Politics as Unusual: The tough path to electing a mayor of color

April 12, 2013
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Despite their notoriously low voter turnouts in municipal elections, local communities of color are already buzzing over the mayoral madness sweeping Boston. As expected, important conversations are under way about the viability of certain minority candidates. Even outside of black, Caribbean, Latino and Cape Verdean enclaves, a discussion about race has surfaced front-and-center. Since popular Roxbury City Councilor Tito Jackson announced that he will not run for mayor, reporters and opiners have noted the glaring lack of diversity among top contenders, all the while ignoring Haitian advocate and early underdog declarant Will Dorcena. There’s also no sign of an Asian candidate so far, while the prospects of a female frontrunner look depressingly dim at this critical juncture.

The general dynamic of race and politics in Boston has mutated since Mel King squared off against Raymond Flynn in 1983. Most notably, unlike when Flynn soared with more than 80 percent of the white vote—spanking King, whose 90 percent of the black vote couldn’t cut the mayonnaise—these days no white candidate can succeed without support across neighborhood and color lines. There are just too many new wild cards in the deck. For example, the last census reported more African-Americans than whites in Hyde Park, while the number of Hispanics and Latinos in West Roxbury doubled between 2000 and 2010.

These are all noteworthy demographic developments. Even with such seismic shifts, though, it would be suicidal for a minority hopeful to exclusively court voters who look most like them. Despite the Hub’s major metamorphosis over the past 30 years, one thing hasn’t changed: Any wannabe mayor from a place like Mattapan or Roxbury must connect with Caucasians if they hope to win. This is a main reason that the forecast is gloomy for Charles Clemons, a former Boston beat cop and co-founder of the Grove Hall radio station TOUCH FM. Like the long-shot candidacy of John Laing Jr.—a contractor, staffer at the state Department of Children and Families, and former partner with Clemons at TOUCH—it’s hard to imagine that excitement over Clemons will reach farther than his low-power frequency. Contrarily, the broad resonance of City Councilor At-Large Felix G. Arroyo—plus ward tallies from the last two elections that reflect his wide appeal across Boston—have landed the Jamaica Plain resident atop the list of those who have a chance of taking City Hall.

To say that identity politics are no longer relevant around here is like claiming that Madison Park High School is as excellent a public learning institution as its counterpart in Brookline. Ask people who experience disparity firsthand—politically, anyone who views their home area as being unfairly neglected because of the makeup of its residents—and they’ll probably sing a similar song. That’s why minority voters and their white allies need to mobilize behind someone who truly sympathizes with their interests and concerns, and who can effectively challenge opponents who pose dangers to fragile black and brown communities. The stakes are especially high considering the candidacy of Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, whose campaign war chest is almost as robust as his record of tolerating cops who beat and kill minorities.

No one knows how any of this will play out, or whether ministers and organizers of color will coalesce around a single mayoral candidate like they did 20 years ago, when the Coalition of Community Unity overwhelmingly backed Bruce Bolling, Boston’s first-ever black City Council president. If local leaders move in that direction, they would be prudent to tap somebody like King; it’s been widely acknowledged that, as a result of his extensive contributions as an activist, King fared better than did the more establishment-leaning Bolling a decade later. Though they have some insider credentials, that candidate in King’s image could be the crusading Mattapan City Councilor Charles Yancey, who is strongly considering a run, or John Barros, a Boston School Committee member and executive director of the Dudley Street Initiative, who recently expressed mayoral interest.

Even with a blessing from a coalition of minority honchos, there won’t be an easy path to victory. If a candidate of color has any chance of becoming the next mayor, he or she will have to shore up white voters, as they’ve always needed to do, plus energize the few African-Americans and Latinos who typically participate in local elections. To do the latter, they’ll have to not just ostensibly represent black and brown people, but also the actual interests of minorities in a modern city where race remains a central and significant issue.

Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain.

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