Survey: Personal Backgrounds Swayed Some Voters

Marty Walsh hugs his close friend Joe Baker on Election Day. Some voters say they were swayed by his personal story. (Poncie Rutsch/BU News Service)
Marty Walsh hugs his close friend Joe Baker on Election Day. Some voters say they were swayed by his personal story. (Poncie Rutsch/BU News Service)

By Grace Donnelly, Seline Jung and James Miller
Boston University News Service

Tuesday’s mayoral election was one of the closest in Boston’s history. The narrow 52 to 48 percent margin in favor of Marty Walsh over John Connolly reflected voters’ perceptions that the candidates had seemingly indistinguishable platforms, according to a citywide survey of 80 voters conducted by the Boston University News Service.

The deciding factor for some of those voters was the candidates’ personal backgrounds.

Of the 31 voters who responded to the question, 68 percent reported being predominantly swayed by the candidates’ personal background and experience.

Jean White, 55, a South End resident, said she felt that Walsh’s past struggles with alcoholism and cancer made him seem more human and vulnerable compared to Connolly.

But for Jada Holmes, a part-time government employee, it wasn’t about being able to relate to Walsh’s personal issues. Connolly “was already in the community doing the work before he decided to run for mayor — it’s not like he just one day said, ‘I’ll run for mayor!’ He’s already established in the community, whereas I didn’t even know about Walsh until this whole campaign,” said Holmes.

From the busing issues of the 1970s to the debate about charter schools today, education has remained a perennial challenge in Boston’s neighborhoods. According to nearly 100 percent of those who voted for Connolly, the city councilor at-large appeared both more outspoken and experienced with education than Walsh.

“Education is most important. It has been almost three years and I cannot get a job in the field I am formally trained for,” said Rita Pontello, 31, who lives with her parents in the North End. “I have only really heard Connolly address public schools, and I know he relates a lot to struggles in public school,” she said.

Connolly, a former teacher, made reform of the Boston school system a key part of his platform. Walsh, too, addressed similar issues.

Walsh’s plan to create educational opportunities for non-college-bound students garnered support him from Helen Baker, 37, a Jamaica Plain resident.

Connolly’s main appeal came from his education reform plans, while other voters were attracted to Walsh’s support of and involvement with the city’s labor unions.

“If you can go by what they say, the fact that Marty Walsh is pro-union hopefully means he is pro raising wages,” said White, the Back Bay resident.

However, Walsh’s union ties divided some voters.

“I voted for Connolly. It’s more of an anti-Walsh [vote], because Walsh has such ties to unions, and I think it’s important to have a mayor who didn’t have those ties, who was able to then stand up to [the unions],” said Jennifer Garcia, 34, an attorney.

Another issue that drew the voters surveyed to Walsh was his promise to curb crime and fight violence in the city. A poster plastered on Cambridge Street just in front of the City Hall polling station read: “We need to get guns off of our streets, their [the children’s] future depends on it.”

“Crime is my top concern,” said Richard Berryman, 57, a resident of the Amy Lowell Apartments in downtown Boston, “I’m from this area and Walsh understands crime better. He recounted being accidentally shot by a bullet and I can relate to that. My brother was shot by a stray bullet.” Walsh was grazed by a bullet on a Dorchester Avenue when he was 22 years old.

At the end of the day, Walsh’s victory is a result of two things: his fresh approach to politics and his diverse appeal on a range of issues, according to the Boston voters surveyed.

“I think Boston needs some new blood. In terms of experience, I was looking for the candidate with a more broad outreach, who I found to be Walsh. Walsh is more open to new ideas and to change,” said Paul M. Griffen, 35.

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified where Jean White resides. She is a resident of the South End.)

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