Steven Poftak on Boston’s Mayoral Race

August 21, 2013
By Doug Gavel, HKS Communications

The mayoral race in Boston is heading down to the wire with crucial issues facing city government coming to the fore.

Steven Poftak, the executive director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, recently co-moderated a mayoral debate, and offers these perspectives on the race and the issues.

Q: What are the key issues that the candidates are focusing on during the campaign?

Poftak: The candidates are all focused, in varying degree, on education, housing, and quality of life issues. On a secondary level, crime and social issues have come up as well.

Q: What are the important issues that the candidates are neglecting to talk about?

Poftak:
I think persistent poverty and lack of income mobility has been difficult for candidates to address directly. There’s a lot of indirect discussion involving economic development, education policy, and public safety but no one has articulated a clear, realistic vision for the issue.

To be fair, a race with 12 candidates can make it difficult to have a sustained, in-depth conversation on any topic. One candidate described the all-candidate debates as a basketball game where no one will pass to you, since even a 90 second answer to a question requires a 15-20 minute round of answers to hear from all the candidates.

Q: Are you impressed by the range of candidates and their backgrounds?

Poftak: It’s a very impressive group of candidates from a wide range of backgrounds. I think there was some hope for more minority candidates but I think the overall quality of the field is a good reflection on the city.

Q: Are the voters engaged?

Poftak: It varies widely. If you are out in the neighborhoods, it is striking to see the proliferation of lawn signs for all the candidates. And the candidates have been active, with nightly appearances in key locations and attendance at seemingly every neighborhood event.

But the large field is tough for voters to grasp and follow, particularly over the summer. Plus there’s a level of election fatigue based on the number of state-wide special elections over the past few years. Several city districts have also seen multiple local special elections as well, so many voters have had a tough time tuning into the race.

Q:
What are the 2-3 issues that will determine the outcome of the election?

Poftak: It’s not clear that issues are going to determine the outcome of this election. The structure of the election process is very important here – there is a primary on September 24th that will reduce the field from 12 to 2.

Most of the candidates have a base they are drawing on – either geographic or ethnic/racial – so a lot of the initial race will depend on how well each base turns out and what other voters a candidate can attract. With a large field and a September election, it’s possible that a finalist can make it to the general election with 25,000 votes.

After that, in November, the General Election will be held with just two candidates.

With so many candidates in the race right now and a relatively modest vote threshold to get to the final, it has had the effect of making most candidates very cautious and fairly subdued about emphasizing the differences between them on issues.

In the general election, with only two candidates and more votes at stake, issues will be more important as attention will be more focused with the smaller field and (hopefully) sharper differences between the candidates. I expect that education and economic development will dominate as issues.

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Steven Poftak, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston

Steven Poftak, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston

"Most of the candidates have a base they are drawing on – either geographic or ethnic/racial – so a lot of the initial race will depend on how well each base turns out and what other voters a candidate can attract," says Poftak.