It seems that many Bostonians have lackluster interest or are oblivious to the Sept. 14 preliminary election for mayor of Boston, which is just a few weeks away. This sense is consistent with numbers from the two most recent preliminary mayoral elections, which attracted just 14 percent of registered voters (2017), and 31 percent (2013).
Of the two, 2013 is the better comparison, since it featured a race to fill an open seat (Tom Menino decided not to run) and attracted a dozen candidates. The 2021 election is more like an open-seat election because Kim Janey became the acting mayor just a few months ago, in March, when Mayor Marty Walsh went to Washington to be US Secretary of Labor.
Janey has been a district city councillor representing one ninth of the city over the past three and a half years, and, therefore, has limited recognition across the city. Also, as an “acting mayor,” she has limited mayoral incumbency.
Incumbent mayors almost never lose elections in Boston. This is because our city has what is called a “strong mayor” charter, which gives nearly all governmental power in Boston to the mayor. This includes the power over the Boston Planning and Development Authority (BPDA, formerly the BRA), through which most development in Boston occurs. As a result, incumbent mayors are able to generate millions of campaign dollars. Walsh had more than $5.1 million in his campaign fund when he left for Washington, a formidable sum. By comparison, the leading candidates in fundraising for mayor this year have raised about $1.3 million each.
The power of the mayor also results in the inability of challengers to incumbents to raise significant money. In his 2017 race, Tito Jackson, who had $55,000 in his campaign account before announcing that he was running for mayor in January 2017, saw his fundraising plummet following his announcement.
Donations to political candidates are reported and put online through the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, so a donation to a candidate challenging an incumbent mayor becomes public quickly. As a result, those who do business with the city are often reluctant to be seen opposing an incumbent mayor by donating to a challenger. At the end of June 2017, the middle of the campaign season, Walsh had 40 times the dollar amount Jackson had to fund his campaign.
The last time an incumbent mayor of Boston lost an election was in 1949. In that instance, James Michael Curley, running for re-election following his release from a federal penitentiary, lost to John Hynes, who had stepped down as an acting mayor following Curley’s release from prison.
Based on Boston history, whoever gets elected mayor this year will likely serve until he or she decides to leave office or dies. But that’s not the only reason to vote this year.
The mayor controls both the budget for the city, and how tax dollars are used, a power that determines whether our schools will succeed, how essential services are managed, how corruption is dealt with, how the thousands of city employees are managed, and how and where capital dollars are spent. Additionally, questions about the city’s preparations for global warming, how we deal with infrastructure needs, and how the city reacts to future economic shifts, will be in the hands of whoever gets elected.
Low-turnout elections leave the selection of who will deal with these matters in the hands of a small number of voters, who usually are those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
In the preliminary election in 2013, Marty Walsh came in first with 20,854 votes. In the final he faced off against the candidate who came in second, John Connolly. As the number of registered Boston voters at the time of the preliminary election was 368,207, Walsh became a finalist for mayor with the support of just 5.7 percent of the city’s registered voters.
The preliminary election on Sept. 14 will go a long way in determining who gets to be mayor. A field of five substantive candidates, representing many varied interests and ideas, will be winnowed down to two individuals. The field of five comprises some who represent change and others who represent the status quo. Each has views on our property tax rates, on how development happens in Boston, how municipal agencies are managed, how the schools are run, how to manage the pandemic, how to deal with global warming, transportation, parks, and the tree canopy, and many other issues of importance.
Don’t let a few voters with vested interests determine what happens in our city over the next decade or more. Get your mail-in ballot by calling the Election Department at 617-635-8683 and requesting one.
Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident who ran for mayor in 2013.