The race for mayor: Past is prologue

First in a series

The history of any city is a patchwork quilt of events, mismatched pieces that often bear no relation to one another but nevertheless come together to tell a story about a place and a time and the people who inhabited it. We are challenged to place those events in a coherent context as we attempt to understand and learn from history. The lasting memories of Boston – the memories that form the idea of Boston in the minds of many people – are often mingled with superficial understandings of the city’s history, but they are formed nevertheless on the basis of essential truths. And I think it is difficult, trying to understand Boston, to fit the pieces together neatly, because Boston is a city with multiple personalities.

The contradictions span the centuries. This bastion of Puritan values was also the hotbed of revolutionary fervor. This capital of an elite Yankee aristocracy was also the place where ward boss politics became the stuff of legend. This refuge for immigrants leaving famine and failure for a better life in a strange world was also a place of ethnic and racial intolerance, discrimination and division. Over time these contradictions blur in our collective memory, and somehow become reconciled, connected through a rich and colorful story of transitions. There are many stories that can be told about Boston, many voices echoing through the years, many transitions pushing the city toward its next iteration.

I begin today a series that attempts to understand and inform this year’s transition – the transition from the Menino era to a new political regime – through a chronicle of certain political transitions in the 20th century, when Boston grew into an important national city. The series will recount tales of Boston’s historic 20th century elections and identify issues that presented themselves to voters in those years, trying to find similarities or differences with the issues that present themselves to us today.

After nearly 200 years operating under a town form of government, Boston officially became a city on February 23, 1822. Boston voters will be electing their 48th mayor this year. In a political environment as vibrant as Boston’s, it is no surprise that the city received its direction, built its reputation, and developed its sense of place in large part through the men who were elected to lead it. Boston’s 20th century mayors held, with few exceptions, singular political power in the city. Through their personal beliefs, and ideologies, they moved the city in directions that, for better or worse, determined whether Boston would survive as a vital, viable urban center. They each fought hard to become mayor, and the great election contests of the last century are worth remembering not merely for their colorfulness, but also for what they say about the city and its people, and the issues we have faced and continue to face.

Throughout most of the last century, elections for mayor of Boston were high-pitched battles that pitted political factions and the neighborhoods they represented against one another. Five of those elections were critical milestones, elections where it truly made a difference which candidate won, and when the city, as a consequence of who was elected, was led in a specific and eventful direction. Those elections took place in 1909, 1913, 1949, 1959, and 1967. This doesn’t mean that other elections, or other mayors, were not important. It is simply my view that these are the elections that mattered most.

Are there lessons embedded in those elections that we can learn from, that can help inform the election of 2013? Will 2013 be another watershed moment in Boston’s history, where the differences between the candidates in the general election – differences in vision, in focus, in background and style – are so stark that it truly matters who wins? Or is this a transitional election, offering a choice among candidates who are not deeply divided in their policies or their views about governing, who once elected will not introduce transformational change to the city, but rather be a bridge to what lies ahead? Do Boston voters want a steady-as-she-goes approach, a sixth Menino term without Menino? Or do we want a new leader who will shake up the status quo?

This series, Boston: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, will look at those key elections and personalities in order to identify recurring themes and issues that resonate through the decades, and inform or enrich our thinking today. It is a personal view, informed by my own study of history and my experience as a lifelong city resident, community activist, and public official.

Meet the Author

We have much to learn from our past, and we ask the same questions that our predecessors asked as they, too, thought about how to assess Boston’s viability, how to define our aspirations for growth and prosperity, how to close the ever-widening gap between those who have too much, and those who have no hope. As we choose the leader who will guide the city into this still new century, let us consider together the questions posed by the poet Adrienne Rich in her collection, An Atlas of a Difficult World, questions that resonate with a particular urgency: “Where are we moored? What are the bindings? What behooves us?”

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.