As Boston prepares for the 2021 mayoral election, a new GBH News poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group shows that the COVID-19 pandemic far outstrips any issue on the minds of registered voters, relegating crime, public safety, police conduct, and race relations to a third tier of worry. Of second most importance to voters was housing, the economy, and jobs.
The survey found that 39 percent of respondents saw COVID-19 as the “single biggest issue” they face:
- 19 percent of respondents experienced job loss.
- 20 percent indicated they’ve turned to a food bank.
- 28 percent reported spending a significant portion of a savings or retirement fund.
- 29 percent struggled to pay a portion of their rent or mortgage.
Mayor Marty Walsh declared a public health emergency over coronavirus March 15. In the six months since then, it infected more than 16,000 Bostonians, killing more than 750.
According to MassINC President Steve Koczela, the pandemic's impact is — in reality — even more dire.
“When we’re talking about the impacts of COVID, we know that they’ve been very disproportionate on people with lower income, people of color, immigrants and non-English speakers,” Koczela said. “If we were to do a general population poll, where we polled everybody in the city of Boston, regardless of registration status, you’d probably see these impacts even greater.”
The GBH News/MassINC poll was conducted from Sept. 11 to 15, sampled 400 registered voters, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
When asked to state their preference in theupcoming 2021 mayor's race 46 percent favored undeclared incumbent Mayor Marty Walsh while 23 percent favored City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu. Four percent favored District Councilor Andrea Campbell, who represents Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, Roslindale and Jamaica Plain, and is said to be considering a run.
Another 18 percent didn’t know or were undecided, and six percent said they would prefer another candidate.
Housing costs followed distantly behind COVID: 12 percent found the issue most concerning.
“My fear is that it’s going to decrease the diversity of the city,” said Max Shuchman, 27, of Allston. “I have friends and family who are moving out of the city based on costs and I’d like to be here longer.”
Jobs and the economy were the next resonant issue with voters. Eight percent said it was their top concern.
Younger voters like Shuchman were more likely to identify it as their top issue — the same age group most likely to experience a decrease in overall income.
“I did have a small, part-time job, but I voluntarily gave that up at the beginning of the coronavirus,” he said.
Despite recent protests over racism, police brutality and police accountability, neither crime and public safety, nor race relations rose to the top of most voters’ issue list.
Only six percent of respondents identified crime and public safety as their most pressing issue. Four percent chose race relations.
This doesn't mean that those issues don't matter.
Koczela said questions on police and policing proposals suggest, simultaneously, broad approval of the Boston Police Department and broad agreement on room for improvement through specific reforms.
Seventy-one percent of respondents approve of the way BPD is doing its job, with 38 percent characterizing their approval “somewhat.” Twenty-two percent disapprove, and seven percent either didn’t know how, or declined to answer.
Black and Latino voters were most accepting of BPD performance with 74 and 75 percent, respectively, indicating approval.
“I’ve been driving around in Boston now for over eight years,” said Germaine Gentle, a real estate agent who moonlights as a ride-share driver and says he has never been pulled over by Boston Police while on the job at odd hours. He chalks his free movement up to the force’s good training and decent community relationships.
“I think they profile, maybe less, or maybe they have a good idea of who is who based on their interactions with people and neighborhoods,” he said.
When asked about police performance and responsiveness, 68 percent believe an expanded civilian review board (as recommended by the mayor’s reform panel earlier this month) would be effective at improving the way Boston Police operate.
Kevin Robinson, a South Boston man in his early thirties, said: “I support our Boston Police Department, but that doesn’t mean I unwaveringly support everything that they do.”
“I think," Robinson added, "a civilian review board to watch the people that watch us makes sense.”
Emma Hahn of Brighton was more considered, calling the civilian review board “a good first step."
“I think that any sort of oversight outside of the police department is a good thing,” Hahn said. “In practice, it’s going to be interesting to see whether that [review board] has any power, or any access to information that everyday people don’t necessarily have, or if it’s going to be a continuation of qualified immunity.”
Hahn, 29, also supports cutting some funding from the Boston Police Department and shifting it to social services, an idea that 65 percent of respondents support and 28 percent oppose.
Younger voters and Latinos indicated the most support for this idea, while voters ages 60 and older expressed the most opposition.
“You cannot take money away from the police,” said Richard Pavidis, 69 who fears reallocating funding will prompt an increase in unlawful behavior. “They are our first line of defense against all the ungodly people that are now committing crimes in order to survive.”
Overall, the very presence of police in a neighborhood tended to make almost half questioned — 46 percent — feel "mostly safe." Thirty-two percent said they were not affected. However, 18 percent were "mostly anxious." Four percent didn't know or declined to respond.
The issue of police could be one mayoral candidates use to distinguish themselves in nascent 2021 mayoral race. There’s a slight gap between how Walsh supporters and Wu backers think about police.
Seventy six percent of Walsh supporters approve of the way the BPD is doing its job, while 57 percent of Wu supporters approve.
Additionally, 55 percent of Walsh supporters said they feel safe when they see Boston Police in their communities, while only 31 percent of Wu supporters feel safe in the same circumstance.
Of the gap, Koczela said: “You can see the coalitions that Marty Walsh and Michelle Wu are beginning to carve out and how they feel differently about some of these issues.”
He added, “I do think that this is going to be an active discussion during the campaign and between the candidates, trying to figure out exactly what the right course is for the Boston Police Department.”