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Kim Janey Faces Challenges And Opportunities As 'Acting' Mayor In Boston05:22
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Former Boston City Council President Kim Janey is sworn in as Boston's new mayor at City Hall while her granddaughter, Rosie, holds a Bible, on March 24 in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Former Boston City Council President Kim Janey is sworn in as Boston's new mayor at City Hall while her granddaughter, Rosie, holds a Bible, on March 24 in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)

If you want to learn something about the challenges Kim Janey faces as an acting mayor in Boston, talk to Marvin Pratt.

Back in 2004, Pratt was president of the city council of Milwaukee — just like Janey was in Boston. Then, after Mayor John Norquist stepped down with three months left in his term, Pratt became acting mayor. Like Janey, Pratt was his city's first Black mayor.

Pratt told WBUR that the title of "acting mayor" is both a blessing and a bit of a burden. On the one hand, it means you're in charge; you're the mayor. But on the other, it means you could be seen as a lame duck. So Pratt has some advice for Janey.

"She is the mayor, and as mayor, my advice to her is get rid of the 'acting' part," Pratt said. "Because I used to say, 'I'm not acting. This is the real deal here.' "

Janey seems to be heeding that advice. On her first day in office last week, she updated her Twitter bio, calling herself "the 55th Mayor of Boston. Not Acting, doing."

And Janey already appears to be doing a lot: visiting the school where she was bused as a little girl, holding press conferences and promoting her goals to improve racial equity. Last week, that included her first initiative: a $1.5 million grant program to fund nonprofits helping Bostonians get vaccinated — targeting those hardest hit by the pandemic.

"We know that people of color are more likely to get COVID-19, and if they do, they are more likely to die," Janey said.

Janey, who became Boston's acting mayor just last week, is already using her authority to pursue policies to promote racial equity and fairness. And if she decides to join the race to be the city's next elected mayor, her position gives her an advantage over other candidates for mayor. But being an active mayor can also present some challenges.

According to Boston's city charter, the powers of acting mayor are limited. For example, Janey can't make permanent appointments. And the charter says an acting mayor can only take action in urgent matters that cannot be delayed until after the next election. That means, for example, that Janey may not be able to launch big building projects that would likely stretch out for years.

"She's been very much involved with public education in Boston, [so if] she felt there was a need for a new school in Mattapan, that's something that could wait," said Sam Tyler, who served as the longtime head of the watchdog group Boston Municipal Research Bureau. "She wouldn't be able to initiate that kind of work."

But there's a lot she can do — especially in a city like Boston, which has a strong mayor system of government. There's no city manager, so the mayor calls most of the shots, according to Katharine Lusk, who co-directs Boston University's initiative on Cities. Lusk said that even an acting mayor retains lots of power, including control of the city budget, not to mention the power to persuade.

"Most mayors, really good effective mayors, will ignore what's written down and understand they have a platform," she said.

A good example was Boston's longest-serving mayor, who began as an acting mayor: Tom Menino. Lusk, who worked for Menino, said that as acting mayor, he understood right away that he had real power. And Menino used it.

"One of the things he used to talk about anecdotally — and actually talks about in his book — was the decision to freeze the water rates, which were climbing quite precipitously in Boston," Lusk said. "And people said, 'Well, you don't have the authority to freeze the water rates.' And he said, 'Well, sure I do. I'm freezing the water rates.' "

Menino's approach as acting mayor might offer Janey a road map, according to Michael Curry, a former president of the Boston branch of the NAACP.

"I think Mayor Menino was able to capture the attention of the entire city in a short period of time," Curry said. "She'll have to do the same thing."

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Curry believes Janey is in a good position to do just that. Janey says she will decide in the coming weeks whether to enter the race for mayor.  If she does run, Curry says she will have a big advantage.

"She gets to be mayoral for the next several months as others are campaigning and trying to lift up a vision for what they would do if they were to have that seat," he said. "She actually has the seat."

But of course that's no guarantee she'll win. When Acting Mayor Pratt ran for election in Milwaukee, he finished first in a crowded primary — but then lost to Tom Barrett, a white former congressman, who remains mayor to this day. Unlike Janey, Pratt noted that he had less than three months as acting mayor, while also campaigning to keep the job.

"I did not have enough time to do that — to put [my campaign together," he said. "I wish I would have had the time that [Janey] has."

If Janey decides to run, she'll have eight months until the election in November to show what she can do as mayor. Right after she was sworn in last week, Janey said she intends to do a lot.

"We are in a pandemic, and I will use every opportunity," she told reporters last week. "I will use my power as mayor and the power that comes with that office to ensure that we are doing everything we can for the residents of Boston."

Asked if she was concerned about any limits on her power as acting mayor, Janey replied, "Not at all."

Correction: Katharine Lusk's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

This segment aired on March 31, 2021.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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