Mayor Marty Walsh has problems right now — the kind that could deny him a third term, if he seeks one.
The last time an incumbent Boston mayor lost a bid for reelection was in 1949, when James Michael Curley went down to John Hynes after spending five months in prison for mail fraud. Even then, it was close.
It seemed like Boston would always be a city where the mayor got to keep his job for as long as he wanted. But we might, just might, be headed into a new era here.
Walsh has had a brutal couple of months. In August, two of his aides were convicted of extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion for trying to strong-arm music festival organizers into hiring union labor. Those prosecutions pale compared to the gobsmacking news, three weeks ago, of a bribery scandal centered on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals. On Thursday, former Boston Planning and Development Agency official John Lynch pled guilty in federal court to accepting a $50,000 bribe from a developer to lobby a board member for approval on a South Boston condo project.
More shoes seem likely to drop; the feds don’t tend to stop at one small fry crook. And Walsh has ordered an independent inquiry. The mayor hasn’t been implicated. But two people close to him have stepped aside. Buddy Christopher, an architect who worked on the condo project, and a trusted aide who has been close with Walsh for decades, is taking an unpaid leave while investigations are underway. And Craig Galvin — a longtime Walsh supporter who hosted a fund-raiser for him in 2015, and whom the mayor appointed to the ZBA — has resigned his post.
It looks awful. And even if it’s not as awful as it looks, the prosecutions won’t help a mayor who strains to avoid seeming like a vestige of an old Boston where connections are all.
As the 2018 primaries showed, many Boston voters want to move on from that culture, and their voice is increasingly powerful. Then-City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s victory over incumbent congressman Mike Capuano revealed new electoral strength in the center of the city — in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain — more diverse, left-leaning neighborhoods compared to traditional voter powerhouses like South Boston and West Roxbury. We’re also seeing the rise of voters who worry more about bike lanes and better policing than about potholes.
Nobody seems to be scared of Walsh the way they were of his predecessor, Tom Menino. That’s a good thing for the city. It’s also a good thing for those who might want Walsh’s job. City Councilor Michelle Wu, who won’t yet say whether she’ll run against him in 2021, has run rings around the mayor on transportation, an issue that is consistently among voters’ top priorities. She also called for ZBA business to be suspended in the wake of the bribery scandal. Council President Andrea Campbell, also a possible challenger, called for the appointment of a city inspector general to root out corruption, a clear shot across Walsh’s bow.
Now, 2021 is a long way off. And Walsh is hugely popular: A WBUR/MassINC poll in June revealed a 70 percent approval rating among Boston residents surveyed. We don’t yet know if recent events, or a credible challenger, will dent that goodwill.
And it’s not clear whether Walsh himself wants to test it. A few weeks ago, the mayor told The New York Times that he would consider running for the Senate if incumbent Ed Markey decided to bow out.
“This idea of being elected and thinking it’s your seat until you leave, that game has changed,” Walsh said.
After 20 years of Menino, who embodied the job and seemed incapable of imagining a life beyond it, the notion that a mayor might think like this is profoundly disorienting.
Of course, Walsh may have no choice. Either way, it’s clear we’re headed for a new day.