His last, best moment came a year ago, when he scored a 31-point victory in a reelection campaign against a weak opponent.
Ever since then, it has been downhill for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
The latest jolt comes as Michelle Wu, an at-large city councilor, challenges Walsh’s plans for a swath of public land located along the Southeast Expressway. Walsh wants to sell the 18-acre property, on Frontage Road, and turn it over to a private developer, probably for a soccer stadium. Up until now, Walsh’s plan was coming together the old-fashioned way — with backroom maneuvering and little public debate. Then Wu came up with a novel idea: Let’s calculate how to use this public land to achieve the greatest public good. And let’s hear what the public has to say about it.
Meanwhile, Wu is going public with her concerns, a big deal for Boston. Not long ago, incumbent mayors got what they wanted with little resistance. But today, there’s something in the air. And it’s not just the weed Walsh would prefer not to see sold in Boston neighborhoods. It’s change. For centuries, Boston has been what essayist Elizabeth Hardwick described as “a specially organized small creature, with its small creature’s temperature, balance and distribution of fat.” Today, as that small creature morphs into something entirely new, Walsh looks more and more old school.
Since beating challenger Tito Jackson in 2017, Walsh’s finger hasn’t exactly been on the pulse of change. Candidates endorsed by Walsh in the 2018 election lost — most famously, Ayanna Pressley beat longtime incumbent Michael Capuano, Walsh’s choice, to become the first African-American woman representing Massachusetts in Congress. And Walsh not only endorsed Capuano, the mayor’s political machine was also set up to help him on Election Day. So much for Marty’s power and influence.
You can dismiss Pressley’s 17-point victory as a lesson in learning that one politician’s popularity is not necessarily transferable to another politician. But Walsh’s judgment has been off on other matters that have to do with the city’s shifting power base.
Boston parents were so unhappy about Walsh’s pick for interim schools superintendent that that interim, Laura Perille, was forced to announce she isn’t a candidate for the full-time job. Just as with development issues, the mayor forgot to ask the people of Boston what they wanted for the schools attended by their children.
Walsh’s hiring of Carlos Henriquez, a former lawmaker who was convicted of punching a woman who refused to have sex with him, turned out to be another major mayoral misfire. The outcry over the decision to put Henriquez in charge of neighborhood safety led the mayor to change his mind and un-hire him. Walsh is also caught in the political crossfire between his new police commissioner, William Gross, and the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit against the police department concerning how it identifies alleged gang members. Old-school police thinking is running up against liberal activism. If Walsh is positioning himself as a national voice for urban progressives, old school is not the side he should choose in this battle.
Polls will no doubt show that Walsh’s favorability numbers are fine. And given the talk that he might run for governor or US Senate, his ego is fine, too. But what about his listening skills? Will he pay attention to activist groups invited by Wu to show up for Thursday’s hearing on the Frontage Road property? Will he hear what people say if they want more than a soccer stadium?
If he rams this through old-school style, the downhill slide continues.
He won’t look strong. He’ll look vulnerable.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.