The Mayoral Candidates Like To Talk About Diversity

John Connolly and Marty Walsh swear up-and-down that they'll hire lots of minorities, but it's not that simple.

I was not able to attend Wednesday night’s mayoral candidates debate in Roxbury co-hosted by the Urban League, but I am assured that John Connolly and Marty Walsh swore up and down that, of course, they will hire lots and lots of minorities for top cabinet positions—just as they always pledge to make sure there are lots of black police captains and other diverse holders of important positions when they run things.

It all sounds very nice, but it’s also quite impossible to judge. We have arrived at a mayoral final between two people who have employed very few people in their careers, and now one of them is going to be at the top of an organizational chart of thousands. How we’re supposed to assess their ability to assemble and manage that, I don’t know.

Having a diverse high-level staff doesn’t just happen. It takes special effort to make it happen while also making sure the right pegs are in the right holes to make the city and the administration work well.

It generally hasn’t happened for either of these two candidates in their careers to date. I asked both campaigns to tell me what black individuals the two men have had in high-level positions over the years in their public offices, their campaigns, or their other positions (ie, Connolly’s law firm, Walsh’s Boston Labor Council). I chose to ask specifically about black staff because Boston is one-quarter black, the Urban League is essentially a black organization, and I don’t like this constant lumping together of all minorities as if a South Asian person and an African-American are somehow interchangeable.

As I suspected from dealing with both of them for some number of years, there aren’t many. Raynise Salters in Connolly’s City Council office isn’t exactly cabinet-level in my mind, but she’s a significant staffer; same for Chayla White in Walsh’s legislative office. Robert Lewis Jr., not on his staff, might qualify as part of Connolly’s “kitchen cabinet,” and Leon Graves and Bill Moran might count the same way for Walsh. Both have a few deputy field directors and such to list.

I’m not really looking to fault them on this. As I mentioned above, neither has really employed that many people total. Both of their upbringing, educational, and career circles have provided networking opportunities primarily with white people. The rosters of Boston-area campaign managers, strategists, field directors, legislative aides, chiefs of staff, communications directors, policy advisors, and so on are dominated by white people (and mostly men).

But, of course, either of them could have taken extra effort—for instance, to spread a wider net for each of those positions, at various times, and increased the likelihood of finding more minorities and specifically African-Americans; or reaching out to train and mentor promising, talented African-Americans. Those are among the steps that big organizations do to try to address this kind of thing. It’s not a simple matter, and it generally takes sustained interest from the top.

If you don’t do it right, you can end up doing it very wrong—pulling in people who aren’t really right for the positions just to make sure you’re showing some success, for instance, or filling a few top positions but not developing a pipeline of talent below, or creating resentment as good people believe they’re being passed over.

I don’t doubt that either Connolly or Walsh means it when they say these things. But as voters try to assess which might really follow through and do it well, I’m afraid there’s very little to judge them by.