‘I truly want to make Boston better,’ Walsh says ahead of annual speech
He won’t claim the “urban mechanic” label once bestowed on the late mayor Thomas M. Menino, known as the Mr. Fix-it of government services. Nor is he seeking to emulate Raymond L. Flynn’s “mayor of the neighborhoods” approach to the job.
As he heads into his sixth year in office, Mayor Martin J. Walsh says that residents can decide how to characterize his legacy. But rather than settling on any one theme or agenda, Walsh says he’s laying out his efforts to fine-tune municipal government, such as maintaining Boston’s bond rating and streamlining the city’s permitting process and constituent services.
They aren’t the high-profile policy areas that lead to memorable monikers, but, Walsh said, they are what the job demands.
“I truly want to make Boston better,” he said in an interview in advance of Tuesday evening’s State of the City address, his annual opportunity to make his case for his accomplishments and lay out his ambitions for the year ahead.
“We’ve had some successes. We’ve had some bumps in the road that I think we’ve learned from,” he said. “And I think that we’re looking at, ‘how do you kind of relaunch Year Six with fresh ideas,’ and try and in some areas look around and see what we can do to better deliver services to the city of Boston.”
The speech, according to his office, will touch upon ways to boost the middle class; job training programs; initiatives for elderly residents; increased support for the homeless and those struggling with addiction; and new resources for first-time homeowners.
His theme in his speech, if there is one, he says, is that, “in five years together, we’ve made Boston a more compassionate city, a more dynamic city, a more democratic city.”
Walsh’s first term included some notable stumbles, including the bungled Boston 2024 Summer Olympics bid and the failed attempt for a Grand Prix race in South Boston. But in November 2017, voters gave Walsh a commanding endorsement for reelection with 66 percent of the vote.
At last year’s second-term inauguration, Walsh vowed to continue to combat the opioid crisis by rebuilding the Long Island Bridge to develop a “comprehensive, long-term recovery campus” on the island. Quincy officials have opposed the bridge, and it could take several years before the work is complete.
In September, Walsh announced that the city would sue drug manufacturers who pushed prescription painkillers. A recovering alcoholic, Walsh in his first term created the Office of Recovery Services. “That office is saving lives,” he said.
Walsh laid out a resiliency strategy in October intended to protect the city’s shoreline developments and neighborhoods from sea level rises caused by climate change, though that process could take years and would need the financial support from the private sector.
He begins his sixth year looking for a new schools superintendent after parting ways last year with Tommy Chang, whom he had hired in 2015 after a national search. All the while, newly emboldened and progressive city councilors have increasingly challenged Walsh from the left on policy issues, including lobbying regulations and green energy initiatives.
Sitting in his City Hall office last week, the mayor ticked off what he sees as his successes. The city is financially sound with a AAA bond rating; the administration saw a $21.2 million budget surplus in the last fiscal year; the pension system is healthy.
Overall, violent crimes are down, though the murder rate has held steady. After years of debate, the city is slated in the coming weeks to roll out a police body camera program; the mayor said the administration is still negotiating the terms of the program with the officers’ union.
The mayor said the city will soon unveil updates to a Carbon Free Boston initiative to reduce emissions. Already, the city has participated in an autonomous vehicles program, and a plastic bags ban spearheaded by the City Council went into effect in December.
The mayor pointed to the city’s efforts to protect the environment as one way that local municipalities must take action, to address the lack of support from the Trump administration in Washington, D.C. He said he would make that point in his message.
“It’s really talking about what’s happening in Washington, and how cities need to step up in a lot of those spaces,” he said, adding, “It’s a speech that any mayor across the country can give.”
Walsh acknowledged that more work needs to be done, for instance to solve an affordable housing crisis and to fix the school system.
But he pointed to investments of more than $300 million to build and renovate schools, and a campaign to build libraries. He cited previously announced plans for the new, state-of-the-art Boston Arts Academy.
The State of the City address coincides with the rollout of the administration’s legislative agenda for Beacon Hill.
Those proposals include a request to levy higher fees on ride-hail companies such as Uber and Lyft that contribute to traffic on Boston’s streets and an initiative that would protect seniors from housing displacement caused by rent hikes.
Walsh, a former state representative, has had few successes in garnering support for some of his bigger policy visions at the State House, such as increased education funding, a housing package, and new funding mechanisms to support universal prekindergarten programs.
He expressed frustration with state requirements that Boston needs approval from the Legislature to carry out much of its own policy agenda.
“Other cities don’t have to do that — it gives them the ability to be creative and not be dependent on state aid for education and some other things,” he said. “A lot of tools we’d like to have for the city, we don’t have.”
But the mayor also expressed confidence that a new law to fix the state’s school funding formula that he and a coalition of mayors have proposed will clear the Legislature this year, amid growing support from the Beacon Hill leadership.
He also added, “It will be interesting to see what the themes of this legislative session are,” and if there are ways that the city can benefit. Senate President Karen Spilka has indicated she will focus on environmental affairs, he noted. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has spoken in support of early education.
And the theme for the Walsh administration?
“I don’t have a theme,” he responded, before pausing: “It’s everything, my theme is everything.”