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Boston councilors consider election complications posed by Walsh’s departure

City Council debates wisdom of holding a special election

Mayor Martin J. Walsh's expected departure has the City Council wrestling with mayoral election questions.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh's expected departure has the City Council wrestling with mayoral election questions.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Four Boston mayoral elections in one year?

It could happen, but should it? That’s the question the Boston City Council finds itself wrestling with, given the anticipated imminent departure of Mayor Martin J. Walsh to the Labor secretary post in soon-to-be President Joe Biden’s Cabinet.

On Wednesday, the council discussed the potential domino effects of Walsh’s appointment. In that discussion, much is in flux, but the date March 5 looms large. If Walsh leaves before that date, the city charter requires a special election, which would potentially include preliminary and general contests. Those elections would likely happen sometime over the summer. That’s in addition to a pre-scheduled municipal preliminary and general mayoral contests that would follow.

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If Walsh leaves on March 5 or after, the matter becomes moot and there would be no special election.

One councilor, Ricardo Arroyo, has proposed that the council override the charter provision that requires a special election if Walsh left his seat before March 5, arguing that organizing and executing multiple municipal elections in a single year would place “a large financial burden” on the city, pose a health risk to voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and foster low voter turnout. He said officials in Lawrence passed a similar proposal recently.

“It would be irresponsible for us to allow for the possibility of four elections, for the same office, in a five-month span, the very real possibility of three mayoral transitions in this year, and the possibility of four different mayors at helm in 11 months,” said Arroyo during Wednesday’s meeting, which was conducted via Zoom.

However, for a body that has a pair of mayoral candidates who have already declared and multiple others who are said to be considering a run, there are political considerations. Having a special election would benefit some candidates and hurt others.

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Councilor Kenzie Bok thought nixing a special election would benefit an acting mayor who would immediately succeed Walsh after he leaves, should the acting mayor decide to run. Having a special election, on the other hand, would benefit those who already have an organization and money to mount the sort of quick campaign needed to succeed in such a contest, according to Bok.

“Those political realities are on the table and they make this a complicated conversation,” she said.

Wednesday’s meeting occurred less than a week after President-elect Biden announced Walsh as his Labor pick. Before that announcement, Walsh appeared to be gearing up to run for a third term.

The departure of Walsh, who must be confirmed by the Senate after hearings, would likely open up the mayoral contest. Two councilors, Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu, had previously announced they were running for that seat and after the Walsh news last week, an array of other city leaders, including Council President Kim Janey, and councilors Annissa Essaibi-George and Michael Flaherty, are said to be mulling a run.

As council president, Janey would become acting mayor when Walsh steps aside, a likely advantage if she decides to jump into the election fray, according to city political observers. On Tuesday night, in what was likely his final State of the City address, Walsh said the transition to a Janey administration has already started and he expected it to continue smoothly.

Councilor Matt O’Malley said the whole discussion regarding a special election may very well become a moot point if Walsh leaves on or after March 5. O’Malley noted that there are certain powers that are vested in an elected Boston mayor that do not transfer to an acting mayor. Having an acting mayor for a longer period of time could potentially bring with it governing complications, he said.

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“I have some concerns about this,” he said of overriding the requirement for a special election.

Councilor Frank Baker said he was troubled that the mayor’s race could be played out on the council floor now — when the decisions could affect specific candidates who are already in the race or considering jumping in soon.

”I think there’s a reason why people right now don’t like politicians because we’re doing things like this,” Baker said. “Where we, because we have the power to manipulate elections, are now going to manipulate elections.”

In order to override the special election requirement in the city charter, Arroyo filed a home rule petition. The petition was referred to the council’s committee on government operations. The council would need a simple majority to pass the proposal and the mayor would need to sign off on the matter before it would head to the State House, where it would need approval from lawmakers and the governor.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.