^ surprised by Mayor Walsh’s work so far ? You should be.

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In the two years since he won election as Mayor, Marty Walsh has surprised me. I’m hardly the only one. I thought — I think many people thought — that Walsh would be the kind of Mayor that his “progressive” backers wanted : insurgent, a tribune for the poor, a fighter for diversity in city hiring, a Don Berwick fan, a Democrat’s Democrat. Some may even have thought — though I did not — that Walsh would abet the enviro activists’ vision of a green, biker’s and walker’s city in which cars would be noticeably unwelcome and development — if approved at all — would be small scale and very very quiet. People who thought this of Walsh expected him to march on the front lines of minimum wage hike protests. Nor are these all that was assumed of Walsh.

All of it proved wrong. My own expectations too : I had thought that Walsh would be what some pundits called him, a Mayor of “incremental change” — nothing big or transformative. Boy, were we mistaken !

Instead, Walsh has become as revolutionary a leader as Boston has felt since Kevin White at least. Let’s look at how :

First : always the labor leader — he calls himself ‘a labor guy” — he understands, and always has, that labor doesn’t have jobs if businesses don’t hire. Thus Walsh has been the City’s biggest advocate of boom-town development — and of the well rewarded construction jobs accorded by the boom. And a stupendous boom it is, and will be.

Second, Walsh has worked in partnership with “Republican” Governor Baker — and noticeably enjoys doing so — to bring even more construction to Boston, and start up businesses — of which the GE move is only the capstone. Under Walsh and Baker, Boston has become the nation’s entrepot of internet innovation in the device zone, the “internet of things.” You could see it at Mass challenge’s awards ceremony two months ago, at which both Walsh and Baker spoke — as they do a lot, at all sorts of Boston events.

Third, Walsh has worked diligently to bring all kinds of arts and entertainments to Boston, in keeping with what he likes about Montreal, a city which, at a Mayoral forum in 2013, he named as his model for what Boston should become. Walsh failed to secure us the 2024 Olympic games — failed dramatically — but once committed, he went all in, risking his popularity among the enviros  but thrilling those who want our Mayor to be passionate and committed to the benefits he believes in.

Fourth, Walsh has confronted, head on, the entrenched public school establishment, in which union contract work rules, vested school supporters, and dogged teacher union opposition to charter schools have written an achievement gap in stone and seen the ever-increasing school budget swallowed almost entirely by teacher salary raises. True, Walsh has not played fair with school budget increases; he could easily add more dollars so as not to pit teacher salaries against school facilities needs; but he has taken this course as a means of highlighting that Boston schools  cannot simply continue business a usual. Walsh plans a huge capital spending program by which 126 old and energy inefficient schools will be consolidated into 90 new, efficient, larger schools. In addition, he says that once his school consolidation program is established, he will support legislation increasing the number of charter schools — a position bitterly opposed by public school advocates.

Lastly, Walsh has transformed the way City hall and Boston’s citizenry interact about City development. The community review meetings that have been a staple of BRA procedure for decades — and which have become, basically, a forum for opposition only — is being overtopped by ImagineBoston2030, an entirely online review process in which the City seeks citizen comment directly, as one comments on a facebook post; and tens of thousands of such comments have been received and noted, with many more tens of thousands to come. These thousands of citizens input have outflanked NIMBYism, utterly defeated it; and ImagineBoston is proceeding to its enormously transformative destination apace.

I had no idea at all that Walsh, who in 2013 was a self-declared technology newbie, would try to entirely remake the way the City wields its powers — much less that he would succeed, as he clearly has. To get to that, Walsh had to replace his top old-line staffers with a handful of pure technocrats, one of whom, Daniel Koh, is his chief of staff and, to all intents, the most powerful person in City government other than Walsh himself. But can there be much doubt that what helped bring GE to Boston was seeing that City Hall is run on technology principles ? That it has full command of City process ?

As I see it now, Walsh really had little choice but to adopt the method he has chosen. Had he continued to run an old-line City with old-line people — many of them many friends, people passionately dedicated to Boston improvement and to Walsh personally — he would probably have found his changes cornered by forces of status quo at least as shrewd as his own staff. The debacle of Boston 2024 showed just how effective an opposition could be to Walsh using only traditional methods. These, he has now set aside. City Planning by means of Internet Power is proceeding on a front far too broad to be opposed effectively and by means far too expensive for any opposition group to afford or commit to. Mere protests cannot stand against the limitless force of online interface manned 24/7 by City staffers and planners.

Such is the transformed Boston that Mayor Walsh has surprised us with, the City whose pr9ogress he boasted of in h9is second State of the City address. Get used to it; Walsh’s Boston is not your parents’ city; not at all.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



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