Will the Same Old Vote Dominate the Preliminary?

The senior set has historically managed to sway city elections—especially during the Tom Menino era.

If you live in the area and are not old, you’re familiar with all the usual complaints about Boston: the T stops running too early, bars close too early, restaurants close too early, it’s impossible to get a cab at night, there’s no happy hour, the Puritans still walk the streets, etc. Each one sounds a bit trivial on its face, but when you add them all together, you get a city that too often feels allergic to fun. Whether you’re trying to start a farmers market, operate a food truck, or put on a show, the permitting process is long and tangled. And god help you if you want to apply for a liquor license—you’ll need patience, politically connected lawyers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Which brings us to tomorrow’s preliminary mayoral election. Over the years, Tom Menino has been extremely responsive to the needs and wants of the city’s older residents. He’s especially catered to the cranky old members of the cranky old neighborhood groups who prefer everything to be closed by 10 p.m., so it’s quiet and they can rest up for another big day of shooing kids off their lawns. It’s all because old people vote like crazy in city elections. Young people do not. It’s no wonder the city government has been much more responsive to the senior set.

As Larry DiCara and James Sutherland have expertly documented, though, it’s not that there aren’t young people in Boston. In fact, they’ve been flooding into the city. And it’s not as if they don’t vote. They’ve voted in huge numbers in national elections. The highest voting district in Southie during the 2012 election, believe it or not, was the Seaport, which is practically the new headquarters for Boston Yuppydom. It’s just the city elections younger people have ignored, and whether that’s because of apathy bred by Menino’s dominance or just plain, normal apathy to local government is hard to tell. But we ought to find out tomorrow.

Over the summer, I got the opportunity to go out and spend time campaigning with nine of the 12 candidates running for mayor. All of the candidates are very well aware of the city’s demographic shifts and are, to varying degrees, counting on residents younger than 40 to vote. Many of the candidates—Mike Ross, John Barros, and John Connolly come most to mind—have been out talking about ways to make the city more appealing to young people. Barros told me specifically that he thought the election was a chance for Boston’s young people to seize their part of the agenda. And that agenda, it should be noted, contains a lot more than drinking—affordability, transportation issues, and jobs are huge for the city’s younger residents. I saw Marty Walsh tour an East Boston Open Studios event, taking time to talk art policy one-on-one with a number of young artists. I mentioned to him that the young artist bloc isn’t exactly known for swinging elections. He replied that, in an election this tight, no demographic could be overlooked.

On the other hand, there’s realism, too. At a block party on Hendry Street with another candidate, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, one woman walked up to him and said there weren’t enough nightclubs in the city. “We have nothing to do,” she said, “People love to go to New York because there’s so much attraction. They come to Boston, we’re bored. My friends are bored. They hate Boston.” Conley told her that he thought there was plenty to do downtown and that he didn’t think adding more clubs would be on his agenda. Later, I asked him if he thought all those new young residents in the city would come out and vote. “Yeah, I think some of them are, but I think it’s going to be disproportionately older folks who will vote,” he said.

The last few months’ courtship is all fine and well, but tomorrow the rubber hits the road: unless young people actually go out and vote, no matter who’s mayor, the bars will keep closing early and the city will continue to be more responsive to its older residents than its younger ones. The only difference will be that the people complaining about it will only have themselves and their friends to blame.