Regardless of what you might hear in local coverage, the re-election of incumbent Marty Walsh was not the biggest political story in Boston Tuesday.
The biggest political story was the tsunami of women of color who cruised to victory in their respective city council races. Three of those women -- Michelle Wu, Ayanna Pressley, and Andrea Campbell -- were already on the council, and voters wisely sent them back to City Hall Tuesday. Voters in District 1 and 7 elected to send two more women, both African-American, to City Hall for the first time: Lydia Edwards, who will represent East Boston, the North End, and Charlestown; and Kim Janey, whose district covers Roxbury, Dorchester, the South End, and Fenway. (Note: at-large councillor Annisa Essaibi-George is Tunisian and Polish, but it's unclear whether she identifies as a "woman of color")
This is historic for a number of reasons:
1. Women of color now comprise just less than half of Boston's City Council. Not too long ago, the Council was mostly men -- and white men at that -- even as Boston's demographics were changing to become more brown and black. (today, Boston is a minority-majority city) Racial tensions have historically plagued Boston, and the fact that women of color now hold sway over the Council -- Michelle Wu, who is Asian-American, is President -- sends the clear message that the city's leadership now more closely resembles the changing face of its residents.
2. The consolidation of power in the Mayor's office continues to crack. Last night's results may not seem to reveal this reality on their face. After all, Walsh wiped the floor with his challenger, City Councillor Tito Jackson, by an almost two-to-one margin, winning every ward but two and even the majority of "districts of color." But take Edwards' victory in District 1 for instance. Edwards' opponent in the final was Stephen Passacantilli, a lifelong North End resident, a longtime City Hall worker, and a political aide and personal friend of Walsh. Walsh's official stance in the race was neutral -- he said he liked both Passacantilli and Edwards, who also served in the Walsh administration before pulling papers to run -- but his fingerprints were all over the Passacantilli campaign. Walsh operatives were mobilized throughout District 1 to hang signs and knock doors for Passacantilli and the candidate repeatedly spoke about his closeness to and cooperation with the Mayor. (Conversely, Edwards has been critical of Walsh's housing policies and promised throughout the campaign to go to bat for her low- and middle-income constituents over developers -- even when it means opposing Walsh) And then, in October, the Passacantilli campaign began distributing palm cards several non-English languages showing the candidate posing with Walsh, and featuring the words, "I'm with Stephen," attributed to the Mayor. The Mayor denied that this was a formal endorsement of Passacantilli but acknowledged approving the use of his likeness in the ads. Finally, on election morning, a number of District 1 residents reported receiving robocalls with Walsh urging voters to cast ballots for Passacantilli.
That Walsh would prefer a Councillor Passacantilli over a Councillor Edwards isn't surprising. Besides their longtime friendship, Passacantilli would have been a loyal backer of Walsh on the Boston City Council -- which, per city tradition, plays second fiddle to our "strong mayor" system. But Walsh knows that the Mayor's power over the Council has shown signs of cracking of late, with Councillor Michael Flaherty running a close race against former Mayor Tom Menino in 2009 and Councillor Jackson vocally opposing a number of Walsh policies before announcing his own run earlier this year. Having Passacantilli on the Council would have kept the District 1 seat, currently occupied by longtime councillor Sal LaMattina, firmly pro-Walsh.
For critics of our "strong mayor" system, the tsunami of progressive women of color to the City Council over the last few years is a first step in weakening that consolidation at the top. Jackson's run for mayor brought many important issues to the fore -- issues like income inequality, housing stability, and government transparency. But it was not yet time, nor was Jackson necessarily the right candidate, to topple an incumbent Boston mayor for the first time since 1949.
A longer, more promising vision for change, some believe, starts with the addition of progressive, politically independent women like Edwards and Janey to a council run by Wu and featuring several more women and women of color -- stirring up what has been called an "old boys' network." Together, these councillors can create their own vision for Boston's future rather than merely rubber-stamping the Mayor's.
"#NewGirlsNetwork #NewGirlsNetwork #NewGirlsNetwork #NewGirlsNetwork #NewGirlsNetwork," Edwards' campaign manager Gabriella Coletta posted on Facebook in the hours after her candidate's win.
3. More broadly, though, Tuesday represented a further weakening of Boston's "machine politics," traditionally controlled by white men who grew up here. The term "old boys' network" has been tossed around for decades, and not without good reason. That's because prevailing wisdom has held a few things to be true:
- You have to be from here to win here. Boston's voters have traditionally rewarded those whom they have known since childhood, whose families are political dynasties, and who can prove their bona fides as genuine Bostonians.
- To succeed in Boston politics, at the city or state level, one needs to "pay his or her (usually his) dues," working their way up through the system and running only when the time is right.
By these measures, Passacantilli should have been a dead-lock to win in District 1. But he lost -- by a considerable number of votes -- to a woman who didn't grow up here and only recently joined the Walsh cabinet. It would appear in Edwards' case that being a lifelong Bostonian, usually a man, and a veteran of the political machine are no longer prerequisites to gaining ground with voters.
There's a final prevailing myth that was again shattered on Tuesday: What the machine wants, the machine gets.
We saw this "truth" shattered in 2013, when East Boston residents defeated a proposal to build a Las Vegas-style casino in their neighborhood -- a proposal that had the backing of every local elected official at every level. Outspent almost 100-1 by pro-casino forces, a volunteer army of campaigners successfully challenged the notion that City Hall always knows what's best for the neighborhoods.
We saw this myth again challenged when Boston was short-listed as a location for the 2024 Olympic Games, a plan designed and promoted by the Walsh administration. Again, a citizen-led campaign cast doubt on the Olympic plan and put considerable pressure on City Hall, which eventually relented and withdrew Boston from consideration.
And we saw this play out again last night in Edwards' victory. On paper, Edwards had no business winning this race. Not if the Mayor preferred the other guy. But she did, and handily, propelled by a diverse collection of more than 500 volunteers who knocked 70,000 doors and made 200,000 phone calls to district residents.
"We never apologized for our diversity, we never apologized for being progressive," Edwards told supporters Tuesday. "This is what movement looks like."
A repository of my work, photos, and random reflections. Views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of publications or other clients with which I work.