In a city moving loudly to the left, Walsh often stays in the middle
At the national level, top-tier Democratic candidates for president have espoused some of the most liberal campaign platforms in decades. And in Boston, officials have pushed for unprecedented progressive initiatives — from charging fees for car usage to massive tax hikes on high-end real estate deals.
And what of Martin J. Walsh, the second-term mayor?
He’s listening, he said. Things don’t happen overnight. But he wants to collaborate.
“We want to continue to push the agenda, and continue to have our agenda pushed by people,” Walsh said in a recent interview.
Roughly 19 months after voters gave him a commanding reelection win, though, the mayor has, in many ways, lingered in the quiet middle as members of his party and other city leaders have loudly moved left, according to a Globe review of Walsh’s initiatives.
At a time when the City Council has been its most aggressive in recent history, Walsh has played catch-up in policy areas ranging from the environment to transportation and education.
Amid a booming economy, the administration has the day-to-day operations of city government in check: Crime is historically low, parks are clean. On housing, Walsh is on track with his ambitious goal to build 70,000 new units to contain prices, one of the most pressing and intractable problems in Boston. And the mayor has taken some dramatic stands in response to President Trump, as in 2017, when he vowed to use City Hall as a shelter to protect immigrants who are “targeted unjustly” by the administration.
But Walsh has been slow to take bold steps, if he is willing to take them at all, when it comes to addressing other significant problems confronting the city.
One of the mayor’s top policy initiatives, for instance, funding universal high-quality pre-kindergarten, was announced in early April — six years after Walsh named it a priority in his first mayoral campaign. Meantime, New York City and Philadelphia have implemented universal pre-kindergarten; Walsh says it will take up to five years before the program goes into full effect in Boston.
There have been hesitations on public safety, with the delay in implementing police body cameras. (About 200 officers started using them this month.) The mayor has pulled back on efforts for education reforms, such as changing school start times, and the city only recently named a new superintendent following a nine-month search that was criticized for its slow pace.
On the environment, the mayor established a Green Ribbon Commission in 2016 that this year recommended initiatives for the city to meet its goals of going carbon-neutral by 2050. The mayor balked at some of the recommendations, such as imposing congestion fees.
And on transportation, traffic has consumed parts of Greater Boston, with no urgent answer from the city.
One telling example: Councilor Michelle Wu recently called for the city to charge fees for residential parking stickers, as a means to tackle the traffic that paralyzes the city each day. Wu said paid permits could motivate residents to “think about their car usage and their parking decisions differently . . . it all has to be on the table.”
Walsh quickly dismissed the idea, calling it an ineffective additional tax, and said city government has minimal power to control traffic, anyway.
“How could a mayor have a plan, where would you find that? Seriously, tell me where?” he asked the Globe editorial board in April. “People will have cars. What am I supposed to do, stop them? This is a tough issue, I know it is. We’re in the midst of one of the best economic booms in the history of our city, and unfortunately one of the downfalls to that is traffic, and I don’t know what the plan can be.”
The mayor argued that he had already increased parking meter rates, which he said is a proven way to reduce congestion. Otherwise, he said, his efforts have been more focused on changing the culture of transportation in the city, by encouraging residents to ride bikes and pursuing efforts to improve transit safety.
But Boston has been behind Everett in looking at expanding the MBTA’s rapid bus transit. And the mayor was among the last to speak out against controversial MBTA fare hikes that will take effect this summer.
Only this past week, after another MBTA train derailment brought the Red Line to a halt, did the mayor cite the “point of urgency” for reforms and investments, including, potentially, raising revenue locally to improve train service.
Meanwhile, councilors have spearheaded and passed some of the city’s most ground-breaking initiatives, such as regulating short-term rentals, to help confront the housing crisis. The mayor’s proposal for municipal lobbying reform went nowhere, and the council ultimately passed its own version; more than 200 lobbyists have since registered with the city.
While the council has always had at least one vocal member willing to push the mayor from the left, this group, at least compared to its predecessors, has been more successful in carrying out such an agenda.
“We recognize we have the ability to step up a little bit more when it comes to leadership,” said the council’s president, Andrea Campbell, noting the council has been responding to voters’ demands to be bold in light of the tumult in national politics. “You’re seeing us being bold and courageous, even if we’re the ones taking the first step.”
Councilors were the first to propose the city’s wetlands protection ordinance, which could become law this year, and they’ve pushed for programs such as curbside composting and carbon-neutral construction — initiatives the mayor said he will now consider. Walsh recently approved a community choice energy package, allowing local account-holders to purchase green energy. But the council had been pushing it since 2017.
Last year, a ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect in Boston — an initiative led by Councilor Matt O’Malley — after the mayor begrudgingly signed it into law, citing concerns about its cost.
Following the legalization of marijuana, the city has yet to develop a comprehensive social-equity system in a burgeoning industry. And a recent review of $646 million in city contracts found that fewer than 1 percent went to minority or women-owned businesses. Again, it was the council that pushed to make that data public.
In an interview, Walsh recognized the electorate’s calls for leaders to be more bold, saying people are fed up with government in a time of national unrest.
“I think there are people pushing us that we’re not going far enough, and I agree and I appreciate that as well,” he said.
But he also stressed the complexity of running Boston’s government, saying the city is hamstrung in what it can do in many ways: a lack of federal funding and policy support from the Trump administration; a state system that requires legislators to approve many local laws; no authority over the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Anyone can propose a policy. Effecting change as mayor is different, he said.
“We all want instant gratification. . . . On anything we want, we want it today. I want it today,” he said. “But you only have so much to expend upon it, and there are so many other aspects of government.”
Some advocates said the mayor can still do more, arguing that the administration could capitalize on a pivotal movement in Boston politics in which people are calling for change, and lead the calls for reform.
Jesse Mermell, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, said the mayor has begun to make substantive progress on transportation, but added, “I dream of what could happen if he doubles down.” She said, for instance, that other places, such as Seattle and the Washington, D.C., region, have led the way in improving their transportation systems.
“He has the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office . . . he has a ton of influence with the [state] administration, the business community, with other stakeholders,” she said. “We’re all saying transportation is a crisis and we need to do something. Shame on all of us if we don’t seize that moment and do something big and bold.”
Others added that the administration could do more on environmental matters — an issue Walsh has called a priority in his second term.
Deb Pasternak, chapter director for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said the city has laid out plans, such as the Carbon Free Boston report, but officials need to start taking action on those plans. She called on the city to do more to promote carbon-neutral building.
“It requires bold steps now, and the mayor is yet to start implementing them,” she said.
Walsh said his administration has pushed in areas where it can, setting realistic goals.
The mayor has proposed a plan to protect the city’s shores from the effects of climate change. That includes elevating roads in vulnerable neighborhoods, encouraging green development, and expanding parks so they can absorb rising waters; he pointed to the new Martin’s Park and plans for Moakley Park as examples. But the plans also need outside funding and cooperation from the private sector.
Affordable housing, the gentrification of neighborhoods, and the displacement of residents remain citywide concerns, even as Boston experiences its greatest building boom. Several advocates, such as Mermell, praised Walsh for his effort to address a crisis that preceded his administration, for instance by calling for a partnership with surrounding municipalities to create a regional approach to the housing shortage. The mayor has accelerated the development of nearly 70,000 housing units in Boston, including about 20,000 for low-income families.
And still, councilors have gone further, pushing to tax high-end real estate deals and urging the city to demand more in mitigation payments from developers.
The result is an administration that, analysts say, has failed to secure big, defining victories in any one policy arena but, by the mayor’s own admission, has instead been built on fine-tuning the general mechanics of city government, while riding the tailwinds of a booming economy.
Political observers say that Boston voters demand more, and they made their feelings known at the ballot box last year.
In Jamaica Plain, Nika Elugardo ousted a veteran state representative, Jeffrey Sánchez, the highest-ranking Latino in the Legislature and a Walsh-backed candidate, by running to his left on issues such as immigration.
Most notably, Ayanna Pressley staged the state’s political upset of the year by defeating longtime congressman Michael E. Capuano, who also had Walsh’s support. Pressley, the first black woman from Massachusetts elected to Congress, ran under the slogan “Change can’t wait.”
Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the city’s electorate has been moving to the left at a time that Walsh has been trying to build relations with Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican.
That could backfire: Baker, for instance, has proposed significant changes to the education funding formula that sharply differ from Walsh’s plans, and wouldn’t really benefit the city at all.
“I think it raises questions, maybe ones harmful to [Walsh’s] ambitions,” Cunningham said, noting questions about Walsh’s aspirations for higher office, including governor. “He doesn’t have to follow the left crowd, but he has to show leadership on these issues; these are issues that are concerning Democratic activists in the state.”
Walsh welcomed the push from advocates and the councilors, saying he tries to work with them. He argued that his predecessors were equally criticized for not collaborating enough.
“Legislative branches should work like that,” he said. “We may not necessarily agree on all the things that are filed. . . . But that’s good government. That’s about conversations.”
As mayor, Walsh said, his duty has been to build consensus in all corners of the city. He called Boston a leader in certain arenas, including addressing homelessness and promoting gender equality. He argued that what the city has been able to do so far to address climate change and the housing crisis has made Boston a national model, even if he acknowledges the city needs to do more.
In the meantime, Walsh’s other second-term proposals included building more schools (the Dearborn was completed, Boston Arts Academy is under construction, and the Eliot is being expanded); raising more funding to address homelessness and to help city students pay for college (a multiyear plan); and rebuilding the bridge to Long Island (it’s been funded and set in motion, though it’s been snagged in the permitting process amid opposition from Quincy).
His initiatives may not always be “sexy, and don’t get headlines,” he said, but he described them as essential to good government.
“Different people have different concerns and understanding on how we move forward,” Walsh said, referring to disparate visions for the city’s future. “But at the end of the day, it’s one big visionary plan on how we move forward.”