Next year's mayoral race is moving into focus— sort of

After a weekend of celebrations following President-elect Joe Biden and VP-elect Kamala Harris’s victory in the 2020 election, attention should soon begin to shift to next year’s most important political contest on the local front: Mayor of Boston.

A key dynamic in the race remains whether or not Mayor Martin J. Walsh will run again or accept a position in the Biden-Harris administration, still very much a theoretical question that is not likely to be resolved in the coming days or even weeks.

With the transition period in Washington, D.C. in a strange limbo caused by the unwillingness of the Trump administration and key allies in Congress to accept his defeat, the city’s political class will likely remain frozen in place and wait for events to unfold.

Walsh, now serving out his second term, has not yet said definitively that he will seek another four years. However, his campaign’s fundraising and spending in recent weeks suggest that he is preparing to launch a re-election bid. Notably, his campaign is planning a “Women for Walsh” fundraiser next week, an event that includes a committee packed with notable female business and political luminaries.

In a press conference on Sunday, Walsh took questions about whether he might fill a cabinet post or take some other role in a Biden-Harris administration. 

“There’s speculation about a lot of things. He can’t take everyone from Massachusetts with him,” said Walsh.

Walsh has known Biden since 1997 and the President-elect personally presided over the mayor’s second inauguration, swearing him into office.

If Walsh were to agree to take a job in the new national administration, that would set up a sequence of city election year events that has attained precedence in recent years.  When President Bill Clinton reached into Boston City Hall to appoint Mayor Ray Flynn ambassador to the Vatican in 1993, City Council President Thomas Menino became acting mayor, a post he used as a springboard to an elected mayorship over the following two decades that made him the city’s longest serving mayor.

Were Walsh to leave for Washington, Council President Kim Janey would be elevated to acting mayor, making her the first woman of color to lead the city. She’d also have an incumbency advantage if she chose to enter the 2021 mayoral election, shaking up a field that so far includes city councillors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell.

Janey, asked by the Reporter to comment about her plan for next year, said: “Well, right now, I think we have to get through the next 8 or 9 weeks of the current administration in the White House. I was confident Biden would win, but I’m not so confident in this transition of power. Those are where my initial thoughts are right now. As for what happens in 2021, we’ll see.”

Walsh, then a state representative, was elected mayor in 2013, when Menino’s decision not to run for re-election set off the city’s first mayoral race without an incumbent in decades.

“Some time in the new year we’ll be talking about what my plans are,” Walsh told WGBH last Friday.

Asked if he’d be interested in running for US Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s seat if she does join the Biden administration, he said, “I’m focused on being the mayor of Boston right now.”

While Walsh hasn’t made an announcement about his own plans, he played a role in making news of Councillor Wu’s candidacy public, confirming to the Boston Globe in September that she had let him know of her intention to run. A week later, Wu formally announced her candidacy in a campaign video. Two weeks later, she was joined in the race by Campbell, who represents parts of Dorchester and Mattapan in District 4. 

According to reports filed with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) as of October 31, both Wu and Campbell have made substantial fundraising gains since announcing their mayoral bids. Wu now has $475,435 cash on hand, and Campbell is not far behind with $441,831. 

Walsh, meanwhile, has also been vigorously adding to his campaign account. The incumbent mayor now has more than $5.7 million in his war chest, a notable increase from his $5.5 million just a few months ago. This week, Wu earned an endorsement from Jay Gonzalez, a former gubernatorial candidate who lost to Gov. Charlie Baker in 2018. 

“She won’t be a wait-and-see mayor and she won’t make decisions at the behest of the same old people the same old way and behind closed doors,” Gonzalez said. “She will swing the doors of city government wide open where everyone can see how decisions are made and participate in making sure their interests are served.”  

With the crisis surrounding the national election still looming large, all three likely candidates this week spent time addressing issues related to the presidency. The prospect of a constitutional crisis, coupled with the menace of a still-potent pandemic, could chill interest in a relatively far-off mayor’s race— at least for now.

“Everything is up in the air,” said former Boston City Councillor Larry DiCara, an astute observer and sometime practitioner of city politics since the 1970s. “If the pandemic continues as most predict it will— into the spring— I’m not sure people are going to be tuned in yet.”

DiCara, a native of Dorchester, ran for mayor in 1983 after a stint on the council. He noted that in that year, it was not known that Mayor Kevin White would not seek another term until Memorial Day. A decade later, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn’s decision to leave the mayor’s job to become Ambassador to the Vatican in 1993 was not known until July of that year.

DiCara’s take: Walsh is most likely running and would remain the heavy favorite. “It’s very hard to dislodge an incumbent mayor of Boston. It hasn’t happened since 1949 and that was James Michael Curley, who was 75 years old, and who had just spent five months in jail,” said DiCara, who added: “The mayor is acting as though he is running. Nobody has ever had the kind of a war chest he has.”

State Rep. Russell Holmes, who represents parts of Dorchester and Mattapan, agrees that the current mayor would hold a distinct advantage.

“I think the mayor is significantly advantaged with $5.5 million in funds,” Holmes said. “But quite honestly, all three are friends of mine and I look forward to a conversation that puts all of the ideas side by side.” 

“I think [Campbell] is more advantaged than [Wu] because I just think that at-large councillors never feel that they are attached to a certain district because they have the whole city,” Holmes added. 

Another fact to consider, said DiCara: The potential for Council President Janey to consolidate power as acting mayor and launch her own campaign to retain the job, following Tom Menino’s path to power.

“She could be underestimated, like Tom Menino was,” said DiCara.

Elements of a report by State House News Service is included in this article.

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