Boston mayor’s race — in the homestretch

With Boston’s preliminary election for mayor only hours away, a lot remains up in the air. The one certainty: For the first time in the 199 years since its incorporation as a city, Boston is poised to elect a mayor who is not a white man. Five major candidates are vying in Tuesday’s preliminary election. Four of them are women. All identify as people of color. That’s a sea change for Boston. But has the race lived up to its promise of opening a new chapter for the city?

“I think it certainly has,” said Segun Idowu on a new episode of The Codcast. “For me, the great thing about having multiple people of color running in this race means that we’re focused on substance rather than the symbolic nature” of the field. “A lot of the race has been focused on the issues rather than just stopping at the fact that the person will be different.” 

Idowu, the 32-year-old president of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, is part of a younger generation of Boston leaders of color pushing for change in the city. He was joined by Larry DiCara, at age 72 from a very different generation of Boston leaders, but someone who was also pushing the city during his days in politics, including a 1983 run for mayor, to move beyond the parochialism and racial intolerance that had come to define it. 

They found plenty of reason to be hopeful as voters prepare to narrow the field on Tuesday to two finalists who will vie in the November final election. But there are also dynamics at play this year that may run at crosscurrents with all the attention being given to the historic nature of the race. 

DiCara, a former city councilor, was part of another historic contest, the 1983 race that saw fevered energy and grass-roots campaigning across the city, and ultimately sent Ray Flynn and Mel King into the final election. King became the first Black candidate in a Boston mayoral final. 

“I’ve been around for a lot of them and there doesn’t seem to be as much campaigning because of COVID,” said DiCara. “It’s very difficult to, for example, walk into a hall and speak to 500 people and have your three minutes and then go to another place. So the old-fashioned retail politics is more difficult in this environment.”

Though Idowu said there’s been plenty of substance in the race, he would like to have heard more “detailed plans” to help small businesses. For his part, DiCara said there should have been more attention to the fact that “a third of our schools are effectively in receivership,” a reference to the recent moves by the state to assert more oversight over a district with persistently low achievement in a big chunk of its schools.

Polls show City Councilor Michelle Wu with a solid lead, with the race in many ways a scramble for second place, with Acting Mayor Kim Janey and city councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George bunched together, while former city economic development chief John Barros has lagged far behind.

“The real issue is who votes, and the turnout in a mayoral election is about half the turnout in the presidential election,” said DiCara. 

That lower turnout usually skews more towards older, white voters than the city’s overall voter rolls, a pattern that would help Essaibi George, the moderate in the race whose base is primarily in white strongholds in Dorchester, South Boston, and other neighborhoods. 

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“Low turnout always worries me,” said Idowu. “I think about my community, in these preliminary elections our turnout is usually much lower than our turnout for the November elections. And I think for a community that wants to see an African-American in the seat and potentially keeping our current acting mayor in this position, it’s going to be important we do turn out.” 

With Janey and Campbell running neck-and-neck in polls, tensions have mounted between the two camps, and fears have been raised that the two Black women in the race could divide the Black vote enough so that no Black candidate makes the final election. Idowu said that’s been part of the talk in text threads and dinner table conversations he’s been part of in recent days. 

“I think we’ll see a lot of our folks come out for that reason — to try to make sure that an African-American does make it to the top two,” he said. “I think it would be unfortunate if in this historic moment for the city, we come just that close, but don’t actually make it that far.”