Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey is looking to drop the "acting" from her title. She announced Tuesday that she will seek a full term as mayor. GBH News reporter Adam Reilly discussed Janey's entry into the race and what it mean' for this year's mayoral contest with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So not a surprise, right?
Adam Reilly: Not a surprise at all. Ever since she became acting mayor, Janey was sending strong signals that she wanted to get the job on a permanent basis — that she was going to end up running. She was fundraising in earnest and also making a point of telling everyone not to call her "acting mayor" inside city hall, but to refer to her as "mayor," which is a good thing to do if you want to keep the job. So no surprise, but it still marks what I think of as an inflection point in the race. She is now officially in it, along with the other five people, and they have to figure out how to respond to this big advantage that she brings to the contest.
Rath: Right. And have you heard much in terms of response from those five?
Reilly: I tried talking with all of Janey's rivals about what they make of her getting in the race and how they intend to deal with this advantage that she has of being seen as the incumbent, even though technically she is acting mayor, as you pointed out — under the city charter of Boston, that's a different job. I would say that they are being very careful as they respond to this development in the race. As you know, Janey has gotten a ton of attention locally and nationally for being the first woman and the first Black Bostonian to run the city, and that puts the other candidates in a bind. They know how excited people are about Janey making history, but they also know that because they want the job, they need to remind people she hasn't actually been elected mayor yet. So, again, they're caught between two dueling imperatives, and they're being really cautious.
Rath: So how are they threading the needle? How are we seeing that caution play out?
Reilly: It depends on the candidate. Let me start with Michelle Wu, the at-large city councilor who was the first candidate to get in this race. She jumped in back in September 2020, when it looked like she was going to be running against former Mayor Marty Walsh. When Janey became acting mayor a couple of weeks ago, Wu tweeted out her congratulations with a picture of the two of them. She praised Janey for making history and said she looked forward to working with her.
When I asked Wu to react to Janey jumping in, she made what I think was a subtle but significant shift. Instead of talking about how Janey is making history, Wu talked about how she is the latest arrival in a group that is making history: "I'm excited to see this field of historic candidates representing Boston's diversity and a huge range of expertise and talent and qualifications." After that, Wu weighed in on the challenge of having the acting mayor as a rival. "I was the first candidate to jump into this race in a very different political situation then," she said. "What I'll say is, whether there's a two-term incumbent or a two-month incumbent in the field, it doesn't change how we run our campaign."
You can hear her weighing, OK, how far can I go? What do I need to avoid? What are the rhetorical landmines here?
Rath: Is caution the universal approach, or is anybody taking a more direct approach?
Reilly: I have a piece up online which I should steer listeners to in which I get into some of this stuff in more detail. But I would say that while everyone is being cautious, the one who stood out to me as more direct than the rest of the group was Andrea Campbell, the district city councilor. Just to remind people, she was the second candidate to jump in this race again. She got in when it looked like she might be running against Walsh and Wu for the job. Unlike the others, she did not seem to me to feel a need to spend a lot of time praising Janey. Instead, she offered a very brief acknowledgment of Janey getting in the race, I would even say terse. Then she went right to making the case for her own candidacy.
"I congratulated my former council colleague on her decision to run," Campbell said. "But for me it was never about who was in the seat or who would get into this race. You know, I jumped into this race back in September because I knew the urgency and the opportunity for new leadership that would not only bring our city together but would be courageous enough to take on and confront our painful history of racism and division."
Rath: So that's more direct, but not direct at attacking Janey. It's a difficult challenge to say, I'm running against someone who can say elect me because I'm already doing this, right?
Reilly: Yeah. Your point is very well taken. There's a different tone there in Campbell's response. She didn't say, yeah, now I need to remind everyone that Kim Janey has, in fact, not yet been elected by the voters of Boston to do this job. We have a contest that's going on that's open — there is no real incumbent. It was not that direct. No one was that direct. I asked each of them, how do you run against someone who's pitching herself as the incumbent repeatedly, even though technically she isn't? No one was willing to be that forceful. I do think it's clear, though, that they are all thinking about it. Michelle Wu is not the only one and Andrea Campbell is not the only one whose gears are turning as they figure out how to tackle this challenge. I would predict — although I think I've made wrong predictions with you before, so remind me if this is another one — that the tone of this contest is going to get a lot sharper in the next few weeks.
Rath: It doesn't sound like Janey going in means that any of these other candidates are more likely to drop out.
Rath: Is there anybody else who might have been looking to get in who might be more reluctant now?
Reilly: It is possible that where things have gone in the last week or two keeps the one candidate who I've heard repeatedly discussed as possibly getting in this mix from actually doing it. That is state Sen. Nick Collins, D - Suffolk, from South Boston. There was a lot of talk before the South Boston St. Patrick's Day Breakfast, which Collins hosts, that he might declare his candidacy there. It would have been a nice little platform for him to do that. He did not announce his candidacy. There's still talk that he might jump in, but obviously the longer he waits and the more other candidates there are in the field, the harder it gets to to jump in and be taken seriously.
Rath: Remind us of the history here, of precedent. Has this happened before, where we had an acting mayor who's run for the job of mayor, a full term?
Reilly: I am really glad you mentioned that. Janey is following almost to a T the same playbook that Tom Menino used back in 1993, when he was the acting mayor. Like Janey, he had been city council president, so he automatically became acting mayor when Ray Flynn left to become former President Bill Clinton's ambassador to the Vatican. The press kept referring to him as acting mayor, which he was. Menino made it abundantly clear in city hall that he didn't want anyone calling him "acting,' that he wanted to be treated as the mayor of Boston because he wanted the job on a long-term basis. Like Janey, he even did a swearing-in ceremony. She didn't need to do that the other day, Menino didn't need to do it 20 years ago. But it was a way of showing, OK, technically I'm the acting mayor. But I'm in charge here. And of course for Menino, it worked like a charm — he won election outright later that year, and then he went on to serve for two decades. So it's not a bad example for Janey to be basing her strategy on.
Rath: Do you think the field is now set?
Reilly: I'm going to predict yes. I could be wrong. Remind me next time we're talking if I'm wrong. But I'm going to predict that this is it.