Marty Walsh, the ‘Bridge Mayor’

Was his election a choice—or a fluke?

What does the election of Marty Walsh say about the city of Boston, I was asked on a Thursday-morning panel. My answer: that depends on whether you think that the choice of two very similar finalists represented a clear choice of the city, or a fluke of circumstance. I think it’s a little of both, but I lean more toward fluke.

Here’s what I mean.

Marty Walsh and John Connolly are both what I would call “bridge figures” in Boston politics—those clearly coming out of what we think of as “Old Boston” (white, male, Irish, raised in a city enclave), but whose progressive and inclusive outlook fits what we think of as “New Boston” (minorities and “blow-ins” not raised here). From Michael Flaherty to John Connolly to Marty Walsh and beyond, these pols have had a difficult time getting “New Bostonians” to see past the surface.

It is tempting to look at the preliminary results and conclude that the city wanted one of these bridge figures for this moment. And, that fits with what I posited last week about Walsh representing familiarity over dramatic change—Tom Menino, after all, is the perfect example of a (somewhat outdated by now) bridge figure in a sense.

But was that really what the city wanted, or did it just end up that way due to a series of flukey circumstances?

I would argue that it was rather flukey that the hopes for a true “New Boston” mayor were piled onto Charlotte Golar Richie—who, after too long out of the political game, turned out to be not a good enough candidate to win, but not a bad enough candidate to fade away and leave space for someone else to gain traction.

Let me give you a specific example of the type of fluke that led there: In late January, just eight weeks before Tom Menino announced that he was not running for re-election, state senator Jack Hart announced that he was retiring from the senate, to join the Nelson Mullins law firm.

Had the timing been a little different, and Hart had not just signed a commitment with Nelson Mullins, he almost certainly would have run for mayor. That would have taken South Boston off the table for candidates like Walsh and Connolly; Hart would also have had support throughout his district that runs through Dorchester and Mattapan (including Walsh’s base).

Not only that, but Linda Dorcena Forry would not then have been mid-way through a special election campaign for Hart’s seat—and so she most likely would have run for mayor; Richie (and Barros) would almost certainly have stayed out for her. She would probably have run very strong in Dorchester and with black voters, and made strong headway with downtown progressives and Jamaica Plain/West Roxbury women.

It’s only a guess, but I’d wager that race would have produced a Forry vs. Dan Conley final—very different from the Connolly-Walsh result. Which represents the real choice of the city?

Hart’s unfortunate timing is just one example. What if Andrea Cabral had not just taken a job in Deval Patrick’s cabinet? What if Sonia Chang-Diaz wasn’t pregnant? What if Steve Lynch hadn’t just dived into the US Senate special election?

But on the other hand, maybe all those roads really would have ultimately led to the selection of Walsh, or another bridge mayor. What do you think?