Inertia is a powerful force in Boston politics, and it may explain why Mayor Martin J. Walsh is floating above all opponents in this year’s mayoral race.
Boston has had just four mayors over the last 50 years — fewer than any similar-sized city during that same period. And not one of the Hub’s four most recent former mayors lost a bid for reelection. In fact, the last time any challenger defeated an incumbent mayor was 1949.
That’s quite unusual among big cities, and some might even see it as good news for Boston. A lack of turnover in Boston’s City Hall could be a sign of rare competence — or at least an absence of obvious incompetence.
One possible reason for the longevity of Boston mayors is a relative lack of incumbent-drowning scandal. Our capital city has been spared the spectacle of public flagellation that has sunk other big-city leaders. Think former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry’s drug use, or the recent charges of sexual abuse that just forced the resignation of Seattle mayor Ed Murray.
It helps, too, that the city’s economy has fared relatively well in recent decades, and that there are no term limits for Boston mayors.
But these sorts of explanations only take you so far. Consider them one by one.
It may be true that no recent Boston mayor has been brought down by scandal, but the Walsh administration has had its share of close calls, including questions about his involvement in an extortion case that has led to the indictment of two aides (both have pleaded not guilty, and a trial is scheduled for January).
As for term limits, Boston is hardly the only place that lets mayors keep running for office. Chicago and Washington, D.C. do as well, and in those cities, incumbents sometimes lose.
The “good economy” explanation won’t do, either, since we’ve had our share of ups and downs along the way. When New York hit bumps during its return from the dark 1970s era of fiscal crisis and government ineptitude, mayors sometimes paid the price. Three-term mayor Ed Koch lost a primary challenge in 1990; his rival, David Dinkins, only lasted one term.
After the Boston busing crisis in the mid 1970s, Mayor Kevin White stayed in office for another decade, winning reelection twice more until he left office in 1984.
In Boston, it seems like new leaders enter when old mayors cede the field — and not before. And the fact that other cities see more turnover makes it hard to rule out some kind of local complacency.
Boston politics just doesn’t seem to generate enough interest or attention, leaving challengers struggling to get their message out — and giving incumbents a huge advantage in name recognition. The fact that we hold our mayoral election in low-turnout off-years only exacerbates the problem.
If history is any guide, Walsh is likely to continue to cruise to reelection — not just this year, but for many elections to come.
In fact, if he follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, his long tenure won’t end until 2034 — when today’s babies are midway through high school.