Bring On Mayor Marty Walsh

Boston's next political era already has glimmers of Tom Menino, a sign the city remains stubbornly averse to change.

For all of its progressive reputation, Boston remains, fundamentally, a city stubbornly averse to change. We have a hard time letting go of the familiar; we don’t like anyone tearing down an old building, tinkering with traditions, upgrading street signs, or renaming the restaurant we occasionally ate at 20 years ago.

Marty Walsh, who won Tuesday’s election to become mayor of this great city, may be very different from the man he will replace, but there is an awful lot familiar in what people saw. He is not a great or inspiring orator. He doesn’t speak in grand visions. He is not aspirational. He doesn’t seem the type to thumb through Governing magazine or white papers from academia for policy guidance. Instead, people see him as an approachable, compassionate, but pragmatic guy who will listen to someone’s troubles and then see to it that someone does something about it. That’s what the city of Boston has been used to for as long as most can remember, and those are traits that have some 80 percent of residents approving of Tom Menino as he prepares to step down.

Walsh won by selling this image of himself, which is a largely true if incomplete portrait, as campaigns tend to be. Yes, Walsh was helped immensely by the extraordinary efforts of organized labor, locally and nationally; and by a series of endorsements, particularly from prominent minority politicos. But ultimately all of that provides only an introduction to new sets of voters; the candidate must close the sale, and Walsh did that. The supposedly Dorchester-limited pol won in Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roxbury, and East Boston, and picked up significant votes throughout the city, to secure his victory.

He was aided by the poor post-preliminary performance of his opponent. John Connolly proved shockingly ill-equipped to handle the scenario fate provided him: likely victory. Connolly had entered the race, back in February, expecting to run as the scrapping underdog against the Titan Menino. When Menino left the battlefield, Connolly was initially considered unlikely to prevail against more experienced competitors (Walsh included) for the honor of being the finalist to lose to the city’s first “New Boston” mayor. The possibility of waking up on September 25 with a large lead over another white Irish man seemed never to occur to him, and he had no idea what to do with it. He failed, entirely, to present a narrative for the two-man campaign, which left a void that Walsh gladly filled with a worker-versus-egghead contrast, and with endorsements that conveyed a unifying of the city.

In the end, Connolly found himself where he had originally expected to be: the underdog, with the political establishment aligned against him. Only then, in the final week of the campaign, did he regain the focus and energy he needed; it was almost enough, but not quite.

Walsh, by then, had sold himself, bit by bit, to tens of thousands of residents who six months ago didn’t know his name or face. He spoke knowledgeably and compellingly about his approach to governance, he convinced the skeptical of his inclusive and progressive views, and he showed a little schoolyard political moxie that the punditry tsks at but everyone knows is required to get things done in this city.

Nobody’s ever accused Menino of waging an entirely clean fight, after all. Why change now?