For Janey, opportunity knocks
Boston’s acting mayor occupies an enviable political perch
ON SUNDAY, a day before she shattered twin barriers in becoming Boston’s acting mayor, Kim Janey poked some fun at herself during the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, the city’s annual political roast that went virtual due to the pandemic.
Before crowning herself with a tiara, Janey said, “I will not let being mayor go to my head.”
In fact, she already has, and who could blame her?
Janey, who took the mayoral reins by virtue of her position as city council president when Marty Walsh resigned Monday to become US labor secretary, plans to hold a swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, despite no provision in the city charter for an acting mayor to take an oath. And Tuesday’s Boston Globe featured a farewell message from Walsh alongside an op-ed by Janey vowing to implement an ambitious agenda that takes on systemic racism and police reform while addressing long standing inequities in workforce, housing, and education policy.
But no one thinks Janey is mapping out a caretaker’s plan for the period from now until the November election, during which she’ll serve as acting mayor. These look instead very much like the opening moves of a run for a full four-year term as mayor this fall, a campaign in which Janey would enjoy tremendous advantages against an impressive field of fellow mayoral hopefuls.
Voters will cast ballots in a September preliminary election, with the top two finishers advancing to the November election where Walsh’s replacement will be chosen.
Janey has been coy about any plans to enter the mayor’s race, which already has five declared candidates, saying she’ll make an announcement in the coming weeks. But everything from a flurry of fundraising emails to a transition website that doubles as campaign donation portal points to her candidacy. And it’s a race for a nominally open seat in which she’ll be the first among equals.
“There is no chance that she doesn’t run, and she’s an instant frontrunner,” said one City Hall insider.
Even in the role of acting mayor, Janey has made headlines as the first African American and first woman to hold the position.
But the city has yet to elect a person of color or woman to be mayor. That’s a point the five people already in the running — all of whom are candidates of color and three of whom are women — no doubt want emphasized, even as they are careful not to take away from the significance of the moment.
It is “an incredibly exciting day and time for the city,” said City Councilor Michelle Wu, who became the first candidate to enter the race back in September, when Walsh was still expected to seek a third term. Wu said she and Janey have yet to speak since Monday night’s official hand-off of power, but they “exchanged text messages with lots of emojis of excitement.”
State Rep. Jon Santiago tweeted congratulations to Janey minutes after the Senate vote to confirm Walsh. “I pledge my full and enthusiastic support as she begins the work of transition and leading our city,” he wrote. It almost read like a concession speech following a hard fought campaign. But Santiago, in fact, just launched his campaign for mayor, and will soon be vying against Janey — should she enter the race.
What makes the mayoral transition unusual — and puts candidates and other civic leaders in an awkward position — is that the pivot to the task of governing usually comes after an election, a time when rivals and supporters of other candidates often offer encouragement or even advice to an incoming administration. In this case, however, Janey is starting the business of governing at the same time that the mayoral campaign — with her presumed imminent entry into it — is beginning.
Boston-based political strategist Wilnelia Rivera said the announced mayoral candidates are all trying to “thread a needle,” acknowledging the historic nature of Janey’s role as the first woman and first person of color to occupy the mayor’s seat, while trying to keep voters focused on the election ahead.
“They want to celebrate this woman as a bridge” to an important moment in the city’s history, Rivera said. “But it’s not going to stop them from campaigning to be the next mayor of Boston.”
Rivera, who worked on Janey’s previous council campaigns, said there are lots of people in Greater Boston, including some who are on various transition advisory committees Janey has formed, who share Santiago’s supportive sentiments without that signaling an election endorsement. “Right now I’m for Kim in the sense that I want her to be successful as she gets in there,” Rivera said, describing the attitude of many. “But then later on I’ll decide who I’m going to be with in the mayor’s race.”
That’s a distinction that may not always be entirely clear. Janey’s transition website, which lists transition committee advisors, is paid for by her campaign, and signing up for updates on the site generates an email soliciting campaign donations.
Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the Boston NAACP, is serving as co-chair of Janey’s transition subcommittee on education, but said she is not committed to any candidate in the mayor’s race.
Others serving on Janey’s transition have donated to other candidates. Linda Dorcena Forry, a former Dorchester state senator who is now an executive at Suffolk Construction, serves as a transition committee co-chair, but donated $500 last month to City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who announced her run for mayor last fall.
A lot can happen between now and in the fall elections. But those who have watched city politics for a long time say Janey would quickly become a good bet to land one of the two spots in the November final election were she to jump in the race.
“She can be a solid acting mayor and be basically the front-runner,” said Larry DiCara, himself a former city council president.
Ed Jesser, who served a close advisor and confidant to Tom Menino during his 20 year run as Boston mayor, was even more blunt. “If she’s breathing, she’ll be in the final,” he said of Janey.
Jesser knows as well as anyone the advantages that accrue to an acting mayor. The template for a Janey run from her new position is Menino’s 1993 rise from council president to mayor when then-Mayor Ray Flynn resigned to be US ambassador to the Vatican.
When Menino took office as acting mayor in July of that year, Jesser said he was polling third or fourth in the mayoral race, which began months earlier when Flynn first declared he would accept the overseas post.
A few weeks after becoming acting mayor, Menino announced a freeze on water rates, the one major executive action he took before the September preliminary election, and quickly moved into the lead. “Two weeks after we froze water rates the race was over, and he wasn’t in any kind of political trouble for 20 years,” said Jesser.
Menino won just over a quarter of the vote in the eight-way preliminary, but finished first. He went on to win the final election by a nearly 2-1 margin over state Rep. Jim Brett.
Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a veteran Boston political strategist, said Janey will enjoy huge benefit from “the free advertising allotted to an acting mayor” through media coverage. Ferriabough Bolling’s late husband, Bruce Bolling, who held the same Roxbury district council seat as Janey, vied against Menino in the 1993 race and found out how hard it was to gain traction against that advantage.
“Things literally changed for Menino overnight once he became acting mayor,” said John Nucci, a former city councilor who entered the 1993 mayoral race but wound up dropping out and running for reelection to his council seat.
He said someone campaigning from the acting mayor’s perch has the best of both worlds as a candidate, something that will be even more true because of Janey’s pathbreaking profile. “You have all the perks of incumbency yet you get to run on the platform of change,” Nucci said of Janey. “It will be almost impossible to call her the status quo.”