Editorial: Skip the special

Should Boston hold a special election this summer to replace Mayor Walsh when he leaves City Hall to become Labor Secretary? The consensus answer, judging by the public debate surrounding a home rule petition against holding one proposed by City Councillor Ricardo Arroyo, is a resounding “no.”

Secretary of State William Galvin, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, NAACP Boston, MassVOTE, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, and the majority of councillors who are on the record about the matter have all spoken up clearly to say what we also believe: It does not make sense to schedule a special this year, particularly when there is already a municipal election set for September and November. The council should expedite its efforts to get this sensible proposal to the Legislature for its approval. Gov. Baker has already indicated that he will sign it.

As it stands today, it is possible that Walsh could be confirmed as soon as next week. The Biden cabinet nominees are moving through the Democratic-controlled Senate at a brisk pace for the Capitol. Walsh himself is needed on deck to run one of the federal administration’s most important departments. It is highly unlikely that he will still be our mayor by Valentine’s Day. He will resign promptly after his confirmation, which is virtually assured.

Under the city charter, once that resignation is filed with the city clerk, a special election will be ordered “forthwith” and scheduled for late spring or early summer. In that scenario, with City Council President Kim Janey filling the vacancy until a new mayor is installed via the preliminary and final special elections, another mayoral campaign would then begin for the regular scheduled elections in September and November.

So in following the charter’s mandate, the city would be compelled to stage four distinct elections through November with all of the attendant costs and, in the time of the coronavirus, public health risks.

In the unlikely event that Walsh leaves his post here on or after March 5, the call for a special election would be moot under the charter, and the next election would be the scheduled primary in September, with Janey serving as “acting mayor” until a new mayor is elected in November.

The Home Rule petition authored by Councillor Arroyo gives us a welcome safety valve if Walsh resigns in the next week, or at least before March 5. It would override the city charter and let us wait until the fall to pick the next mayor.

During a committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon— which stretched into the evening— councillors heard testimony from each other and from advocates for voter rights, all of whom urged the council to support the petition.

As committee chair Councillor Lydia Edwards noted at one point: “There’s not much disagreement in this room.” Indeed, no one who testified even tried to make a case for a special. The most compelling testimony came from the men and women who are paid to actually run our elections, both at the city and state levels. Sabino Piemonte, a longtime election official for the city, testified that each citywide election day costs between $700,000 to $750,000 to mount— and that’s without additional expenses related to Covid-19.

The cost of staging the elections is one thing. But what about the cost of having to juggle a massive public health emergency while also worrying about coordinating four elections in a relatively short span of time. Shouldn’t the full attention of city government— indeed of all of us— be on getting this blasted vaccine into as many arms as possible?

The simple answer is “yes.” We hope the council, mayor, state lawmakers, and the governor will get this measure passed without delay.

- Bill Forry