Hearing draws support for scrapping special election for Boston mayor
Session on home-rule proposal turns testy with NAACP president attack on Edwards
CITY COUNCILORS HEARD broad support on Tuesday for scrapping a possible special election for mayor in Boston, as the city prepares for the expected departure of Mayor Marty Walsh.
A long line of speakers addressed an online council committee hearing on a home-rule petition that would waive a provision of the City Charter requiring a special election if Walsh resigns in the next few weeks. Virtually everyone who testified over the course of the hearing, which stretched more than four hours, voiced support for a proposal to do away with a possible summertime special election, which would have to be followed by another mayoral contest during the regularly scheduled municipal election in November.
‘’Having multiple elections for the office of mayor in the same year in the midst of a pandemic is a serious threat to the health of our residents and communities,” said City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, sponsor of the proposal. “It will certainly contribute to the disenfranchisement of people of color, the disabled, and low-income communities, and would be wasteful and a costly expenditure for the city at a time when our revenues are down.”
Walsh has been tapped by President Biden to serve as his secretary of labor. He is waiting for a Senate confirmation hearing and vote.
Arroyo and a list of backers that includes everyone from Gov. Charlie Baker and Secretary of State William Galvin to grass-roots community groups across Boston argue that it makes little sense to hold a special election, which is likely to have a lower turnout than the regular fall election and would subject voters and poll workers to added risks from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Wide agreement on the merits of the proposal was overshadowed at times, however, by sharp criticism directed at City Councilor Lydia Edwards, chair of the committee holding the hearing. It was a jarring scene amid today’s heightened focus on race issues, as Edwards, an African-American district city councilor, was accused by the president of the Boston NAACP of trying to silence the voices of other women of color on the council.
The tension centered on a legal opinion issued last week by the City Council’s attorney suggesting that the two council members who are already announced candidates for mayor and the council president, Kim Janey, who will become acting mayor when Walsh leaves, were barred by state ethics rules from voting on the home rule proposal.
Edwards, who chairs the Government Operations Committee responsible for reviewing the proposal, sought the legal opinion last week. She said at the start of Tuesday’s hearing that she has tried to handle the home-rule proposal in a way so that any action taken by the City Council would be done “without question” of its propriety.
But the legal memo issued last Friday has instead generated strong blowback at Edwards, with Arroyo faulting its legal reasoning and Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan leveling a particularly pointed attack on her during Tuesday’s hearing.
The legal memo concluded that the two city councilors who have already announced runs for mayor, Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu, as well as Janey could not participate in hearings on the proposal or vote on it because they have a financial stake in the issue it addresses.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Janey said she also reached out to the State Ethics Commission and was also told the conflict law did not apply to her taking part in the discussion or vote on the proposal. She read from a follow-up letter she received from the commission’s assistant general counsel, T. Michael McDonald. “As we discussed, this issue will not raise any issue for you under the conflict of interest law,” McDonald wrote, pointing to the home-rule exemption in the law.
Sullivan called the council’s legal memo “a complete misread of the law on its face,” and said it was being used to “chill progress” on the home rule and to “oppress and subjugate” the three councilors whose participation it addressed.
“My heart is breaking having to acknowledge this overt attempt to misuse the law to silence the voices and neutralize the power of the women of color who have declared their candidacy for mayor and the black woman who will become acting mayor,” Sullivan, who is black, said in the hearing.
Campbell and Janey are black. Wu is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants.
“This is a grave injustice and it must be corrected. We clearly have a long way to go on this road toward freedom, justice, and equality,” said Sullivan. “I want representative government, I want representative leadership, but I want most responsible leadership.”
Edwards took issue with the idea that she had done anything other than seek an legal opinion in order to approach an important issue carefully.
“I hope no one questions my intentionality when it comes to women of color, to black women,” she said. “I am telling you what was in my heart and in my mind when I asked the question.”
She said she now accepts the view that there is no conflict of interest in any councilors voting on the issue. Edwards said her council colleagues “went to the highest source on this” by seeking the opinion of the State Ethics Commision. “They have spoken.”
Lee Nave, a community organizer with the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, testified in favor of the home-rule proposal. But he decried the attacks hurled at Edwards. “More shade than you could find under a weeping willow tree in Savannah, Georgia, in July has been thrown,” he said.
Edwards scheduled another committee meeting for Friday to finalize language of the home-rule petition, which she said should then be ready to go to the full council for a vote next Wednesday. It would then need to be signed by Walsh and sent to the Legislature for approval by the House and Senate and then to the governor for his signature.
In the Merrimack Valley, Lawrence just went through a similar exercise with the resignation earlier this month Mayor Dan Rivera. A home-rule petition from the city council to waive a required special election and instead elect a new mayor in the fall was quickly approved by state leaders.
Questions have been raised in both Lawrence and Boston about changing election rules in the midst of a transition, with declared and potential candidates who could be hurt or helped by the decision.
Janey, a Roxbury district councilor who had not previously signaled any designs on the mayor’s office, says she’ll consider making a run now that she’s about to become the city’s first woman mayor and first black mayor. Janey could benefit from the move to waive a special election by having several more months as acting mayor to burnish her profile and have voters become comfortable with her in the city’s top job.
But she voiced no apprehension at Tuesday’s hearing about voting to scrap a possible special election. The idea of holding a special election is “at best foolish and at worst dangerous,” Janey said. “The only disagreement I have heard are from individuals on this body who seemed more concerned about perceived advantages or disadvantages for councilors who may run than the disenfranchisement of voters, or the health risk due to COVID, or the financial cost or the instability to our city. Ultimately, our focus must be what’s best for the residents we represent and serve and not what will help or hurt” any candidates.
City Councilor Kenzie Bok said, after weighing all the considerations, she’ll support the home-rule petition to waive the special election. But she suggested that no one should be blind to the political realities at play.“When we focus on the candidates and their interests, of course we see all kinds of mixed political motives. Those are definitely operating and I don’t understand the instinct to silence those concerns, because I think they’re real dynamics, I think they’re out there in the public conversation,” she said. “So I think we have to be honest. This helps those candidates who are just starting to contemplate a run, that our charter sets up a real pro-incumbency bias, and that there are therefore issues with having an acting mayor who can also be a candidate.”
Bok said it’s better to “put those things on the table in the light of day and say, yes, those are considerations, but let’s turn to the question not of the perspective of the candidates, but the question of the voters. For the voters of Boston I think it’s the better call to cancel the special.”