BOSTON — Sept. 24. Preliminary Election Day. Twelve candidates are vying to be the first new mayor of Boston in a generation. And two will make it to the final round.
As the returns pour in, it’s clear that John Barros — son of Cape Verdean immigrants, a nonprofit executive who impressed newspaper columnists and mayoral rivals alike — will not be one of them.
Instead, it will be two politicians who cut a more traditional profile — state Rep. Marty Walsh and City Councilor At-Large John Connolly, both Irish Catholics with deep roots in Boston politics.
Barros, riding to his election night gathering at a Cape Verdean restaurant he opened with family, is subdued. But when he walks through the door, he finds something unexpected: People are chanting and high-fiving. They’re celebrating.
Barros has made a relatively strong showing for a first-time candidate — finishing sixth. Two other candidates of color have fared even better — third-place finisher Charlotte Golar Richie and fifth-place finisher Felix Arroyo.
Barros, like other activists in the room, believe they’ve built something — or, at least, the start of something. His mood shifts.
“As I walked to the stage, I remember hugging my father,” says Barros. “And he said to me, ‘Did we win or lose?’ He was really confused…He hears the roars, he hears the claps…And in a tight embrace, I said to him, ‘No, we didn’t get the votes we wanted. But this was a win.’ ”
The mixed emotions at Barros headquarters on election night presaged a conflicted reaction still coursing through black, Latino and Asian political circles weeks after the mayoral election.
Interviews with a broad swath of activists and politicians find a “new Boston” at once deeply disappointed by its failure to produce Boston’s first mayor of color this fall — and fundamentally optimistic about what the campaign portends for the future.
Activists say the final round of voting, in particular — when there were no longer candidates of color to split Boston’s minority neighborhoods and activists — saw a promising, cross-racial alliance of blacks, Latinos and Asians who coalesced around a single candidate, Walsh, and the beginnings of a common agenda.
And that agenda, they argue — taking aim at economic and racial inequality — became the defining agenda of the campaign: Walsh and Connolly speaking at length on the issues as they courted voters in the election battlegrounds of Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester.
This defeat-with-a-silver-lining came at a crossroads for black, Latino and Asian Boston.
Forty years after the busing crisis branded the city a place of racial intolerance, Boston has undoubtedly changed. But its power structure — financial, legal, political — remains disproportionately, even overwhelmingly, white.
Activists and political professionals, however sanguine about upending the political order in the medium- to long-term, acknowledge the weaknesses laid bare by the mayor’s race.
Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling, who served as an adviser to Golar Richie, says modest turnout in communities of color was worrisome — especially given the historic nature of the first-in-a-generation open seat election and the presence of several attractive minority candidates.
And she says the failure to unite behind a single candidate — in a mayor’s race that drew six candidates of color — was a major mistake.
“I think we need to be more tactical as people of color,” she says. “And I’ll tell you why. I know that [the predominately white neighborhoods of] South Boston and West Roxbury are coming out for every election. I don’t know that about Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.”
It was an argument Golar Richie supporters made in the closing weeks of the campaign — inspiring a sharp backlash from Barros and Arroyo supporters, who called it fundamentally undemocratic.
That critique remains. But at least some Barros and Arroyo supporters say they are open to a winnowing process next time around — as long as it happens early in the electoral process, before candidates have committed significant time and energy to the race.
“I don’t think you’re going to have six candidates of color” next time, says Mariama White-Hammond, an activist who supported Barros in the mayoral campaign. “We are going to start talking very soon.”
Still, there were other structural problems. Chief among them: money. White candidates raised millions more than candidates of color.
Arroyo, a city councilor who fell short in the mayor’s race, says it’s about social strata. ”When your circle of friends aren’t people with high-paying jobs and aren’t people with what would be called disposable income, raising money becomes very difficult,” he says.
There are also splits within communities of color. In the black community, for instance, there was a generational divide — with a cohort of young activists supporting Barros, while the old guard backed Golar Richie.
Still, activists young and old say they are optimistic about bridging the generational divide in the black community — and about building cross-racial alliances among all the city’s communities of color.
There’s reason for hope there. Boston’s black and Latino communities have never engaged in the kind of political feuds that have roiled cities like New York and Chicago. And rainbow coalitions are not a new phenomenon in this city. Black mayoral finalist Mel King put one together 30 years ago.
King lost. But now that Boston is a majority-minority city, there’s a sense that something more potent could be in the offing.
Many black, Latino and Asian activists came together after the preliminary election under the umbrella of a group called Right to the City Vote, rallying around Walsh in the final election.
And activists can make a convincing case that their agenda — if not their first choice for mayor — won.
James Jennings, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, says it’s no accident that issues of economic and racial inequality came to the fore this year.
There were individual candidates interested in those issues, he says. But there was something bigger going on, he argues: a confluence of black, Latino and Asian political organization and a historic demographic shift to a majority-minority city.
“All of a sudden, issues that in the black and Latino community, and in the Asian community as well, were always important — poverty, racism, structural inequalities — that becomes more prominent in the political discourse that we have in Boston,” he says.
Jennings says the rise of a populist politics may lead to conflict in an increasingly affluent city.
That conflict could come to a head, he suggests, at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which oversees development in the city. Critics say the agency is too cozy with developers. And Mayor-elect Walsh is promising a shake-up, with more transparency and power for neighborhoods.
Business is pushing back against the plans, though. And out in the neighborhoods, there’s some skepticism among rank-and-file voters about whether a new politics is really on the way.
Roger Phillips, an unemployed teacher’s aide sitting over a plate of mashed potatoes, macaroni and corn at Brothers Deli & Restaurant in Mattapan Square on a recent afternoon, said he was pleased that so many candidates of color ran for mayor.
And he took note when Walsh picked up the endorsements of three minority candidates he beat in the preliminary — Barros, Golar Richie and Arroyo.
But Phillips is not sure what the endorsements will mean in terms of Walsh administration policy.
“It said that he was paying good lip service,” he says. “I’m hoping it says more. Actions speak a lot louder than words, my man. Actions speak a lot louder than words.”
The politicians and activists who rallied around Walsh are more optimistic. They like the diversity in his transition team and say he seems committed to their goals. But they’re not taking anything for granted.
Several organizations and leaders — including the Boston chapter of the NAACP, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and the Latino advocacy group Oiste — are strategizing around how to hold Walsh to account for his promises.
Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said he wants Mayor-elect Walsh to succeed for a term or two.
But Curry, standing in the NAACP’s cramped offices after a meeting of the alliance bent on tracking Walsh’s progress, spoke with an impatience in his voice.
“Every mayor of this city has been a white man — since the city was born, it’s been a white man,” he says. “It is time to now see diversity in this city at every level.”
Activists acknowledge that their embrace of Walsh means there may not be a significant electoral challenge in four years — assuming he lives up to his campaign promises.
But those who have been waiting for decades — like former state Rep. Doris Bunte — say change is coming.
“I don’t know about four years,” Bunte says. “But I do know, or I do believe, that the next mayor will be a mayor of color.”