Boston’s mayoral race has truly been as tame and mild-mannered as one could imagine. How do we know this? From the cloying, desperate ways certain commentators have grasped for points of controversy, ultimately coming up with nothing. That’s how.
However, there has been one outstanding tension during the campaign that has threatened to make things interesting, and it concerns the question of class.
Boston, like most of America today, is divided as much on the basis of socioeconomic status as by any other metric. Within city limits, there is very little in the way of a middle class: You are either rich or poor, and are likely to remain so for the rest of your life.
The mayoral candidates agree on this, as they do on pretty much everything else.
The difference—perhaps the only difference—is that one of the candidates is, himself, a product of the working class, while the other hails more from the silver spoon set.
The former, Marty Walsh, has centered his candidacy on his background as a poor kid in a family of Irish immigrants in the blue-collar neighborhood of Dorchester.
John Connolly, by contrast, is the son of two distinguished public servants—his mother was a judge, his father the secretary of the commonwealth. He attended all the best schools and currently resides in swanky West Roxbury.
This disparity might have remained beneath the surface, except that a few weeks back, an independent, pro-Walsh group produced a flier that labeled Connolly a “son of privilege” who “doesn’t understand working class people.” Similar groups have circulated similar material making similar claims.
Walsh has condemned these attacks on his opponent at every turn—by law, his campaign has nothing to do with them—but the idea has been planted in the public consciousness all the same.
Accordingly, let’s get right to it: Does growing up poor make you a better mayor? Does growing up rich make you a worse mayor? Do you need to have lived as a working person to understand other working people?
The implication of the aforementioned anti-Connolly ad is that Connolly “doesn’t understand” working folks because he is a “son of privilege.” That by growing up in an upper-class family, he—indeed, any such person—is axiomatically incapable of understanding lower-class concerns and fight for them once in office.
Plainly, there are many, many people in America who firmly believe this formulation to be true. Last month, the New York Times ran an online opinion piece whose title, “Rich People Just Care Less,” more or less says it all.
As such, there are innumerable public officials at all levels of government who behave under this very assumption by downplaying their privileged backgrounds as stridently—and sometimes as farcically—as they possibly can.
And so you had Mitt Romney and family—he, the son of a governor—at the 2012 Republican National Convention relaying the hardscrabble days of living in a basement apartment and eating tuna for dinner every night.
Or George W. Bush, whose kin had done nothing but run for office for as long as anyone could remember, plunging into the 2000 campaign as an “outsider” to hardball politics and the ways of Washington, D.C.
This has not always been the case, and there is little reason to think it ought to be.
At the presidential level, one could argue the working man has had no greater friend and advocate in the last century than Franklin Roosevelt, a man who made no effort whatsoever to conceal his extravagantly aristocratic upbringing—indeed, at times he seemed to positively revel in it—yet whose New Deal, at its best, revolutionized the way America took care of its most vulnerable citizens.
Much the same has been the case with members of the Kennedy family, from President Jack onward: They’ve got money, they enjoy it, yet they also happen to care deeply about those who do not, and are prepared to do everything they can think of to improve their way of life.
What on Earth is wrong with that? Would the lower classes prefer an aristocrat who was also a heartless bastard? Do they only accept empathy from those with like experience? How masochistic can one be?
The solution for John Connolly, then, is not to take umbrage at the mere mention of his relative wealth and familial prestige, as he has. Instead, he should simply declare himself, without shame or evasion, as precisely what he is, and then explain why it makes not a dime’s worth of difference as to what it means should he win the keys to City Hall.