Walsh goes from shoo-in to hot seat

Boston mayor scrambles to stay ahead of curve

IT WAS ONLY A FEW WEEKS AGO that Mayor Marty Walsh seemed to be the man for the moment.

Holding regular briefings outside Boston City Hall on all things coronavirus, he showed steady leadership and heartfelt compassion in equal measure, just what people want to see in a big-city mayor.

The pandemic seemed to have reshaped almost every aspect of life as we knew it — and that extended to speculation about a mayoral election still a year and half away.

“One year before Walsh is expected to seek a third term, there is suddenly only one issue, and he is its face in the city,” Globe columnist Adrian Walker wrote just over a month ago in a piece suggesting the crisis made the mayor increasingly look like a lock for reelection.

Fast forward five and half weeks and it looks like an entirely different picture. Suddenly the issue at the center of attention is not a pandemic but the police. And unlike the global march of a pathogen that city officials can only do their best to contain and manage, the operation of the city police department is entirely under the mayor’s control.

Walsh is under strong pressure to deliver substantive change in the wake of protests in Boston and across the country following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Four years ago, Walsh launched a series of “race dialogues” to address persistent issues of “racism and racial equity” in Boston. The call now is not for more talk, but action.

Exactly what action is not clear. The broad demand to “defund the police” has lots of different meanings.

Last weekend, Walsh said he would “reallocate” some of the police department budget to other services, but did not offer any details of what that might look like.

“Not good enough,” City Councilor Andrea Campbell told the Globe on Monday, saying the city “needs an action plan that is specific as to what we’re going to do to transform our policing systems.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Walsh called for “meaningful” change. He also said his original budget plan for the coming fiscal year calls for level-funding the police department while increasing funding for schools and housing. His statement also said he has reached out to City Council President Kim Janey multiple times in recent days to discuss the issue. “Unfortunately, that has not been able to happen yet,” he said, a clear jab to make clear that the Roxbury district city councilor, not the mayor, is the reason why there has been no movement on the issue.

Activists are calling for a 10 percent cut in the police department’s $414 million budget, with a particular eye on its $60 million in overtime spending, outlays that meant more than 500 officers earned more in 2019 than the mayor’s $199,000 salary.

“This is not how 2020 was supposed to be playing out — or so it seemed just a few months ago,” Walker wrote in his column on Walsh’s seeming inviolability amid the pandemic. “A new City Council with a progressive majority was expected to push Walsh to the left on a daily basis. Multiple members of that body were said to be laying the groundwork to oppose him.”

A month later, that leftward push is now in full bloom. And Campbell and City Councilor Michelle Wu, the two names most often mentioned as potential mayoral challengers, are in the thick of it.

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.

When Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins and the main Boston police union got into a heated war of words last week over the issue of police killings of blacks, Walsh wanted no part of the showdown. “There’s no right side,” he said.

With the focus now on the funding and role of the police department, he’s going to have to start taking sides on issues in ways that will not please everyone. And the idea that he’ll have clear sailing into a third term next year now seems a lot less clear.