The mantra in Boston mayoral races: lean left

Tough terrain for a ‘progressive’ challenger

TITO JACKSON’S biographical campaign video ends with a bold declaration appearing on the screen, one he has used to frame his insurgent campaign: “Tito Jackson. The Progressive Choice for Mayor.”

The Roxbury city councilor has backed up the claim at every turn, starting with his campaign kickoff speech in January, where he portrayed inequality in Boston as the central challenge facing the city. He has pounded away at the theme in the months since then, highlighting what he says is the underfunding of a school system attended primarily by lower-income minority students, and decrying the impact of a real estate boom that is pricing those of modest means out of the city.

Tito Jackson’s biographical campaign video positions him as the progressive in the race.

Jackson’s embrace of a full-throated liberal agenda matches up well with the political pulse in Boston — but it’s not doing much to jump-start his underdog campaign.

That’s because the incumbent mayor he is trying to topple wears the progressive label nearly as well as his challenger.

Asked about Jackson’s claim to be the progressive choice in the race, Marty Walsh ticks off his own progressive credentials with the ease of someone who has become well-accustomed to the drill. There was a crucial vote in the House of Representatives against the death penalty, a stand that put him at odds with many constituents in his Dorchester district of the late 1990s, he says. The vote to preserve gay marriage – and the lobbying of wavering colleagues to do the same. Votes in favor of three different tax packages in the Legislature and support, he says, for “every workers’ rights bill that came down the pike.”

Once in the mayor’s office, Walsh has touted his plan to build 53,000 new housing units as a way to address the city’s housing crunch, and efforts like the city’s new Office of Returning Citizens, which will work to connect those released from incarceration with education, employment, and housing opportunities.

There are all sorts of reasons why Walsh enjoys a whopping 30 to 40 point lead in recent polls. The longstanding power of incumbency in Boston mayoral races — it’s been almost 70 years since a mayor was turned out of office — has only been strengthened by the heightened role of money in politics. If the battle for campaign funds were a boxing match, the ref would have stopped this bout months ago, with Walsh sitting on more than $4 million to Jackson’s $25,000. But those considerable advantages aside, it’s just been hard for Jackson to win over more than a slice of the city’s progressive electorate in a campaign against an incumbent who passes enough of the liberal litmus test for many voters.

There are, to be sure, differences between the candidates that position Jackson to Walsh’s left. Jackson slams the city’s use of tax incentives to woo General Electric to relocate its corporate headquarters to Boston, and he says he would require more housing units for lower-income residents than the Walsh administration in new development projects. He says the city is dragging its feet in adopting a policy to have police officers wear body cameras, and points to a recent NAACP report that gave Walsh’s first term poor marks on a range of issues, including diversity in the fire department and teaching ranks and the quality of public education.

But none of this seems to be putting a significant dent in Walsh’s support among progressive voters – and the organizations and politicians they often take cues from.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorses Walsh earlier this month at Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

In recent weeks, Walsh has been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a rock star in liberal circles nationally; Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts; and JP Progressives, a Jamaica Plain activist group in what has become the city’s most left-leaning neighborhood. (Jackson did beat Walsh there in the September preliminary, but he got swamped most everywhere else.)

Walsh won an open race for mayor four years ago, narrowly defeating then-city councilor John Connolly. He capitalized on endorsements following the 12-way preliminary race from three minority mayoral candidates, which not only helped him in predominantly minority neighborhoods but also seemed to boost his progressive standing among white liberal voters. A crucial endorsement in the campaign’s closing days came from Mel King, an iconic figure in black politics and progressive circles in Boston who became the first minority candidate to make it to a mayoral final election when he squared off in 1983 against Ray Flynn.

One good turn: Walsh leans in to greet Mel King earlier this month at King’s 89th birthday celebration. King delivered a crucial endorsement to Walsh in his 2013 campaign that gave him a lift in the city’s black community.

As the 1983 race to replace the retiring Kevin White got underway, many observers expected David Finnegan, a former school committee president and radio talk show host, to grab one of the two spots in the final election. But King and Flynn, both backed by progressive activists calling for a greater neighborhood voice in city government, were the top two vote-getters in a crowded preliminary election, catapulting them into the final, which Flynn won by a wide margin.

Since that time, it has become increasingly clear that success in a Boston mayoral race means appealing to an increasingly liberal-leaning electorate.

A 2014 study by political scientists Christopher Warshaw at MIT and Chris Tausanovtich at UCLA provides evidence to support that. They analyzed policy positions of voters in the 51 US cities with populations greater than 250,000 and ranked Boston the fifth most liberal city in the country, outpaced only by San Francisco, Washington, DC, Seattle, and Oakland.

“When I ran in 1971, no one would have predicted how liberal the city would be a generation or so later,” said Larry DiCara, a former city councilor recalling his first campaign for office.

The city’s political orientation today bears little resemblance to the Boston of the 1960s and earlier, when the Catholic Church held great sway over City Hall as well as decision-making on Beacon Hill. Huge churn in Boston’s population and demographic make-up since then, with the increases in its minority population and a steady influx of educated professionals, has shifted the center of political gravity well to the left.

That’s made it hard, DiCara said, for challengers to find an opening against incumbent mayors in recent years. “There’s no room to their left, and there are not a lot of votes to their right,” he said.

Earlier this month, while Jackson was screening his campaign bio video at the start of a town hall with voters at Copley Square church, Walsh was a few blocks away at a restaurant fundraiser billed as “LGBTQ for Walsh.”

Walsh has been a stalwart ally of the gay community. In so doing, he has not broken the mayoral mold as much as continued it: Tom Menino’s workaday Hyde Park ways belied a similar strong loyalty to what has become an important constituency group in city elections.

A steadfast ally of the gay community: Then-Mayor Tom Menino and “Hat Sisters” John Michael Gray (left) and Tim O’Connor (right) at a 2003 fundraiser for Fenway Health. (Photograph by Marilyn Humphries courtesy of Fenway Health)

Jackson takes issue with Walsh’s claims to be a steady progressive voice, knocking him for teaming up with big business on initiatives that the challenger says would not necessarily improve life for average Bostonians. “Olympics is not progressive,” Jackson said following his recent town hall session. “IndyCar is not progressive. Giving away $25 million to General Election and proposing a helicopter pad – those do not sound like progressive mantras.”

Jackson also hit Walsh over ethics problems in his administration. “Federal indictments are not progressive,” he said, referring to two City Hall aides awaiting federal trial on corruption charges.

Jackson has also trained his sights on the working of city government, saying he would dismantle the recently created Boston Planning and Development Agency to make it more responsive to residents, and  push for a return to an elected school committee. Other challengers offered similar critiques during Menino’s reign, but these “process” issues rarely seem to gain traction with the electorate.

Meanwhile, Walsh occupies a spot that is political gold in Boston these days – a prominent perch from which he can regularly denounce President Trump, who is viewed in the city about as favorably as a loud-mouthed Yankee’s fan at Fenway Park.

Walsh has used his platform to slam the president’s policies on immigrants, going so far as to say he’d open up City Hall to shelter those fearing federal deportation.  On women’s reproductive rights, the perceived threat from the Trump administration pushed the state’s Planned Parenthood chapter to throw its support behind Walsh, the organization’s first endorsement ever in a Boston mayoral race.

“We endorsed in a mayoral race for the first time because, frankly, Planned Parenthood patients need local leaders who are going to actively protect them from DC politicians who are laser-focused on taking away health care,” said Tricia Wadja, director of communications for the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts. “Mayor Walsh’s use of the bully pulpit during this toxic time can never be understated.”

Warshaw, coauthor of the 2014 study that pegged Boston as one of the country’s most liberal cities, said views on national politics are increasingly seeping into local races. It has long been considered an axiom of municipal elections that voter concerns are narrowly local – and that there is no conservative or liberal way to fill potholes or pick up the trash. “I think that used to be true. I think it’s increasingly not so much true,” said Warshaw, who is now at George Washington University. “If he’s very strongly anti-Trump, it makes it hard to run to his left,” he said of Walsh.

When it comes to some of those bigger issues, Jackson says Walsh has played a game of “me too,” following his lead in an effort to burnish his progressive bona fides. “I was the one who worked with the immigrant community to bring forth the immigrant defense fund,” Jackson said of his idea to have the city help pay legal costs for undocumented immigrants facing federal proceedings. Walsh initially balked at the proposal, calling the idea of the city paying for legal services “a potentially very dangerous slippery slope.”

Jackson says Walsh has followed a “me too” course in adopting progressive positions first articulated by his challenger.

“Well, he must have fallen down that slope, because now he has signed on to the immigration legal defense fund,” Jackson said of Walsh’s subsequent embrace of the idea. Walsh issued a press release on Tuesday trumpeting the fact that the defense fund has now raised more than $1 million.

“We have seen reluctant, timid, and tepid leadership from this administration,” said Jackson. “What we need now is bold, courageous leadership that is actually progressive.”

This year’s race marks the first time since King’s groundbreaking run 34 years ago that a black candidate has made it into a mayoral final in Boston. Like Ray Flynn in his match-up with King, Walsh has been able to benefit by crowding into Jackson’s base to the left while enjoying a virtual lock on more conservative constituencies.

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association endorsed Walsh’s reelection bid, the first time in 30 years that the union has publicly backed a mayoral candidate. Walsh, a former union leader, says the support is in step with his progressive profile. “Labor’s roots are progressive, whether it’s the police union or the building trades,” he said.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Reminded that the patrolmen’s union tends to lean hard to the right, famously humiliating the state’s Democratic governor, Michael Dukakis, when he was the party nominee for president in 1988 by welcoming George H.W. Bush to Boston for an endorsement ceremony, Walsh conceded that the police union sometimes loses sight of labor’s progressive roots.

“Whenever I get a chance, I remind them of that,” he said.