Boston gets first 'real' mayor's race in 20 years

State Rep. Martin Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly took the top spots in Tuesday night's preliminary round for the Boston's mayor's race. The current mayor, Thomas Menino, is stepping down after two decades.

Elise Amendola/ AP Photo
Boston mayoral hopeful Martin Walsh gestures to supporters as his girlfriend, Lorrie Higgins, center, applauds at his preliminary election night party in Boston, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. The top two vote-getters in the preliminary election move on to compete in the final election Nov 5.

The two candidates emerging from Boston’s preliminary mayoral election on Tuesday now face the task of bolstering their support before the final election Nov. 5.

State Rep. Martin Walsh came in first Tuesday with 18.5 percent of the vote, while City Councilor John Connolly came in a close second with 17.2 percent. The two finalists beat out 10 other candidates.

The key now is for the candidates to differentiate themselves and win over the voters they didn’t get the first time around, says Erin O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. (Professor O’Brien has done policy work for Mr. Walsh, though was not a member of his political team.)

The November election will be the first "open" one for Boston mayor in two decades. Boston does not impose term limits on mayors, and incumbents are rarely defeated.

“This election is a new start button. We haven’t done this in 20 years, and the city has changed dramatically in terms of demography,” O’Brien says.

Mayor Thomas Menino shook up the city’s political scene in March when he announced that he would not seek a sixth term as mayor.

“What makes this election so big and so important is that after two decades of Mayor Thomas Menino, his trusted leadership, we are stepping into a new era,” Walsh told supporters late Tuesday night, according to an Associated Press report. “We recognize the next 20 years will be different from the last – new problems, new opportunities, and new challenges.”

Walsh’s campaign gained a large amount of momentum from the labor community. The candidate comes from a family of union members, and Walsh served as a labor official before he was elected to the Massachusetts House in 1997. During his campaign, Walsh has also mentioned his battle with cancer as a young child and his struggles with alcoholism as a young adult.

By Sept. 15, almost $2 million had been spent on behalf of Walsh – a figure that exceeded what any other candidate had spent, according to The Boston Globe. The $2 million included $1.3 million from Walsh’s campaign, which received $385,000 in direct contributions from labor unions and political committees. Firefighters unions alone contributed $46,500, and outside groups that are associated with organized labor spent an additional $700,000.

In contrast to Walsh’s blue-collar background is that of his opponent, Mr. Connolly, who is the son of former Massachusetts Secretary of State Michael Connolly. In his speech Tuesday night, the younger Connolly acknowledged that his privileged background was not reflective of most people's experiences growing up in Boston. 

"I received the best this city had to offer, but I was always mindful that so many in our generation did not," he said. The candidate said he grew up in a very different Boston that was "deeply and bitterly divided along class and race lines," a reference to the aftermath of court-ordered school desegregation in the 1970s.

Connolly built his campaign on promises to fix Boston’s schools, a cause that helped him to mobilize frustrated parents of schoolchildren.

He was notably the only candidate to launch his campaign before Mr. Menino announced he would not seek reelection, which gave him an early advantage in fundraising. By the end of the preliminary election, his campaign ranked third in spending. 

Connolly's campaign used almost $1.2 million, and an education reform group spent $64,000 more on his behalf. Connolly has asked that education reform group, as well as all other outside groups, not to spend money on his behalf, though he still accepts their endorsements.

The pool of 12 mayoral hopefuls in Tuesday’s election reflected an increasingly diverse fabric of the city: Five of the candidates were African-American, and one was Latino. Boston has never had a nonwhite mayor.

However, there was some disappointment that the final two candidates are not representative of the city’s demographic shifts.

“There wasn’t one minority [candidate] that folks coalesced around,” says O’Brien of the University of Massachusetts. The third-place finisher, Charlotte Golar Richie, is an African-American woman, but she announced her candidacy at a later date and had a hard time playing catch-up.

Walsh and Connolly are both of Irish-American descent, and the election of either will return the city to a tradition of Irish-American mayors dating back to the early 20th century. Menino was Boston’s first non-Irish mayor to be elected since 1930.

Ms. Golar Richie, the third-place finisher and the only woman in the race, received 13.8 percent of the vote. Suffolk County district attorney Daniel Conley came in fourth, with 11.3 percent.

Four candidates – City Councilor Felix Arroyo, political newcomer John Barros, City Councilor Robert Consalvo, and City Councilor Michael Ross – were tightly bunched, with between 7.2 and 8.8 percent of the vote, according to The Boston Globe.

The only Republican mayoral candidate, former schoolteacher David Wyatt, received approximately 334 votes. Boston has not had a Republican mayor since 1926.

Turnout in the election was low: Only 113,222 ballots were cast, representing 31 percent of Boston’s registered voters, according to the Globe.

One key to success in the Nov. 5 election may be persuading voters to go to the polls.

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