Boston’s changing demographics on display in mayoral race dominated by women of color

Voters in Boston are getting ready for a major shakeup in their city's politics. Tuesday's election in the race for mayor narrows the field to two finalists. One thing won’t change — all the contenders in this nonpartisan election are left of center. But as Jeffrey Brown reports for our "Race Matters" series, the face of leadership looks different this year.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Voters in Boston are getting ready for a major shakeup in their city's politics. Tomorrow's election in the race for mayor narrows the field to two finalists.

    One thing won't change: All the contenders in this nonpartisan election are left-of-center.

    But, as Jeffrey Brown reports, the face of leadership looks different this year.

    It's part of our Race Matters series.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Meet the mayor, the old one, always a white male, and, for 90 years, all but one Irish. But look now. Change is in the air in Boston, where the top candidates this year are all women of color who serve on the City Council, acting Mayor Kim Janey and Andrea Campbell, both black, Michelle Wu, Taiwanese-American, Annissa Essaibi George, daughter of Tunisian and Polish parents.

    To many, like Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, it's a watershed moment. She grew up here and now heads MassVOTE, aimed at increasing voter participation in communities of color.

  • Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, MassVOTE:

    At one point, we could not see ourselves. A female — a Black female mayor, this just wasn't in the cards. We didn't see it.

    As the demographics change in the city is more — is becoming more mixed, diverse, people see themselves in the role, in those roles, and say, I can, right? Like, that role is open for me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is a city of rich history, but part of that history includes deep racism.

    When I was growing up in this area, one of my childhood heroes was Bill Russell, one the great basketball players with the Boston Celtics. He would write years later in a memoir with bitterness of his experience as a Black man here, calling Boston a flea market of racism.

    So, one question posed now, how much has this city really changed?

    In the 1970s busing era, overt violence, today, continued economic disparities. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found the median net worth for non-immigrant Black households in the metropolitan area was just $8, compared to $250,000 for whites.

    Boston has a — quite a reputation as a racist city, a racist past.

  • Cheryl Clyburn Crawford:

    It does.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is it deserved?

  • Cheryl Clyburn Crawford:

    Yes, very much so. I grew up here. I went to school here. I left and I came back after 25 years. And, yes, in a different shape, in a different form, but it still exists.

    And I just — I think we're working on it. I feel hopeful.

  • Man:

    These are the 411 kits with all of the information about the different campaigns that we're working on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Crawford's group is nonpartisan and doesn't back specific candidates. But she says an election amid a pandemic gives all of them and voters a need to respond.

  • Cheryl Clyburn Crawford:

    I think, with COVID last year, 2020, ripping the Band-Aid off and exposing all the inequities that exist within our communities, that we have a real opportunity to make change.

  • Larry DiCara, Former Boston City Councillor:

    Thriving church, the hub of this neighborhood.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The old way in Boston revolved around tight-knit neighborhood institutions like the Catholic Church. Larry DiCara learned that as a politician himself in many roles, beginning in the 1970s as a city councillor and candidate for mayor.

    We met him outside Blessed Sacrament, shuttered since 2004, in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

  • Larry DiCara:

    When I arrived in Jamaica Plain, there were four Catholic churches and four Catholic schools. Today, there are two Catholic churches.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Today, Jamaica Plain is a more gentrified community, new businesses mixed with old and its own Whole Foods.

  • Larry DiCara:

    And many of the buildings are now occupied by young single people who are not from here. And they…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. They don't have those roots.

  • Larry DiCara:

    Don't have the roots. Don't even know what church they're supposed to go to. Very, very different.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But people don't have those roots, but they also don't have the political roots.

  • Larry DiCara:

    Don't have the political roots because they don't know that Maura Hennigan's was in the state Senate and her grandfather was before him.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Larry DiCara:

    They just don't know those things.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

    In another part of the city, Dorchester's Fields Corner, immigrants, most from Vietnam, have helped revitalize a neighborhood in decline.

    Paul Watanabe, University of Massachusetts Boston: I have seen it in just a few years after they built this thing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, brought us to the Vietnam American Community Center.

  • Paul Watanabe:

    And what they did is, they came here and they found the rent is cheap, and they found an opportunity here. And they really built a community here.

    This is a city that, for example, that was on a decline. Up until the most recent censuses, for example, we saw the population of Boston going down, not increasing. And we have seen the growth of the city take place under one explanation, and that is immigration.

    Immigration is really what has added to the vibrancy of the city in a large degree.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It helped bring it back?

  • Paul Watanabe:

    It helped bring it back.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What will happen? In West Roxbury, Rachel Poliner, head of the local chapter of Progressive Massachusetts, is backing current front-runner Michelle Wu, who happens to be originally from Chicago.

    But, today, Poliner she thinks Bostonians vote more on issues, like affordable housing and homelessness due to the opioid crisis, rather than old ties.

  • Rachel Poliner, Progressive West Roxbury/Roslindale:

    We have questionnaires that go out to candidates. We interview the candidates. We have forums.

    And I think all of those contribute. The political conversation is shifting over the last decade, more to issues and policies and problem-solving.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For Paul Watanabe, there is a chance Boston itself will move from national political lagger to leader.

  • Paul Watanabe:

    If you think about Northern industrial cities, most of them have had a Black mayor before. And I will argue that the leadership that emerges from this election is going to be one that has, I hope, a national impact on this debate, not only what happens in Boston, but how we get a nation that is going to look like Boston soon, a majority-minority nation that, again, has leadership that reflects that new reality.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Tuesday's preliminary election will narrow the field to two, who then go head to head in November. As appears all but certain, a winner will reflect the face of change.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Boston.

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