“We face a new reality in our relationship with the federal government,” and mayors, city councilors, state legislators, the public and the business community have to tackle the challenges together, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told the business community Thursday at a meeting of he New England Council. In a focused and forcefully delivered speech, the Mayor stressed the need for bi-partisan, public-private teamwork in fighting to protect our immigrant community and preserve the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
Walsh, who not long ago was getting on-the-job training, has developed a solid track record, a clearly articulated set of values, and enough confidence to put Boston at the forefront of cities across the country fighting the negative effects of Trump policies. Boston’s economy is booming, including 60,000 new jobs since he took office and an unemployment rate cut to 2.4 percent. He has data to back up his assertion that Boston is a global leader in education, life sciences, quality of life, environmental protection, innovation, equity and inclusion. Boston, he says, can offer “leadership by example.” Our success, he says, is “the result of teamwork.”
While positioning Boston to be a national player in efforts to counter the cataclysmic changes we’re experiencing in Washington, Walsh is just 10 months away from having to run for reelection. The 2017 mayoral race, still in its infancy, seems quaint, even charming, in comparison to national politics. Walsh’s only announced opponent, City Councilor Tito Jackson, seems a well–intentioned fellow who may be itching to move up but has yet to make a case for ousting Walsh. In his announcement, Jackson tried to portray Walsh as the candidate of corporate interests, insensitive to the needs of the middle class.
Class divisions helped drive Donald Trump’s national campaign (and that of Bernie Sanders), and municipal candidates have tried for years to work that angle. I don’t think that Jackson can make the strategy work for him. It’s pretty difficult to portray Marty Walsh as the mayor of the haves, not the have not’s. Among other accomplishments, the mayor can point to success in reducing chronic homelessness, creating an Office of Recovery Services, building new affordable housing, and improving education. This includes a 10-year capital plan for new schools, the provision of free community college for Boston high school graduates who maintain a 2.0 gpa, and a proposal to expand pre-school kindergarten paid for with proceeds from hotel taxes.
Both Walsh and challenger Jackson have impressive life stories, overcoming tremendous odds to achieve leadership positions. Jackson’s challenges today are different. Walsh has a war chest in excess of $3.5 million, and Jackson has $60,000 – $80,000. Beyond that, Jackson seems bent on portraying Walsh as elitist, but this strains credulity based on Walsh’s achievements in office and goals for the rest of his term.
Big cities need thriving economies to undergird their middle class residents. Being mayor always involves achieving a balance between downtown business and the neighborhoods. The late Boston Mayor John Collins was touted as the voice of the Hub’s business community, especially the secretive organization of poohbahs known as The Vault. His successor Kevin White also had tight business ties and was the first to speak of Boston in “World Class” terms. Partly in response, his successor Ray Flynn rode to office pledging to be mayor of the neighborhoods. Longest-serving mayor Tom Menino presented himself as an urban mechanic, getting the potholes fixed and helping the little people, but over his reign he forged strong ties with corporate Boston. It’s always a balancing act, which Walsh seems to be doing well.
Walsh is not without weak spots. To what extent did he have any involvement in arm-twisting to require a certain share of jobs on Boston projects to go to union members. (Two staffers have been indicted on extortion charges.) Jackson has called on Walsh for transparency regarding any activities in which he was engaged, though there has been no evidence against him to date.
Early in his term, Walsh made some missteps by getting suckered into advancing the Boston 2024 Olympics bid and trying to bring an Indy Car race here with inadequate financial support though I don’t think the damage to him on either was lasting. He also needs to push harder for new disclosure rules governing municipal lobbyists. Both those ill-fated proposals might have benefited by greater transparency and lobbyist disclosure rules.
An emerging problem for Walsh is his support for the proposed Millennium Partners’ 775-f0ot tower at Winthrop Square, which violates two state laws limiting the height of buildings that will cast shadows on the Boston Common and Public Gardens, both highly prized Boston treasures. City Hall is lobbying to change those state laws, but doing so for a single project is highly questionable and opens the doors to future unsavory deals. Vigorous public discussion earlier in the process might have spurred solutions that would have avoided the dissension that now seems inevitable.
Despite all this, the Marty Walsh who stood this week before The New England Council has grown significantly. He makes his values clear, shapes data-driven cases to back them up, and has become an effective communicator of what he stands for. Being opposed in an election is never a bad thing if it yields healthy discussion on these and other issues.
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