Boston, once an Irish American redoubt, is increasingly led by women and people of color
For the better part of a century, the iconic image of a Boston mayor was James Michael Curley — the real-life Irish American who was elected four times as the city’s chief between 1914 and 1946. Think Spencer Tracy in “The Last Hurrah.”
That stereotype may soon be going the way of Boston baked beans and tri-corner hats.
The city is on the cusp of having its first woman and person of color as mayor when current Mayor Marty Walsh becomes President Biden’s Labor secretary, presuming his nomination is approved, as expected, by the Senate. Walsh is the latest in a string of mostly Irish American mayors — all men — going back the better part of a century.
When Walsh leaves for Washington, the mayor’s office for the first time will go on an interim basis to a Black woman: Kim Janey, the 57-year-old president of the Boston City Council. An election this fall will be held to fill the mayor’s post; Janey hasn’t said if she’ll run, but three of the four declared candidates so far are women of color; the fourth is a Latino male.
In some ways, the Boston of 2021 is unrecognizable from the city of just a few decades ago — with hardscrabble neighborhoods that once beckoned working-class immigrants now offering oases for the well-off.
The political shift mirrors what happened when the city’s surging tide of Irish immigrants wrested political control from the Boston “Brahmin” class in the early part of the last century.
The latest shift was foreshadowed in early 2020, when women and people of color first gained a majority on the 13-member city council. Two years earlier, the state elected its first Black woman to Congress, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, another veteran of the Boston City Council.
In retrospect, the transformation seems inevitable given that Boston is now a city whose population is 46% white, 25% Black or African American, 20% Hispanic or Latino and 10% Asian. Fifty years ago, white people accounted for about 80% of the city’s population.
The three female mayoral candidates are all Democrats and current city councilors: Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George. The fourth candidate, who formally entered the race Tuesday, is Democratic state Rep. Jon Santiago.
For Campbell, born and raised in Boston, the inequalities that have divided the city for generations have been reflected in her own family.
Less than a year ago, Henrieta Berzinyte and her husband packed up their lives in Lithuania and moved to a market town near the east coast of Britain with their 3-year-old son.
Campbell attended the prestigious Boston Latin public school and went on to graduate from Princeton University and UCLA Law School. Her twin brother, Andre, struggled, dying in state custody at 29 after spending time in correctional facilities and hospitals.
“There are systems that served me well but failed him and continue to fail thousands of Bostonians today,” said Campbell, 38. “We need a candidate who not only understands these inequities but has lived them.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, housing, schools and the ongoing opioid addiction crisis are just some of the challenges facing the city that demand new leadership, according to Campbell.
“The city is changing because voters and residents are stepping up. The demographics continue to change. We are majority women and people of color,” she said. “Boston is not just ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘The Departed.’”
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Wu, who is both the first Taiwanese American and Asian American to serve on the council, said when she ran for a council seat in 2013, she hoped to double the number of female councilors from one to two, the other being Pressley.
“We’ve seen a rapid transformation of Boston politics,” said Wu, 36. “It’s not just that more candidates are raising their hands to run for office. It’s also that the political ecosystem has completely changed.”
Wu, who was born in Illinois and moved to Boston to attend Harvard University and Harvard Law School, said the pandemic has exposed the city’s divides. She said those rifts run though Boston’s public schools, healthcare system and a stubborn wealth gap.
“We’re still in the midst of multiple interconnected crises,” she said. “Boston is at a turning point.”
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George, 47, is the daughter of two immigrants who settled in the city. Her mother was born in Poland, and her father was an Arab Muslim who emigrated from Tunisia. George, who identifies as Arab American, was born in Boston, grew up in the city’s Dorchester area, taught at a high school in East Boston and owns a yarn shop.
She, too, sees the mayoral election as pivotal.
“Time has presented us with this opportunity,” George said. “Representation matters, and it’s important for residents of the city of Boston to see a reflection of themselves in leadership.”
George, who graduated from Boston University and earned a master’s from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said the city needs to nurture its economic base and neighborhood businesses if it wants to address issues like education and affordable housing.
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The candidates are stockpiling funds. Campbell ended January with $743,000 in her campaign account, nearly the same as Wu, who reported $742,000. George reported $152,000.
John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, is also mulling a run for mayor. Barros is Black.
Black political activists have launched an initiative — dubbed Wakanda II — aimed at rallying voters around a single Black candidate for mayor, according to the Boston Globe. The name is in part a reference to the fictional African kingdom in the “Black Panther” movie.
It’s not the first time a nonwhite candidate has attempted a high-profile campaign for mayor.
In 1983, Black community activist and former state Rep. Mel King launched a bid, losing to Ray Flynn, an Irish American city councilor. In 2017, Walsh defeated then-City Councilor Tito Jackson, a Black man, to win reelection.
Coronavirus concerns have caused Boston Marathon organizers to cancel the iconic event for the first time in its 124-year history.
Boston has undergone earlier seismic political tremors.
In the early 1900s, newly arrived immigrants, particularly Irish Roman Catholics, threatened the grip that Protestants, the Boston Brahmins, had had on the city for generations, hoping to see themselves reflected in City Hall, said Boston College history professor James O’Toole.
“It’s the same kind of basis for the political change that has been going on in Boston for the last several decades,” according to O’Toole, who said the real turning point was the 1905 election of John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald as mayor.
Fitzgerald, the grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, wasn’t the first Boston mayor with Irish roots. But where earlier Irish politicians modeled themselves after the Brahmins, Fitzgerald was a former ward boss familiar with bare-knuckled politics.
The caricature of the streetwise Irish Boston mayor was born — one that would capture the public’s imagination in the larger-than-life figure of Curley, the inspiration for “The Last Hurrah.”
But that was then.
“The place is changing, and I think it would be great for the city. It would be great to have a woman of color as mayor,” said Robert Savage, interim director of the Irish Studies Program at Boston College. “Why not? It’s about time.”
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