest is paltry compared to the more than $3 million in Walsh’s. But it’s the privileges of incumbency, so evident at all the MLK events, that puts Jackson at a real competitive disadvantage.

When you’re mayor, you get to put your name on everything, you get to stand on stage and you get to hold the microphone.

When you’re running for mayor, you get to watch.

If Tito Jackson can’t get top or equal billing at the myriad events to honor Martin Luther King Jr., what hope does he have to seriously challenge Marty Walsh’s incumbency?

Walsh and Jackson appear to genuinely like and respect each other. Jackson believes he can do a better job as mayor and says Walsh’s policies are widening the divide between rich and poor, between haves and have nots, in the city.

But how does Tito Jackson get the stage, the microphone, to even make that case?

Donald Trump was able to dispel the idea that you need a ton of cash to get elected, that you can generate free publicity via the news media. But Trump generated all that attention by saying outrageous and offensive things. That’s not a winning strategy for Jackson, or for anybody running for mayor in Boston.


At the end of the Faneuil Hall event, Marty Walsh stood on the stage with six other people of color, clapping, singing some of the spirituals that ring from the city’s great African-American churches every week.

Somewhere else, Tito Jackson could note that it’s only 10 weeks until St. Patrick’s Day, and take strange comfort in knowing that it couldn’t be any worse than the last few days.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.