Editorial: Ballot check: Whites loom as swing voters in mayoral race

There are six accomplished people— each of them with compelling stories, resumes, and achievements— in this current field of candidates running for mayor of Boston in the fall.

Between them, your mayoral candidates have walked the halls of Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Smith, and Dartmouth. Teamed up, they can sue you and stitch you up and give you counsel and write a law for you in six different languages. Take a step back: This is an impressive field. 

It’s notable, too, that after centuries of white political dominance in this city, there is to date not a viable white candidate in the mix for mayor. And it looks fairly certain that the ballot will remain that way.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Nick Collins went public with his decision about running for mayor: He’s not going to do it. Until this week, Collins was the only white candidate with a reasonable shot of winning who was still publicly mulling a run. With the senator sitting this one out, it’s now nearly assured that for the first time since the city was incorporated in 1822, there won’t be a white man in the field looking to be mayor of Boston.

What’s notable about not having a white contender in this race? It’s tempting to say, simply: Not much. Or, ‘Who cares?’ But that’s a cavalier attitude that diminishes the gravity of the moment. We’re talking about Boston— a city still caked in the muck of bad-old-days busing imagery in the eyes of much of the nation. The place where ad execs and movie producers can’t fathom casting anyone but shamrock-tatted white boys who drop their Rs and pound Sam Adamses while searching for an ahhht museum to heist. 

Sure, there are probably some old-school white Bostonians who are low-key depressed that none of their blood relatives are on the city ballot for the first time since the Monroe administration. If you know people suffering from this pathetic malaise, tell ‘em to cheer up, enjoy the break, and look on the bright side: Your cousin won’t be forcing you to walk the Bunker Hill parade this summer. You can take an extra day or two down the Cape.

Jokes aside, there’s a dynamic to this race that will be new and fascinating to many of us who’ve been observers or participants in the Boston political scene. For the first time, white voters will be a swing constituency that could end up tilting the mayor’s race in a head-to-head contest in November.

Think back to 2013, when Marty Walsh and John Connolly carved up the predominantly white precincts in the city in the September preliminary. The November battlegrounds were in Ward 14 and 17 and 18— largely Black constituencies. They broke for Walsh, effectively delivering the fifth floor at City Hall to the man who is now the US Labor Secretary.

As we look ahead to the fall run-off, could an inverse scenario play out among the finalists for the ’21 mayor’s race? Will largely white enclaves in places like Neponset and West Roxbury and Brighton and South Boston be the swing vote? It seems likely from this vantage point that they will. A candidate who covets the Curley desk will need to court these neighborhoods and speak to their issues. 

There’s a lot of campaigning ahead of us, but all Bostonians should marvel at where we’ve come from and where we find ourselves at this moment in time. It wasn’t long ago that the “Black vote” was the subject of snickers and eye-rolls from politicos in this town. They’re not laughing so loud anymore. We’ve come a long way, baby.

  – Bill Forry

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