Fitting the Boston mayoral race into an historical context

Boston at the close of the Menino era finds itself with a surfeit of candidates and a dearth of critical issues

BOSTON AT THE close of the Menino era finds itself with a surfeit of candidates and a dearth of critical issues. That may be a good thing—many candidates will enliven the public debate and offer voters ample choices, and the absence of urgent ”life or death” issues is a reflection both of Mayor Menino’s stable tenure, and the overall good health of the city. This is not the Boston of 1949, in deep decay and struggling for rebirth. It is not the Boston of 1959, on the cusp of an historic era of rejuvenation thanks to local visionaries like Ed Logue and an historic federal focus on cities. And it is not the Boston of 1983, looking to heal itself after forced busing challenged its cohesion as a civil community.

This Boston is a modern city, a younger city, a place where the sharp divisions that made our neighborhoods insular and often unwelcoming to others no longer exist. Our new civic places—the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the waterfront ICA, the Zakim Bridge, the rejuvenated arts and entertainment district surrounding Emerson College—are symbolic of a more open city, a more edgy city, a more creative city. Read Paul McMorrow’s The New Campaign.The important tasks presented to the candidates, and to the citizen voters, are to understand what trajectory the city is on, assess whether it is the right one, and channel our resources to make this time of transition one marked by real progress.

However one characterizes the challenges and opportunities faced by the next mayor of Boston, they all boil down to the same timeless concern faced by mayors for the past century: how to keep the city viable, which is another way of saying how to take steps to ensure that the city is adaptable to change. In my view, there is an urgent need to develop creative and effective strategies that will ensure social and economic justice in a society increasingly stratified according to those who have too much and those who do not have nearly enough. That requires new investments in, and approaches to, our education system—not just the system that teaches our children, but also the system that re-trains adults to meet the demands of industries that require specialized skills. There is also, it seems to me, an urgent need to reestablish the city’s brand (I think it ought to be as a premier center of innovation across disciplines), not as a marketing ploy but rather to help shape and define the policies that will propel Boston into a stronger position to meet the challenges of a techno-centric era. And there is the need for Boston to determine with a fresh eye where the opportunities and synergies are, and to make investment decisions based upon those opportunities and synergies. This requires leadership that will move away from politically comfortable but economically stagnating “old think.” For example, it may be that that the highest and best use of seaport properties in Boston are for residential and office retail uses, while more commercial and industrial uses should be centered in New Bedford or Gloucester, creating jobs and economic growth for all three cities. Reaching such decisions requires a level of collaboration and planning that only strong and confident leadership can provide. Which of the candidates will be able to break through the cluttered pack to offer a vision that extends beyond the conventional, that opens a new pathway to the future?

We don’t know the answer to that question, nor do we know how this election will conclude, but this we do know: 2013 is a time of change and transition, and it is useful to look back, to understand the lessons history teaches us, and glean durable truths from past experience. Perhaps the most durable truth is that the road to today’s Boston was paved with as many good intentions and rhetorical flourishes as will be brought to this election cycle. In other words, history often does repeat itself.

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. 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 in style—are so stark that it truly matters who wins?

Boston received its direction, built its reputation, and developed its sense of place primarily through the mayors who were elected to lead it. These mayors were men of many different stripes and styles—such different leaders as the methodical, green-eye-shade John Hynes, the aloof and charismatic loner in love with the city, Kevin White, and the urban mechanic Tom Menino. 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.

It really mattered that John Fitzgerald—the fabled “Honey Fitz”—defeated James Jackson Storrow in 1909. The city, for better or worse, was sent on a very different course as a consequence of Fitzgerald’s victory. It also mattered when James Michael Curley began his long dominance of city politics in 1913, pushing Fitzgerald out of politics for good. It made a big difference when John Hynes defeated Curley in 1949—Hynes’s victory enabled the kind of bold thinking that led to Boston’s rebirth. And what would Boston have been like had John E. Powers defeated John Collins, or if Louise Day Hicks had been elected rather than Kevin White? These election results were significant not simply because they were legendary battles between powerful politicians, but because the direction of the city was at stake. Would John Powers, the fabled “Little Napoleon” boss of the State House, have been able to move his oversized ego aside and delegate the rebuilding of the city to a man of Ed Logue’s vast talents? Perhaps, but perhaps not. How would Louise Day Hicks have handled Boston’s deep racial divisions? Would she have navigated the changing social mores of the 1960s and 1970s with Kevin White’s aplomb? We only know how the elected mayors conducted themselves, and all else is speculation—but it is the kind of speculation that informs how we will make decisions in 2013, as we assess the candidates for mayor.

CommonWealth this fall will launch an effort through its online magazine to illuminate the 2013 mayor’s race by understanding how it fits into an historic context. In that effort, I will chronicle critical political transitions in the 20th Century, when Boston grew into an important city of immigrants, a metropolis of over three quarters of a million people at its population height, and then declined, only to renew itself and, in certain respects, reinvent itself as a vibrant urban environment that, in an era cynical about the future of cities, was deemed “livable.” As political theater, the elections of 1909, 1913, 1949, 1959 and 1967 are colorful stories of the rough and tumble of Boston ward politics. But they are more than that. They are windows on the city’s soul during important times, and they provide a unique way to understand where we have been, and where we may be headed.

Meet the Author

The man or woman who takes the helm next January will have a rich legacy to follow. The question is whether that person will have the talent, the character, and the willingness to experiment and take risks that can define the next period in the city’s history. Time will tell. This fall, let’s explore the answer together, as we take a fresh view of the 2013 election through the looking glass of history.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and the author of The Vidal Lecture: Sex and Politics in Massachusetts and the Persecution of Chief Justice Robert Bonin.