Boston will be able to skip special elections and proceed directly to September's non-partisan primary and November's final contest, officials on Beacon Hill and at City Hall have told GBH News.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who has the final word, said Thursday that he would most likely approve that plan.
“They clearly will show deference to the voters of Boston in this case, I believe,” Secretary of State Bill Galvin said earlier this week.
Several influential Boston legislators who predict that the special election will be waved still wanted to keep a sage silence lest they be seen as trying to toy with a municipal election which, if history is any guide, will be bruising.
According to Boston’s city charter, a special election is required if Walsh leaves office before March 5. If, as expected, more than two candidates run, there would also be a special preliminary election to winnow the field down to two finalists.
After those two elections are held, in the spring or early summer, there would then be another mayoral election in November, preceded by a September preliminary if the field includes more than two candidates.
However, the special-election requirement can be waived if Boston sends a home-rule petition to Beacon Hill and it’s passed into law.
Galvin, the state’s top election official, has already backed the idea, citing cost and potential voter confusion.
“I think the best course of action is for the City Council to have a very thorough discussion on this issue, promptly,” Galvin said.
While home-rule requests can languish on Beacon Hill, lawmakers recently backed a similar move in Lawrence, where former Mayor Dan Rivera just stepped down to lead the Massachusetts Development Financing Agency. On Jan. 7, the state House and Senate approved a proposal to waive a special election to replace Rivera, and Baker signed the change into law the same day.
Spokespeople for Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano have said that the two lawmakers would review any home-rule petition involving Boston’s election calendar, as they do all such petitions.
That debate in Boston began in earnest on Wednesday, when City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo introduced a motion for a hearing to discuss waiving the special-election requirement.
In his remarks, Arroyo said the potential cost is especially worrisome since the COVID-19 crisis has depleted city coffers — and that, as the pandemic continues, a special election would also pose public-health risks.
“In-person voting in four elections would require residents to leave their homes to participate in our electoral process, furthering the risk of spread and the danger to health of residents, city workers and our communities,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo also argued that a four-election cycle would be unfair to Boston’s communities of color, who have been especially hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and to other marginalized groups.
“Low-income, immigrant, disabled and communities of color continue to face systemic obstacles in trying to participate in our political system,” he said. “Beyond one public-health emergency … four elections for the same office in the same year only increases those barriers and serves to limit their participation.”
While there’s a good-government case to be made for nixing a special election, the move would also have clear political implications. Most notably, it could boost Council President Kim Janey — who’ll become acting mayor when Walsh leaves — if she seeks the job permanently.
Right now, the mayoral field includes two candidates, city councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell. Both announced their bids in September 2020, when Walsh’s plans were still unclear. They’ve had months to campaign, fundraise, seek endorsements and build their organizations.
If a special election is held, this would put Wu and Campbell in a position of strength relative to any other candidates, who’d have to act quickly to be viable. That includes Janey, who’s thought to be mulling a run of her own.
Conversely, eliminating the special-election requirement would give other candidates more time to catch up to Wu and Campbell. It would also give Janey — who will be the first woman and the first person of color to lead Boston — more time to serve in the role before facing voters, which could boost her electoral prospects.
In Wednesday’s council hearing, City Councilor Frank Baker suggested that Arroyo’s proposal is intended to help Janey’s mayoral prospects.
“Even though we say it’s about finance, and it’s about COVID, and it’s about this, it’s about who is our person in the race and how does it benefit them directly,” Baker said. “I can’t help but think that that is the underlying reason.”
In that same hearing, City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who chairs the council’s government-operations committee, said that while she has questions about the value of a possible special election, she’s legally required to initiate the process when Walsh leaves unless the council acts.
She also wished luck to Wu, Campbell and any other councilors who might seek the mayor’s job, while wondering aloud why they’d want it.
“I do not have a dog in this fight,” she said. “I do not want to be mayor of Boston. And good luck to those who really want to. I don’t know why, but it’s your dream, it’s your life. YOLO, whatever the hell the kids say.”
The council will hold a hearing on eliminating the special-election requirement at a yet-to-be-determined date.