When acting mayor Kim Janey was ceremonially sworn in on March 24 — a move that signaled her intention to seek the job permanently — she referenced her family’s long history in Boston.
“I was born into a family with deep roots in the South End, and six generations in Roxbury, the center of our great city,” Janey said.
As District 4 City Councilor Andrea Campbell — who represents Dorchester, Mattapan, and parts of Roslindale and Jamaica Plain — runs for mayor, she’s taking a similar tack, suggesting that she can lead Boston effectively because she’s been shaped by the city her entire life.
“I was born and raised in Boston, in Roxbury and the South End,” Campbell said in a January campaign video, as the camera lingered on photographs of her as a child. “I went to five Boston Public Schools.”
There’s a subtext here: The first candidate in the race — City Councilor Michelle Wu — wasn’t born and raised in Boston. She came to Massachusetts as a teenager to attend Harvard College after graduating from high school in suburban Chicago. Later, she moved to the North End, the South End and Roslindale, where she and her family now live.
Before the St. Patrick’s Day political breakfast, state Sen. Nick Collins, D - First Suffolk — the event’s host, and a possible mayoral candidate himself — made this point explicitly. When Wu released a video for the event, imitating a harried Ben Affleck carrying too much Dunkin’ Donuts, Collins tweeted, “What else do [Affleck] and [Wu] have in common? They both love acting like they’re from Boston!”
A mayoral poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group for GBH News last fall may explain why this particular part of Wu’s biography is receiving so much attention.
“We asked about a series of characteristics of the next mayor, and one of the things that was the most important there — or that voters said was the most important — was someone who grew up in Boston,” said MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela.
The results were striking. Forty percent of respondents said that, as they weighed their mayoral choices, they considered it very important that a candidate grew up in Boston. Among Black voters — who overwhelmingly preferred then-Mayor Marty Walsh to Wu, the only declared candidate at the time — interest in this trait was especially strong, with 60% calling it very important.
According to Koczela, though, those findings come with a caveat.
“One of the things that voters often do is, they’ll triangulate backwards from a candidate they’re supporting to the characteristics of that candidate being important,” Koczela said. “So, if you’re a supporter of Joe Biden’s, decades of experience is important.”
It’s possible that — when Koczela polled the race last September — a similar dynamic was at work, with supporters of Walsh stressing the importance of growing up in Boston because they knew that Walsh did and Wu didn’t.
That explanation seems plausible to Byron Rushing, who represented Boston in the Massachusetts House for three and a half decades and now leads the Roxbury Historical Society.
“If that poll is accurate, people have gotten mad about something very, very recently,” Rushing, who has endorsed Wu for mayor, said.
Rushing grew up in New York and Syracuse before moving to Massachusetts to attend Harvard College. He notes that Black Bostonians have a long history of supporting politicians who came from somewhere else, including former state representative and mayoral candidate Charlotte Golar Richie, former city councilor and mayoral candidate Tom Atkins, former City Councilor Chuck Turner, and former U.S. Sen. Ed Brooke.
“There has never been a time when that was an issue, unless you really go way back to when West Indians first come to the United States — and you’re going back to the 1920s,” Rushing said. “But that pretty much got resolved in less than a generation."
“Most of our constituents in the 1960s and 70s would have come from someplace [else] also,” Rushing added. “The first time that the majority of the Black population in Boston came from Boston was 1970, was recorded in the 1970 census.”
Still, Koczela’s findings square with Boston’s mayoral track record. Other major American cities routinely elect mayors who aren’t natives. The last two mayors of New York City, Bill de Blasio and Mike Bloomberg, both grew up in Massachusetts. Ed Rendell was raised in New York City before becoming mayor of Philadelphia. And Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is a native of Massillon, Ohio.
In Boston, though, the last mayor who wasn’t from the city — Malcolm Nichols, who hailed from Portland, Maine — was elected nearly a century ago, in 1925. Before Nichols, Quincy native Josiah Quincy and North Reading native Thomas Norton Hart were elected in 1895 and 1899, respectively. (Quincy's grandfather and great-grandfather held the job before him.) And Hugh O’Brien and Patrick Collins — both of whom were born in Ireland — were elected in 1884 and 1901.
William Fowler, an emeritus professor of history at Northeastern University and former head of the Massachusetts Historical Society, notes that O’Brien and Collins took office at a time when conflict between Boston’s Protestants and Catholics was in abeyance. While it would soon return under mayors like John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley, Fowler said, the Republican Yankee establishment of the time viewed both O’Brien and Collins as reasonable, reform-minded men.
“After the Civil War, things really did change in Boston,” Fowler said. “The Boston Irish — the leadership of the Boston Irish — were, for the most part, accommodating.”
Asked why Boston has, historically, been slow to elect mayors who came from somewhere else, Fowler offers a straightforward explanation. As the 20th century progressed, he said, Boston’s Irish “turned inward. They were very parochial. [And] that sort of continued as a tradition here in Boston."
“I suppose it’s a cliché, and I’m sure you’ll get letters and comments and emails on this," Folwer added. "But you know what? Boston’s a pretty parochial place.”
Larry DiCara, the former city councilor and mayoral candidate, suggested a more structural explanation. For decades, he said, there simply wasn’t room in Boston politics for people perceived as outsiders, including former mayoral hopefuls Ed Logue, Rosaria Salerno and Sam Yoon. As a rule, Boston political candidates were people who’d grown up in the city, and often people whose parents had grown up there — and their voters were, too.
But now, DiCara said, Boston is changing — and the prospect of electing a mayor who’s originally from somewhere else no longer seems far-fetched.
“We have so many people in Boston who aren’t from here that I think it’s quite possible it could happen,” DiCara said.
A new MassINC/Boston Foundation/Dorchester Reporter/WBUR poll backs up DiCara's analysis. Wu and Janey lead the mayoral field, drawing support from 19% and 18% of registered voters, respectively.
For her part, Wu said that after spending most of her adult life in the world of Boston politics, having her Boston bona fides questioned doesn’t come as a surprise.
“I have had the privilege and the honor of representing the entire city for eight years now, to run in four different citywide elections,” Wu said. “And it’s not new to be reminded, sometimes, of the ways in which I might be different from a lot of the typical mold of Boston politicians — in many ways.”
But Wu also said that, in her experience, where candidates are from ranks low on the electorate’s list of concerns.
“What voters care about — what Bostonians care about — is the chance to see action on urgent issues," she said. “The needs within our school system, how our economy is going, small businesses, families — the day-to-day experiences.”
When she began taking the T to Chinatown on weekends as an undergraduate, Wu said, it was “really the first time I felt rooted anywhere in the world. Growing up, we had moved around several times … so I hadn’t felt, necessarily, connected and rooted anywhere else."
“I wasn’t lucky enough to be born in Boston, but I’ve chosen to make this my home,” she added. “I’ve had the chance to raise my kids here — to have raised my sisters here as well, as my mom was living with mental illness. Boston has truly given us everything that we cherish in my family.”
More recent history may be on Wu’s side. In 2010, Ayanna Pressley, who was born in Cincinnati and raised in Chicago, became the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. Nine years later, after defeating incumbent Mike Capuano in a hard-fought primary, Pressley became the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.
As for Wu, she topped the at-large ticket in the last two elections — and a new MassINC/WBUR/Dorchester Reporter poll shows her leading the mayor's race in a city where, right now, nearly two-thirds of adult residents aren’t from Massachusetts at all.