Mayor Walsh Finds Diversity Tougher Than Candidate Walsh Expected

The big question is whether the mayor understands that a truly diverse staff will not happen by good intentions alone.

When Mayor Marty Walsh meets with his cabinet, eight of the 11 people at the table with him are non-Hispanic and white. That does not include the four public safety and education heads, not technically considered part of the cabinet, all of whom are also non-Hispanic and white. That’s a far cry from the campaign promise of a cabinet 50 percent “of color,” to reflect the diversity of this majority-minority city.

It was a promise I rolled my eyes at during the campaign, writing that Walsh, and his opponent John Connolly, had little understanding of what it would take to fulfill the kinds of diversity goals they were setting for themselves:

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….

People I talk to in and around City Hall don’t doubt Walsh’s sincerity in wanting a diverse staff. And, they say the diversity seems to improve a little as you go down the organizational ladder, suggesting that a pipeline is being created to foster the next set of leaders.

That’s true, but only to an extent. Roughly two-thirds of city employees hired since Walsh took office on January 6—129 of 189—have been “of color,” according to the administration’s own data. But of the 43 current non-cabinet department heads, only 11 are “of color,” or barely 25 percent.

There certainly are examples to be found of minorities getting high-responsibility positions. Jerome Smith, a former Menino aide, recently came over from Senate President Therese Murray’s office to be the new head of neighborhood services. Freda Brasfield, a veteran of the Menino administration, was named chief of staff for the economic development cabinet last week. Chief William Gross is the second in command of the Boston Police Department.

Those are the exceptions, however, not the rule.

Part of the reason stems directly from Walsh himself: his circles of trusted associates have grown primarily out of Savin Hill, trade unions, and Beacon Hill politics—all predominantly white enclaves. That’s no fault of Walsh’s, but the result is that when he quite naturally hires people he trusts (or people trusted by people he trusts), they tend to be white. On the cabinet, that includes Joseph Rull, Joyce Linehan, and Eugene O’Flaherty.

So far, Walsh has shown little propensity to go far beyond his comfort zone, with one major exception: his chief of staff, Daniel Koh, who as an Asian-American is one of the three minorities on the cabinet. The other two—Felix Arroyo (Hispanic) and John Barros (black Cape Verdean)—Walsh got to know well through the mayoral campaign, and, of course, benefited greatly from their endorsement of him. The one other cabinet member brought in by Walsh is David Sweeney, who he knew from Sweeney’s time working on the House budget.

The other four cabinet members are holdovers or promotions from Menino’s staff, and they are all white: Lisa Pollack, Sheila Dillon, Brian Swett, and Justin Holmes.

This points to another factor making diversity goals difficult for Walsh: Menino’s administration was awful at it.

According to a Blackstonian study late in Menino’s administration, just 23 percent of Menino’s department heads were people “of color.” Observers say the lack of diversity continued through the next couple of levels on the org charts.

As Walsh has discovered, it’s not so easy to clear out the old and stock up with the new. Union protections, and the need for institutional knowledge of the mysteries of city operations, complicate things considerably.

Also, just as Walsh tends to discover people through his insulated circles, so too do potential employees find the job openings through their insulated circles. That is, the types of people most likely to seek out, say, the position of chief of staff for the city’s economic development cabinet, are going to be government or development insiders—who are predominantly white. It’s notable that the exceptions above—Smith, Brasfield, and Gross—are all such insiders. There are only so many like them in those circles.

To be sure, we are only a few months into Walsh’s term, and he is still building his staff. He has two open cabinet positions to fill (Arts/Culture and Transportation/Sanitation), and another interim member to potentially replace (Holmes). He is also looking for permanent appointees for two of those four public safety and education posts (Fire Commissioner and Superintendent of Schools).

The big question, however, is whether Walsh really understands that a truly diverse top staff will not happen by good intentions alone. It’s something that large organizations work very hard on; there is a whole human resources sub-industry devoted to this challenge.

I would very much like to hear Walsh talk about the challenge and what he is trying to do to make sure that he moves closer to fulfilling his promise in six months, a year, two years, four years.

Finally, I’d like to raise one separate but related point. So far, gender balance has also been lacking: only three of 11 cabinet members are women, and one of the four public safety/education posts. According to the administration’s data, close to half of department heads are women (20 of 43), but the reality is less balanced: women are more likely to lead departments with small operating budgets, while men are in charge of most of the big-budget departments. Among the cabinet and department heads I can find, only three women are in charge of operating budgets larger than $5 million (Dillan at Housing, Barbara Ferrer of the Public Health Commission, and Amy Ryan of the Boston Public Library), compared with at least 17 men.