More than almost any other officeholders, mayors of Boston have the power to define their own eras. After decades of decline in the city, Kevin White reimagined it as a metropolis of tall buildings and festival marketplaces. Ray Flynn envisioned it foremost as a place to live, whose neighborhoods, dense with history and passionate identity, were a resource and not a vestige. Tom Menino showed that Boston could be all that White and Flynn wanted, and more. But Menino’s departure, after 20 years, is less a moment for reflection than a chance to think about what’s next — to begin writing a bold new chapter in Boston’s history.
This year’s mayoral campaign has been an unexpected revelation, a demonstration in itself of Boston’s growth and maturity. From all of the city’s communities — its ethnic neighborhoods, immigrant enclaves, health care brain trust, downtown development world, labor movement, and more — candidates have emerged who not only reflect the home-grown values of those communities, but project a larger, more inclusive vision for the city. It’s an outstanding field that, with the help of thousands of Bostonians who attended the many candidate forums, has pieced together something approaching a common agenda. While the candidates don’t agree on all aspects of that agenda — and wouldn’t be equally effective in carrying it out — together they have outlined a blueprint for an era of prosperity that many of their predecessors could only imagine. In this pro-growth future, Boston can leverage its historic institutions and appealing quality of life to make a larger imprint in the world of ideas, business, arts, and human relations. To fulfill this vision, the next mayor must set three top priorities:
■ Increase the pace of reform of Boston schools. The hopes of the middle class and the frustrations of low-income families, caught in the vortex of an achievement gap, come together in the city’s schools. Boston cannot sustain a thriving middle class, or ensure that low-income children will have the chance to reach their academic potential, without more early-childhood education, a longer school day, higher standards for teachers, better-quality principals, and greater after-school enrichment.
■ Build far more housing, especially in the neighborhoods. Boston’s rising housing prices are a serious impediment to economic growth, and the city’s lack of planning and excessive deference to the most outspoken opponents have left too many neighborhoods underdeveloped, lacking both the housing density and Main Street vitality to reach their full potential.
■ Embrace a more innovative, entrepreneurial economy. With a more livable downtown and a more welcoming culture, Boston can attract and retain the brainpower that will fuel tomorrow’s technology-driven industries. By making it easier for all types of businesses to thrive, the city can make every neighborhood more prosperous. And since many key innovators live, work, and go to school in Cambridge, Somerville, and other nearby cities and towns, Boston’s next mayor should take the lead in crafting a regional approach to enhancing growth and opportunity.
Along with these thrusts comes a trove of practical ideas contributed by individual candidates: helping health centers, schools, and libraries work together so that underprivileged kids get the support they need; opening schools at night for community arts shows; creating one-stop permitting for civic events. Whoever wins this election will have a deep pool of talent and ideas to draw from. The spirit of brainstorming and cooperation that has been so evident in the mayoral campaign must carry over into the new administration.
Among the 12 people vying for mayor, all deserve credit for adding to the debate, and as many as nine are plausible candidates to be mayor. But only four — former school committee member John Barros, neighborhood health care specialist Bill Walczak, and city councilors John Connolly and Michael Ross — have articulated the fully developed, all-inclusive vision necessary to lead the city forward.
And of those, Barros and Connolly are best positioned to provide the wide-ranging leadership necessary to bring the vision to fruition. Out of a strong field, Barros and Connolly are the two who should emerge from next Tuesday’s preliminary election to carry the discussion forward in the general election campaign. The Globe is proud to offer them its endorsement in next week’s preliminary election.
Barros, at age 40, has lived a life that would feel familiar to many earlier generations of Bostonians. The son of Cape Verdean immigrants in one of the city’s most troubled precincts, Barros worked his way through Catholic youth groups to Boston College High School and Dartmouth College. In the years since, he has been an insurance underwriter, restaurant owner, school committee member, and founder of a charter school. In 2000, he returned to his childhood neighborhood to serve as director of the acclaimed Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, the landmark effort to empower residents to plan and develop their community. Through a land trust, the Dudley initiative has replaced vacant lots and crumbling properties with more than 200 units of new housing, and helped to turn around a deeply troubled neighborhood.
But none of these accomplishments fully captures Barros’s broad understanding of the city’s potential. He speaks eloquently of the needs of the poorest residents of Boston, but also of how to promote the city globally, thereby generating the resources to elevate all Bostonians. He has stood on the front lines of battles over crime and other neighborhood tensions, including those between native-born Bostonians and non-English-speaking immigrants. He has striven to heal those wounds with a message that stresses the importance of hard work, education, and entrepreneurship. But he knows the city can do more to spread economic development, including the opening of long-clogged transportation corridors and the creation of more neighborhood business districts.
To achieve these aims, a mayor needs a shrewd political sense — which Barros, despite his lack of time in electoral office, has shown on the campaign trail. Electoral experience isn’t a requirement for the mayor’s office, but it’s certainly a plus. Should he make the mayoral final, Barros would have to lay out in greater detail how he would translate his ideas into concrete policies. It helps that Barros spent three years on the mayorally appointed school committee. He says his tenure taught him the need for further reforms of the teachers’ union contract, and he promises to find ways to use existing rules to expand the number of students served by in-district charter schools.
No one, however, understands the difficulty of dealing with the Boston Teachers Union, which has successfully blocked Menino’s efforts to extend the school day, better than Connolly does. He showed the courage to stand up to both the union and the mayor in voting against the most recent teachers’ contract. A gifted and witty “Roslo-American,” as he portrays his Roslindale roots, Connolly, 40, has been an at-large city councilor for six years. As head of the council’s education committee, he understands the centrality of the Boston Public Schools to the city’s challenges better than any other candidate. While many of his rivals sing a similar tune on school reform, only Connolly has put it front and center in his campaign.
Connolly also appreciates the importance of creating more transit-oriented development to strengthen the neighborhoods, and of greater City Hall involvement in the arts to cultivate more vibrant entertainment districts downtown and throughout the city.
His deep roots in Boston politics — his father was the longtime Massachusetts Secretary of State, and his mother is a recently retired judge — can be both a blessing and a curse. While other candidates rose up through the grass roots, Connolly’s path to leadership was easier; his election as mayor would mark a generational shift in City Hall, but he wouldn’t be an entirely new face for the city. Nonetheless, his depth and breadth of knowledge are truly impressive. He’s fully prepared to govern as a dynamic mayor on day one.
The city also owes a debt to Walczak and Ross, each a true candidate of ideas, for adding important dimensions to the race.
Walczak, who has headed the respected Codman Square Community Health Center, created an outstanding charter school, and served as chief executive of Carney Hospital, has been on the edges of Boston politics for almost four decades; he burns with the passion of a reformer who has seen city government up close and knows the flaws that career politicians won’t acknowledge. He’s taken bold stands, rejecting the Suffolk Downs casino in East Boston as a throwback to old, unhealthy ideas about economic development; calling for much tighter coordination between health centers and schools; and taking the unpopular, but entirely justified, position that the city must reassess its change-averse Fire Department.
Walczak has the talent to run City Hall, but his perspective remains that of a Dorchester community activist; he hasn’t yet made a strong enough case for himself as a leader for the entire city.
Ross is, to some degree, Walczak’s complement; the city councilor offers an impressive, sweeping vision of a Boston that moves beyond its parochial grievances to compete with other metropolises for global high-tech supremacy. He rightly points out that Boston’s early closing hours and creaky transportation system are out of step with those of the city’s competitors. Unlike some of his rivals, who vow to break up the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Ross wants to keep it intact, but make it a true planning agency. He argues insightfully that the planning effort behind the redevelopment of the Fenway, in which he was involved, led to the speedy conversion of gas stations and parking lots into gleaming new housing, work spaces, and restaurants — with full community consent.
Smoothly intelligent, Ross has been a perfect fit for his Back Bay and Beacon Hill council district, but it’s harder to say how he’d function outside of his upscale base. To succeed as mayor, Ross would have to persuade neighborhood activists to accept far more development than they’ve wanted in recent years, a necessary goal, but without the local credibility of Barros or Connolly to aid him. That doesn’t mean he can’t make the case — indeed, he’s been effective at delivering constituent services in places like Mission Hill. But just as Walczak seems rooted in Dorchester, Ross seems most at home in his close-to-downtown district.
Three other candidates have made meaningful contributions to the debate and affirmed their own abilities, albeit within narrower frames. Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley has deep roots in Boston politics, having served on the City Council, but he is recognizably a man of the law. He’s been a highly professional DA. If elected mayor, he’d be a credible overseer of both the Boston police and the Fire Department. While most candidates pledge to add more diversity in the upper echelons of the Police Department, Conley’s promise comes with the authority of one who has been intimately involved in police investigations. But when the discussion moves outside of law enforcement, Conley’s campaign starts to flag. He lacks imaginative energy in discussing the schools, economy, or arts scene. Despite his frequent ads — he’s the best-funded candidate — Conley’s efforts have mostly validated his standing in his present job.
In a similar spirit, Rob Consalvo, the district city councilor of Hyde Park and Roslindale, has used his mayoral campaign to showcase his fresh ideas for constituent services — the bread and butter of his current job. Menino built his mayorship on such efforts, so it would be unfair to suggest that Consalvo is running for the wrong office. And his many sharp proposals — from rubberizing sidewalks to prevent cracks, to coordinating stoplights to speed emergency services, to adding more security cameras to high-crime areas — would make meaningful improvements in Bostonians’ lives. But Consalvo also seems to take some of the broader issues — on the economy, or nightlife, or development — for granted, as if the real work of the mayor were elsewhere. He’s more attentive to education, with a smart plan to create more K-8 schools to ease the uncertainty of the school-assignment process, but at times can be too much of a cheerleader for the system. Consalvo is an innovator who deserves a prominent place in the next administration. As a candidate for the top job, though, he’s too satisfied with the status quo.
At-large City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo lived for a time in the Villa Victoria housing development in the South End, and his candidacy for mayor is a source of pride to the city’s growing Latino population. Having worked three jobs to cover his education at UMass Boston, Arroyo innately understands the struggles of poor families, and calls on kids to have the courage to stand up to gangs and drug dealers. A successful union organizer, representing custodians, Arroyo has been a tireless advocate for the working poor. His perspective is unique, but doesn’t, as yet, encompass all of the challenges facing the mayor. At 34, Arroyo isn’t the fully developed political figure that he’s likely to become. He may well be mayoral timber, but for a future election.
State Representative Martin Walsh is not the one-note candidate that he might, at times, appear to be. A passionate advocate for health care and addiction services, Walsh was also a progressive leader of the respected building trades unions. Still, he’s tied his hands in making himself the standard bearer of organized labor.
Despite insisting that he won’t be a shill for city workers, he’s made the clear calculation that a ready-made army of union activists will vault him into the final election, after which he can showcase his affable personality and solid record on Beacon Hill. After Connolly bravely turned down the support of outside school-reform groups, Walsh had the chance to reject the financial support of outside labor organizations. He didn’t.
The next mayor will have to fight for much-needed reforms to what is arguably the most expensive teachers’ contract in the state with one of the shortest days of any urban district, and to a Fire Department that is too big and too expensive. Walsh promises to be tough with the teachers’ union, which has not endorsed him, but offers only the vaguest willingness to study possible changes to the Fire Department, whose all-powerful union, encompassing both commanders and rank-and-file firefighters, has endorsed him.
Former state Representative Charlotte Golar Richie rarely misses a chance to remind voters that she’s the only woman in the race, and that having a black woman as mayor would be a visible sign of change. She’s right about the powerful symbolism of her candidacy, but her actual platform is less forward-looking, and less detailed, than most of her rivals’. She also has the winking endorsement of many in the Menino administration, suggesting that, while she’d be a new face at the top of the administration, the rest of the faces might look quite familiar. Golar Richie is a seasoned veteran of city and state government. She did a solid job as Menino’s neighborhood development chief. But her tenure as a senior adviser to Governor Deval Patrick in his first term received mixed reviews.
In any case, Boston’s advancement can’t be established simply by changing the race or gender of the mayor; it must be by the inclusiveness of the mayor’s vision, and the way all communities of the city rally around it. Such unity is born of conversation — the type of give and take that’s been going on in every corner of the city these past few months as the mayoral campaign has taken hold.
Without an obvious frontrunner, and blissfully free of negative ads, the campaign has brought out the best in its participants. Even the candidates who trail the pack — such as 30-year City Councilor Charles Yancey of Mattapan, who is simultaneously running for re-election to the council; radio-station entrepreneur and former Boston police officer Charles Clemons; and David Wyatt, who joined the nonpartisan race to offer a Republican option — have expanded the sense of possibilities by their presence.
Boston is on the cusp of a new era, and it’s time to embrace it. Out of a very strong field, John Barros and John Connolly both have the broad perspective needed to make the city’s common agenda their own. These are the two candidates who would bring voters, over the next seven weeks, into an uplifting conversation about Boston’s future.