It's an Irish American duel, Boston’s hotly contested mayoral race


In the running for Boston mayoral position Martin Walsh and John Connolly. (Photo: Bostinno)
In the running for Boston mayoral position: Martin Walsh and John Connolly. (Photo: Bostinno)

The last time this column visited Boston was on the eve of the September 24 preliminary mayoral election.  On that Tuesday, the 12-candidate field was whittled down to just two: Martin Walsh and John Connolly.  This Tuesday, November 5, Boston voters will decide which of these two Irish Americans will take the reins at City Hall from five-term incumbent, Thomas Menino.

That each finalist is a white Irish Catholic male is something that came as a surprise to many observers. They believed that this was the election in which a now minority majority city with tens of thousands of transplants who’ve moved in and displaced many long time residents – a “New Boston” – could select a woman or a person of color to be its next mayor.

These observers were proven wrong for two reasons, however, in the preliminary election.  First, as has been detailed forensically by former Boston City Councilor, Larry DiCara, and Northeastern University doctoral student, James Sutherland,
this “New Boston” did not emerge at the polls. Turnout was, by far, heaviest in the traditionally voter-rich neighborhoods. Moreover, multiple candidates of color divvied up the minority vote.

Second, Connolly and Walsh represent a different breed of Boston Irish politician. Each is a genuine progressive. For decades, certain assumptions were made about the city’s politicians of Irish descent. A lot of this goes back to the tragic era of forced busing when Boston’s then mainly Irish American politicians rightly pointed out what an extraordinary injustice it was. Some went way too far, and played to people’s worst fears and darkest instincts. The stereotype of the hard-bitten, conservative, racist Boston Irish politician persisted – often unfairly, in my view – for some time.

Conversely, Walsh and Connolly have aggressively courted communities of color and have touted their progressive bona fides from the outset of the campaign. Both candidates, and Connolly in particular, have focused on education and on the need for Boston’s schools to improve and to adapt to meet the needs of students for whom English is not a first language and who live with parents who don’t speak any English.  They believe equally that Boston’s police and fire department personnel need to look more like the city they serve and that the profound sense of alienation so many young people of color feel must be addressed.

Although the candidates are relatively similar when it comes to ideology, they are two very different people with divergent life experiences. John Connolly is the son of a former Massachusetts Secretary of State and Massachusetts District Court Judge. He went to the prestigious Roxbury Latin School, Harvard College and Boston College Law School. He worked as a teacher in inner city schools and as a corporate lawyer before he was elected to the Boston City Council in 2007.

Martin Walsh is the son of immigrants from Connemara, Co. Galway. He followed his father into the building trades after he finished high school. He battled alcoholism before turning his life around. He was elected a Massachusetts state representative in 1997 and rose to become a high ranking labor union official at the same time. He ultimately went back to college and received a degree in Social Science from Boston College. Walsh has even earned more money than Connolly in recent years, as the latter’s campaign operatives have stated repeatedly.