In ’83, the impact of the mayor’s race ushered in a progressive era of power sharing and racial reconciliation.
Nearly two centuries ago, Boston elected Hugh O’Brien, its first Irish Catholic Mayor. That watershed election started a transition of city leadership from the Yankee Brahmins through the votes of recent immigrants who were becoming a force among the populace.
Could such a dramatic transformation of the city’s “governing class” occur again?
This year, Boston will face its most important election in modern history. Its crossroads: whether to continue a structure of top-down governance largely in place since the early 1990s or expand representative government that prioritizes democracy over political ascendancy and cherry-picking of social and economic issues that carry more rhetoric than weight.
Upon incorporating Boston in 1822, John Quincy Adams expressed concern for placing too much power in the mayor’s hands. It is “susceptible to corruption.” His fears were realized in 1909, when city government was restructured to consolidate primary functions and oversight with the mayor. That system defines the status quo today, and the policy’s consequences have had a historically negative impact on democracy and racial and gender equity in Boston.
These issues will be front and center during this election cycle. On one front, for decades, frustration over an inadequate share of goods and services procurement has greatly concerned people of color and women who own businesses. Other topics in play include the failure to sufficiently address social justice issues like police reform and the many racist’s names on public buildings.
As things currently stand, optics suggest a political realignment will occur. But having a racially diverse mayoral field does not necessarily increase the probability of electing our first woman or person of color as mayor.
For example, in 2013, Boston’s most diverse field of candidates for mayor up to that point resulted in an all-white-male final (Marty Walsh vs. John Connolly). While that scenario is highly unlikely to repeat, some variation of the sort could favor another white male’s continued presence in this general election, despite the increased diversity of the city’s population.
While the prospects of that outcome may be uncertain, the absence to date of a notable white male in this race might suggest a capitulation to demographic trends. Hopefully, it may signal a willingness to negotiate equity rather than fight against it, but it is logical to conclude that a candidate will emerge to represent traditional Bostonians’ interests, the kind that reject the new trend and pace of reform.
Should this occur, the inevitable polarization between races could reconjure the environment of the mayoral in 1983 between Boston City Councilor Ray Flynn and former state Rep. Mel King. Fortunately, despite the loss by King, the residual impact of that race ushered in a progressive era of power sharing and racial reconciliation; for example, appointments by Flynn including Boston Housing Authority Administrator Doris Bunte, Personnel Director Roscoe Morris, Executive Secretary Margaret Morrison, Police Superintendent William Celester, and Department of Neighborhood Development Executive Director Charles Grigsby, to mention a few. Not only did they represent racial diversity, but also a diversity of thought and talent.
Unfortunately, none were retained by the following administration, ending the brief era of progressivism. That pace and authenticity of municipal reform has not been seen since. Looking ahead, what is most certain is that without substantive charter reform, the next mayor of Boston may be from a different race, creed, or gender than previous leaders, but their progressivism may not extend far beyond their rhetoric. The current crop of candidates comprises, with exceptions, hopefuls who have worked in a city government that has maintained the inequitable distributions of resources and opportunities, so running on their records may be problematic. The existing Boston City Council has behaved more like an appointed body than an independent elected one.
As always, time will tell, but, at least, we must be pleased that there is interest in the possibility that genuine democracy and equity can exist in Boston, and that officeholders’ tenure in government may once again be described as “terms in office,” not “reigns.”