THAT BOSTON CONVERSATION about race is about to get super interesting, but perhaps not in the way Mayor Marty Walsh intended. Walsh, who announced the conversations late last year, will face off against one of the city’s more prominent African American elected officials (possibly among others) in his fall reelection bid. District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson announced today he will run against Walsh, who owes his 2013 win largely to votes from Boston’s communities of color. Walsh’s opponent four years ago, John Connolly, actually won the city’s majority-white precincts, according to our post-election analysis.
Jackson’s message at his campaign kickoff and in his introduction video suggested the campaign will include considerable talk of race. Though he focused on the glaring inequalities hidden barely beneath the city’s gleaming exterior, the two issues are too inextricably linked to allow much talk of one without the other. The median white family in Boston holds $265,500 in assets, compared to $700 for black households, and less than $15,000 for Hispanic households, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. As Jackson points out, even life expectancy varies by decades between Boston neighborhoods.
It’s not a foregone conclusion the vote will break down along racial lines, but it’s happened this way in the past. In the preliminary mayoral election in 2013, which featured several black and Latino candidates, the votes broke down significantly along lines of race and ethnicity. If these same divisions persist this year, Jackson, who represents the district with the second-highest concentration of African-American voters in the city, could pry away many of the voters that pushed Walsh over the top in 2013.
The most recent Census figures show just 47 percent of the city’s population is non-Hispanic white. But whites still comprise a slim, 55 percent majority of registered voters. In the 2013 final election, around 60 percent of those casting ballots were white.
This turnout disparity is not unique to Boston. When turnout is lower in a given election, the voters that show up tend to be older, whiter, and wealthier than in elections where it is higher. And municipal elections tend to feature lower turnout, held as they are in odd years and with nothing bigger on the ballot to draw out voters.
Walsh and Connolly drew just 142,000 votes between them, despite running in the first open Boston mayoral contest in decades. That’s a little more than half the 277,000 Boston voters that came out for Hillary Clinton’s shellacking of Donald Trump, even though the outcome in Massachusetts was never in any real doubt.
This numerical advantage is a large part of why two white male candidates finished in the top two spots in the preliminary round in 2013 and went on to vie in the final election. In all, white candidates won 64 percent of the vote in the 12-way preliminary contest. Put another way, Boston’s communities of color don’t pull the weight they could if turnout were more even across the city.
Even if Jackson wins over a large chunk of white voters with a message focusing on inequality, he faces long odds simply because of the strength of incumbency in Boston politics. Boston has a decades-long tradition of returning incumbent mayors to office—the last time Boston voters ousted a sitting mayor was 1949. And Walsh is sitting on a 56 to 1 advantage over Jackson in terms of cash in the bank.Nobody has released public polling on Walsh in a while, so it’s hard to know for sure how popular he is at the moment. Our 2015 polling on the Olympics indicates that issue hardly made a dent in his favorable ratings, which could pose a challenge for a candidate trying to rehash that controversy, as Jackson seemed to poised to do. Walsh’s own internal polling has suggested he is in a strong position, but it’s just that – internal polling. And there was no race underway when the most recent polls were taken.
Of course, all this assumes that Walsh and Jackson are the only two candidates running. Adding another candidate could scramble the map further, creating new fault lines by neighborhood and demographics. But for now, it’s Jackson vs. Walsh, with Walsh looking like a pretty heavy favorite. If he wins reelection, however, it seems pretty likely the map will look different than it did last time.