Roxbury city councilor will break two barriers as Boston mayor
FOR SOME, the Presidents’ Day holiday was a chance to unwind over a three-day weekend. Asked whether that was the case for her, Boston City Council president Kim Janey answered with a question of her own.
“What’s a weekend?” she said. “The work doesn’t end.”
Janey is likely just days away from assuming the role of Boston’s acting mayor, and her schedule shows it. She has had nearly 20 briefings with cabinet chiefs, department heads, and other key city staff members since last month’s announcement that Mayor Marty Walsh is President Biden’s pick to serve as his secretary of labor.
The Roxbury district city councilor said she is devoting lots of hours each day to preparing for the handoff. “I’m focusing on the transition. I’m focused on making sure when I step into the office of mayor, the good residents of our great city are well-served,” she said in an interview on Monday.
Both Janey and the Walsh administration say transition planning has been collegial. She takes part in the administration’s twice weekly leadership meetings, and talks to Walsh almost daily, said Nick Martin, the mayor’s chief of communications, who plans to stay on to aid Janey’s transition.
The city charter calls for the president of the City Council to take over as acting mayor in the case of any vacancy in the post. When Janey does so, she will make history in two ways, becoming the city’s first black mayor and the first woman to hold the post.
Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a veteran black political strategist and Roxbury resident, said it will be a huge moment for the city. “I think people are very excited about it,” said Ferriabough Bolling, whose late husband, Bruce Bolling, previously held the Roxbury district council seat and was the first black president of the City Council.
“As a black woman who grew up in this city,” said Janey, “I had a front row seat as an 11-year-old girl who was bussed during court-ordered busing, in some of our darkest times. I think now of the historic nature of me stepping into the office of mayor — it’s incredible to think how far our city has come.” In the next breath, though, she added, that it also weighs on her “how far we have to go.”
Janey said she looks no further for evidence of that than the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed a disproportionate toll on black communities and the Latinx population.
“This is a very difficult time. People are hurting, and they’re hurting in more ways than one,” Janey said, describing the dual pandemics of racial injustice and coronavirus that are being confronted. She has been in particularly close communication with Marty Martinez, the city’s chief of health and human services and point person on the COVID crisis.
Complicating the challenge of ensuring that communities of color have adequate access to vaccines, she said, is the historical wariness of many in the black community toward the medical establishment. “I have questions and concerns myself, as a black woman, given the history,” Janey said. “Here is what I want to emphasize: I trust the data and the science.”
She said there is irony in the fact that the most well-known example of horrific mistreatment of black Americans by the medical establishment, the Tuskegee Study, involved effective medical treatment being withheld. “We need to flip that on its head,” she said of the need for aggressive public health outreach to ensure black Bostonians “have confidence” in taking the vaccine.
Janey, the 56-year-old daughter of a well-known Roxbury family, is stepping into one of the state’s most visible offices at a time of multiple crises that would test even the most seasoned city leader. Along with the pandemic and race issues, Boston is facing a sharp increase in gun violence and homicides amid uncertainty over leadership of its police department. Meanwhile, its 48,000 public school students have been marooned at home for close to a year. The system enrolls a high-poverty population that is 85 percent students of color, groups most at risk for learning loss without in-person classes.
“As hard as teachers are working and as hard as families are working with remote learning, we know that can never take the place of students being in a classroom with their teacher and their peers,” said Janey, who worked for years at the education nonprofit Massachusetts Advocates for Children before her 2017 election to the City Council.
Like many US cities, Boston has seen a big increase in gun violence and homicides since the onset of the pandemic. Homicides spiked by 54 percent in 2020 over 2019 numbers, from 37 to 57, while nonfatal shootings were up 42 percent.
But the city is facing the upsurge in violence amid a transition mess in its police leadership. Police Commissioner William Gross abruptly announced his retirement last month one day before he left office. Walsh just as abruptly declared that Gross’s chief of staff, Dennis White, a 32-year veteran of the force, would become the next commissioner.
Two days after swearing White in, Walsh put him on a paid leave amid reports that White faced domestic violence allegations two decades earlier. The city announced that it would have an outside investigation look into White’s past. The 1999 incident would almost certainly have come up if Walsh had pursued a thorough vetting of his choice, never mind had the city carried out a wide-ranging, national search for a new police commissioner, arguably the most important municipal position other than mayor.
“I think there was a missed opportunity to engage the broader community in that decision,” said Janey. “Particularly now, think about what’s happening not just in Boston, but across our country with people looking at the relationship between law enforcement and residents, particularly poor people and communities of color.”
How far Janey’s authority will extend as acting mayor has become a matter of some debate and uncertainty. The city charter says an acting mayor “shall possess the powers of mayor only in matters not admitting of delay, but shall have no power to make permanent appointments.”
Asked whether she would move to appoint a new police commissioner if the outside review makes White’s return to the job untenable, Janey said she will share what “my thinking is on that front when that time happens.”
But she suggested in response to a follow-up question on Tuesday that she won’t hesitate to make hires as acting mayor. “When I enter the mayor’s office, I am crystal clear on my job. That is to lead this city through the unprecedented challenges and numerous crises we’re facing so that the people of Boston are well served,” Janey said in a statement. “To do that, that may mean that vacancies need to be filled. I will appoint highly qualified candidates to fill those positions as needed.”
Along with the many challenges she’ll face in office, Janey will need to decide fairly soon whether she’ll run for a full term as mayor.
The regularly scheduled municipal election takes place this fall. The city has sent a home-rule petition to Beacon Hill seeking approval to scrap a possible special election this summer. (If Walsh resigns before March 5, a special election before the fall election would have to be held without the waiver being sought by the city.)
Janey says she’ll consider running, but has held off making any announcement.
“My focus has been on the transition,” she said. “I don’t have a defined timeline” for deciding about a mayoral run.
Three fellow city councilors, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu, have already declared their candidacies. Several others, including City Hall aide John Barros and state Rep. Jon Santiago, are weighing a mayoral run.
Janey would enjoy a tremendous advantage in a race with the visibility she’ll have as acting mayor.
The last time a Boston mayor left mid-term was in July 1993, when Ray Flynn resigned to become US ambassador to the Vatican. Then-City Council president Tom Menino quickly consolidated power as acting mayor and went on to win office that fall and then serve five terms, the longest reign of any Boston mayor.
“Menino was able to say, ‘I’m doing the job,’” Ferriabough Bolling said of the huge edge he had in the 1993 race. “Being in the mayor’s seat gives you a distinct advantage,” she said of a possible run by Janey. “It’s akin to free advertisement. She will be on all the TV stations. She will be the woman of the hour. People will be looking at her closely, whether positively or negatively, and to me that’s priceless.”