With this election, Boston faces another defining moment

It happened previously with John Hynes, Kevin White

ALL ELECTIONS MATTER, but some elections matter more than others. On certain occasions, the outcome of the Boston mayoral election has had an outsized influence on the trajectory of the city. In 1910, John (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald defeated James Jackson Storrow in a close contest, and it really mattered because Fitzgerald’s victory meant the era of the ward boss was back, with all of its petty venality and corruption, paving the way for the rise of the ultimate practitioner of Boston populism, James Michael Curley.

It mattered greatly when John Hynes defeated Curley in his 1949 bid for a fifth mayoral term. Curley offered more of the same, and the same wasn’t working for mid-20th century Boston.  Hynes offered the promise of change, and during his eight years in office he redirected the dying city toward a stronger future. We can look back today with hindsight and legitimately take issue with some of the means and methods used by Hynes, Collins and his extraordinary planning director, Ed Logue, but we can’t put ourselves in their shoes, or understand how close the city came to collapse before these leaders halted its decline.

Kevin White’s narrow victory over Louise Day Hicks in 1967 had massive consequences for the city. Hicks was a deeply divisive political figure, a smart and talented woman who presented herself as determined leader who would resist change during a period of great disruption. She had staked her claim for the status quo in 1963 when, in the same year the racist governor of Alabama famously grandstanded by standing in front of the schoolhouse door in a futile effort to stop the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood, two African American students seeking nothing more than an equal education, she declared, “We do not have segregation in the Boston schools.” This statement flew in the face of the facts: at least 13 schools in Boston had student populations that were 90 percent Black and the city’s expenditure per pupil in those schools was significantly less than the same expenditure in schools with disproportionately White student populations. But Hicks was not to be deterred.

“You know where I stand” was her slogan, at once saying nothing, yet saying everything, for in its purposeful ambiguity Hicks was able to maintain a veneer of gentility while telegraphing that she stood with her constituents against the rising tide of change that threatened their cherished ways of life. “You know where I stand” was code for a lot of things, and there was no misunderstanding what it meant.

Kevin White’s election brought with it a flood of young talent, people who wanted to work for this new mayor and help build a city fit for the second half of the 20th century. The names of talented public servants attracted into government by White is a “who’s who” of those who shaped city, state, and national politics and civic life in the decades following White’s election: Barney Frank, Fred Salvucci, Ira Jackson, Peter Meade, Micho Spring, Bob Kiley, Dave Davis, Al Raine, and Anne Finucane to name a few.

Hicks came close to winning in part because she was riding a wave of anger generated by the confluence of movements and events that made the late 1960s such a turbulent time. Anger moves people. Sometimes anger wins elections. I’ve heard it said that Trump’s victory in 2016 was a “middle finger” by disaffected Americans toward the system that they view as stacked against them. In Massachusetts in 1978, Ed King’s North End coordinator famously explained King’s upset of Michael Dukakis as the result of the campaign strategy to put all of the hate groups in a pot and stir it up.

Optimism also wins elections. Most people are drawn to candidates who express optimism in the future. Franklin Roosevelt shook the nation out of a literal and figurative Depression in part by appealing to the best instincts in people. He spoke plainly and with an uplifting message, reminding the nation in his first inaugural address that “The people of the United States have not failed.”

Optimism was Ronald Reagan’s calling card, his ability in the middle of a difficult economy, and in the aftermath of Watergate, to offer people a vision of a better America, a “shining city on a hill.” His landslide reelection was based on the slogan that it was “morning in America.” Bill Clinton learned that lesson, and his messaging always circled back to an optimistic view of America. He often talked about the inner strength and resolve of the American people. “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” he said in his first inaugural address.

Meet the Author

We are now at the eve of another Boston mayoral election of consequence. History will be made, regardless of the outcome. I have believed that this election would resolve itself by offering voters a general election choice between maintaining the status quo or embracing a more independent, proactive approach to city governance. That indeed is what has occurred – and we will soon find out what kind of leadership Boston voters believe will best advance this city forward as we all emerge from a profoundly disruptive pandemic. Whatever the result (and, in full disclosure, I have endorsed Michelle Wu as my personal choice for mayor) the consequences of this election will be profound.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.