In Boston, identity politics have been such a powerful influence in local elections that candidates have literally changed their identities. Early in his career, future US House Speaker John McCormack rewrote his family history to better align it with those of the local political bosses and to erase any hint of Protestantism. Among other revisions, his Scottish-Canadian father and Boston-born Irish-American mother became Irish immigrants. He was inspired in part by John Way, a Yankee Democrat who repeatedly failed to win office despite running on a staunch pro-Irish-Catholic ticket.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Louise Day Hicks, William Bulger, and others updated identity politics in Boston. Hicks gained popularity as a defender of working-class white interests against desegregation and what she called “civil rights infiltrators.”
And in 1983, the only time a black candidate made it to the final round of a Boston mayoral contest, an electorate sharply divided on racial lines handed Ray Flynn a landslide victory over Mel King.
This is not just history. At the State House today, senators and representatives from majority black and Latino communities tend to be black and Latino, while South Boston sends Beacon Hill its Irish and East Boston its Italians. The Boston City Council is another clear case in point, with districts represented along predictable racial and ethnic lines.
In a few weeks, when Bostonians go to the polls to narrow the field of candidates to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino, they will have a chance to break this pattern. With a diverse set of candidates to choose from, this is the city’s opportunity to transcend identity politics in its highest office.
Consider Felix Arroyo, whose Puerto Rican background has not been an obstacle to gaining an at-large seat of the City Council. A longtime community organizer with strong labor ties, he has the right profile to draw from racially varied unions, not just Latinos.
Or how about John Barros, who got a late start in the campaign but has attracted attention for his distinctive background — nonprofit executive, restaurateur, school committee member — and courtship of young professionals, a group that tends to be more diverse than the rest of the workforce. Barros knows that it will be tough to win as a black man, but his solution isn’t to double down on his base. He is looking to cross lines of race and ethnicity and so is focusing on constituencies united more by shared experience and cultural norms than by traditional markers of identity.
Yet there is reason to believe the voters, and candidates, will bungle this opportunity.
At the rally for Trayvon Martin in Roxbury on July 14, candidates Charles Yancey, Charlotte Golar Richie, and Charles Clemons spoke and listened. But no white mayoral hopefuls joined them at that gathering of hundreds, where black Bostonians spoke passionately about racist local policing, among other topics that should concern the next mayor.
Recent surveys show that white candidates are dramatically outpacing nonwhites in fund-raising, a reflection of the class dimension of identity politics, as white candidates draw on their wealthier neighborhood bases.
And nearly 60 percent of decided voters answering a late-August poll said they planned to support a candidate of their own race, compared to 31 percent who said they did not.
That correlation between voters’ and candidates’ races would tell us less if the field were smaller and more ideologically wide-ranging, with competitors championing distinctive policies and noticeably different priorities. Instead, with so many in the race and so much accord — although none of the candidates share identical platforms, the differences are subtle, and there are always several in agreement on any given issue — the unique visions of the candidates are hard to discern, forcing voters to distinguish among the candidates some other way.
For now that way appears to be the established politics of identity. But it doesn’t have to be. There is still time for the candidates to set out individual agendas and give the voters more, and perhaps better, reasons to support them.
Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.