Massachusetts has defied national trends when it comes to electing or appointing people of color. The state has seen the elevation of a black governor, two black senators, and several mayors of color of cities around the Commonwealth. But there’s one glass ceiling that defies all attempts to crack it: the next Boston mayor, like all mayors of this city, will be a white male.
In 1983, after Mel King, a former African American state representative, lost a historic mayoral election to Ray Flynn by a lopsided 65-35, pundits concluded that it was just a matter of time before a person of color took over the reigns of power at city hall. But that time clearly is not now- 30 years later, with all six minority candidates losing in this preliminary election.
But, does the race of the mayor of Boston really matter to voters? Not to Rudy Diamond, a black man standing outside a polling station Tuesday night in Roxbury:
“Color is secondary,” he said.
But Sheila Macarthur, a white Felix Arroyo voter, said that race within the mayoral race does matter.
“To have a person of color represent a city that has lots of colors in it- it makes a lot of sense,” she said.
Luis Elisa, a veteran watcher of Boston’s political scene and a Charlotte Golar Richie supporter said the failure in Boston to elect a mayor of color runs counter to historical trends.
“It’s extremely important to me, as the former head of the NAACP, and coming out of New York, and working in Chicago, and Philadelphia, and Baltimore where we’ve had black mayors,” he said. “I know that they make a difference because they see the world from an entirely different perspective.”
Elisa pointed out that city after city- from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles- have elected black and Latino mayors. Indianapolis and Boston are the only major U.S. cities that have not had mayors of color.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the black vote in urban areas had made the difference for many successful white politicians. But while blacks voted for whites who hewed closest to their concerns, the notion of whites voting for blacks was novel in the politics of that era.
In 1967, Carl Stokes, a former state representative from Cleveland who was fed up with uneven urban policies that left streets in black neighborhoods unpaved, trash uncollected and questionable police practices unpunished decided to run for the mayor of that city. One third of Cleveland’s population in the late 1960s was African American, so Stokes would need a lot of white votes to win, but he was swimming upstream against hardened racial attitudes. In the end, Stokes won support of a third of white voters, thus helping him become the first African American mayor of a large urban center.
The questions Stokes asked of voters in 1967 were the same ones asked by Mel King in 1983 in Boston, which was deeply polarized along racial lines. That September, King received an answer as to whether a significant number of white voters would back a black candidate when he came in second in the preliminary election. Looking back, King said while race was important historically, his success election was predicated on progressive politics of a Rainbow Coalition.
“What I think lifted it up in the way was we gave it a name. People who came together reflected the idea of a rainbow,” King said in an interview. “People coming together so we could all get to the high ground.”
Sukia Alake, a supporter of Charlotte Golar Richie, said Mel King also succeeded because black politicians in Boston in 1983 learned from Chicago’s mayor Harold Washington to unite behind a single minority candidate. Not so in 2013, Alake said.
“You’re not running for mayor of Dudley Square, or Grove Hall, you have to be able to pull votes from across the city,” she said.
Charlotte Golar Richie spoke about identity politics after her loss on Tuesday night.
“I think everybody had a right to run, I felt I had a right to run,” she said. “And in fact, before I got into the race, I looked at who might be interested, and thought maybe if it were- to be honest, Councilor Pressley (…) or somebody who had been in politics-in government- more recently I might have decided not to bother, because I didn’t want to see us bumping up against each other in this campaign.”
Boston City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley has been mentioned as a future mayor of Boston, and she does not dismiss that notion as out of the question. But she said her candidacy and others should not be defined by traditional identity politics:
“Identity politics still exist, but I define it differently. It’s a shared identity of values and a vision,” she said. “I think there was an assumption that my base of support would only be women and only be people of color, but two decisive wins have proven that if you have an agenda and you’re working on issues that are relevant and resonate with the entire city, then the enter city will turn out and you can compete in every neighborhood.”
Pressley said it’s the issues that are paramount.
Although Menino’s successor will not be a person of color, the concerns championed by minority candidates cannot be ignored, said Boston Globe political reporter Wesley Lower in a recent appearance on WGBH's Basic Black.
“A lot of the issues that communities of color often think get overlooked by our politicians have been discussed at length here, and I think that it’s forced the white candidates as well to really embrace these issues and embrace these communities.”
Golar Richie agreed. In a one-on-one interview following her concession speech, the top vote getter among candidates of color said she intends to broker various issues with Marty Walsh and John Connolly as they race to the mayoral election finish line.
“I know that the two candidates who prevailed are proponents of charter schools. I would want to have a conversation with them about that because there are 57,000 students in our 127 public schools that need our attention,” she said.
It could be that Boston’s future first mayor of color will be neither black nor Latino. The new politics of Boston has also focused the spotlight on rising Asian American politicians, notably newly elected Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who Golar Richie called a rising star.
But thinking about her own campaign, Charlotte Richie believes like Mel King that she came close to making history as Boston’s first mayor of color.
“We kind of ran out of time, so what do I say," she asked. "We opened a door, we kicked open a door, and now it’s there for someone to walk through.”
It’s just a matter of time, Golar Richie said. Just a matter of time ...