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A more diverse Boston prepares for a true changing of the guard

Boston is heading toward a historic November election in which a person of color will be elected mayor for the first time. The candidates include (from left) John Barros, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, Kim Janey and Michelle Wu. (AP)

A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins. The article has been corrected.

BOSTON — For two centuries, this historic city has elected only White men as mayor. This fall, its history will be upended.

Bostonians will go to the polls Tuesday in what is locally called a preliminary election, winnowing more than half a dozen mayoral candidates down to two for the general contest in November. All the leading candidates are women of color.

The coming milestone — one already marked by nearly every other major U.S. city — follows a remarkable decade of change and growth here. Residents of color now make up a majority of the population, with Black and Hispanic communities each representing about 19 percent and Asian residents about 11 percent.

Many community leaders see Boston’s politics finally catching up with its demographics and moving it further beyond other aspects of its past — particularly, in the 1970s and 1980s, the city being the center of some of the country’s nastiest battles over the desegregation of schools and public housing.

“Every mayor since John Phillips in 1822 has been a White man,” said Michael Curry, a former president of the Boston NAACP. “You’ve left talent on the table.”

The shift is already reflected in other prominent positions.

In 2018, Ayanna Pressley unseated incumbent Michael E. Capuano in the Democratic primary in the state’s 7th Congressional District, which includes much of Boston. Her victory in the general election only added to her distinctions: she is the first Black woman to win a seat on the city council and the first woman of color to represent the commonwealth in Congress.

That same year, Rachael Rollins became the first Black woman to be elected district attorney not only in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, but in the state. President Biden recently nominated her to be U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.

Erin O’Brien, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and an expert on local politics, expects the city to head in a new direction under its next mayor.

“We know when women of color and people of color get elected, the policy agenda changes,” she said.

The race, wide open because of Martin J. Walsh’s departure in March to be Biden’s labor secretary, has inspired a mix of optimism and realism.

Boston continues to struggle with issues of stratospheric housing costs, low-performing public schools and vast racial gulfs in health, life expectancy and households’ net worth.

“It’s critical that the faces change, but to me, it’s not only about the faces changing,” said former city councilor Tito Jackson, who is Black. “We need true advocacy, people who will take on the real fight.”

Three polls this summer showed Councilor Michelle Wu — the first Asian American woman to serve on that body — leading with between 25 percent and 30 percent support. Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Councilor Andrea Campbell, who are Black, and Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who is of Arab and Polish descent, were in tight contention for second place. Former city economic development director John Barros, who is Black, hung in the low single digits.

The last open mayoral race was in 2013, when the City Council was mostly White and male. That year’s elections drew a record number of candidates of color and ultimately ushered in newcomers such as Wu and Jackson, even as the mayoral race came down to two men of Irish descent — Walsh and then-councilor John R. Connolly.

“For me, that was the transformative moment,” said Lisa Cook, who served in the administrations of Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick. “That [was] when young professionals who may have been raised in Boston and left, came back equipped with great education and experience and were ready to move into political leadership.”

With each successive election, the council has only grown more diverse by gender and race. Yet no woman or candidate of color has come close to claiming the city’s top job — until now.

Despite excitement over the prospect, many people stress that turning the outcome into concrete improvements in everyday life will require sustained effort.

Lori Smith Britton was born and raised in Dorchester, the city’s largest neighborhood. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1992, she returned to Boston to build a career working in nonprofits and fundraising for them.

Standing recently along Blue Hill Avenue, a major thoroughfare that runs south through several struggling neighborhoods, Britton said change still isn’t being felt on the ground.

“The power shift hasn’t yet happened. I don’t perceive it,” she explained. “When I look around the community, it doesn’t feel like people have economic power. It doesn’t feel like people have political power.”

Boston enjoyed a renaissance over the past three decades; today, it boasts an expanding skyline, booming downtown and vibrant seaport. The population has rebounded, too, to about 675,000 from a low of about 563,000 in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Though White residents only make up about 45 percent of the city these days, it is primarily residents of color who are being priced out of neighborhoods as gentrification drives up rents and home prices.

Pressley said that leaders who understand the concerns and fears there — having grown up in different neighborhoods or as children in struggling families — are the ones who will ask questions and push for solutions that may not occur to others.

“Whoever becomes the next mayor will bring their identity and their lived experience,” she noted.

And the promise of representation is the promise that communities that suffered in the past will be heard in the future, according to the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who in the 1990s spearheaded an initiative involving neighborhood youth, clergy and police that resulted in a significant drop in violent crime.

“For a lot of folks, they are looking for a leader who is going to be clear-eyed in where the city has come from and where it has to go,” Brown said.

Jim Kuchinsky-Warren, an undecided voter who grew up in the predominantly Irish American neighborhood of South Boston, sees a mayor of color as more than symbolic progress. He expects the upcoming election to carry real impact.

“It’s a political positive to understand what it is to be discriminated against,” he said. “I think that would open up some eyes.”

Some of Boston’s past traumas remain very close to the surface.

For years, conflicts over the city’s segregated schools and public housing triggered protests and even violent backlash. In “Southie,” as South Boston is called, buses bringing in Black children under federal court order were at times stoned. Black families were moved into public housing there with police escorts.

Then in late 1989, a White man from the suburbs claimed that a Black man had carjacked him, robbed him and shot him and his pregnant wife while they were waiting at a red light in the Mission Hill neighborhood. Charles Stuart’s wife died at a hospital and the baby, delivered early via Caesarean section, subsequently died.

The official response from the city, police and local media was credulous and harsh. Officers entered public housing buildings without warrants, stripped dozens of Black men naked and lined them up on the ground with their hands cuffed behind their backs. A few were detained as suspects.

Two months later, Stuart jumped to his death off a bridge after his younger brother confessed to police that Stuart had been the gunman. He’d killed his wife for insurance money.

While those ugly veins are marbled into Boston’s history, candidates like acting mayor Janey embody the city’s evolution.

“I stand here as someone who grew up in the city of Boston, was bused during the desegregation era, faced rocks and racial slurs as an 11-year-old girl just trying to get an education,” Janey noted during an event several days ago. The fact that she was in position to step into the mayor’s role this spring “is a testament to how far our city has come.”

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