How the marathon bombings changed everything in Boston politics

The Washington PostApril 20, 2014 

— The City of Boston has two great loves: Sports and politics.

And, a year removed from the Boston Marathon bombings, the influence of that tragedy on the Boston sports community remain apparent.The marathon is, after all, a race. And several Boston sports teams, including the Red Sox and Boston Bruins, have adopted the “Boston Strong” messaging that emerged after the marathon.

Less well known but no less impactful is how the attack influenced the city’s politics. A year later, the political landscape of one of the nation’s most politically-obsessed cities stands completely altered by the attack.

Menino’s return

The 2013 Boston Marathon was the last as mayor for Thomas Menino, a Boston institution who had occupied City Hall’s corner office for two decades without ever facing a serious electoral challenge.

Menino, who had announced just one month before the marathon that he would not seek re-election, missed the last race of his time as mayor. As the runners competed, he was at Brigham Women and Children’s Hospital for surgery to repair a broken leg, the latest in a series of serious and at-times long-term hospitalizations during his time in office.

His physical absence from the marathon mirrored his seemingly declining political status. Dozens of politically ambitious figures had begun plotting their mayoral runs the second Menino announced this term would be his last.

By the time April rolled around, several candidates had formally declared their candidacies and several others were openly discussing their desire to run. Even with almost an entire year left in office, Menino was already considered a lame duck in some Boston political circles.

But on Marathon Monday, that all changed.

Menino checked himself out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital several times throughout the week to attend briefings and help oversee the massive manhunt for the bombing suspects. He appeared, seated in a wheelchair, at the city’s daily press conferences and insisted that the city would press on.

When President Barack Obama came to town Thursday, all eyes were on Menino.

Menino had been discharged from the hospital right before the interfaith prayer service held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, a massive church in the South End. When it was his turn to speak, the wheelchair-bound mayor was wheeled to the podium by his son, a Boston police detective who had been working at the Marathon finish line. Then, the mayor lifted himself from his wheelchair in a moment of triumph symbolic of the city’s resurgence following the attacks.

“We are one Boston,” Menino declared during his speech. “No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city and its people.”

Here’s how the Boston Globe summed it up: “In that moment, Menino seemed to embody the fortitude of his city, knocked down but fighting to stand.”

Menino – who, perhaps more than any other person in the last century, defines Boston – was back.

A Senate race forgotten

The special election to replace John Kerry, who was named Secretary of State, seemed destined to be an afterthought. The state was still exhausted after the exciting election showdown just months earlier between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren. Then, soon after the Senate race had kicked into high gear, the people of Boston found out they would be hosting their first truly open mayoral race in 30 years with Menino not seeking re-election.

And then, the bombings.

Suddenly, the entire narrative race of the largely-ignored Senate primary was upended. The talk turned to national security, terrorism and public safety. Meanwhile, candidates had to walk a fine line – figuring out when it was appropriate to return to the campaign trial and working for be respectful of a city

Ultimately, Gabriel Gomez – a former U.S. Navy SEAL – won a surprise primary day victory, topping his two better-established opponents in the GOP primary.

Gomez was an avid runner, and later made running events the most visible part of his general election campaign, and had completed the Boston marathon not long before the bombs went off.

In interviews at the time, Gomez said that his wife and children had just left the finish line when, about 2:50 p.m. the bombs detonated. Several of his campaign staffers were still near the finish line doing advance work for a post-marathon press conference the candidate had planned. Obviously, they now note, that was cancelled.

Perhaps due to his military experience, Gomez has said that he immediately knew it was an attack upon hearing the first explosion and, like many others who were near the bombing, he was encouraged by the passion and dedication of the first responders.

“I saw the best of Boston moments after literally hearing the worst of Boston in the explosions,” Gomez said.

For Congressman Stephen Lynch, one of two Democrats vying for the seat, the dilemma wasn’t completely a new one. In 2001, Lynch won his first congressional primary victory in an election that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. The congressman said at the time that he hoped voters would be mobilized by the renewed sense of patriotism inspired by the marathon bombings.

In an interview soon after the bombings, Lynch said: “There was a call to arms in response to those attacks. I hope they'll be a similar call to arms come April 30. The best way to defend Democracy is to participate in it.”

Ultimately, Lynch lost the Democratic primary to his Congressional colleague Ed Markey – who would go on to beat Gomez in what would be one of the lowest turnout Senate races in modern Massachusetts political history.

Roughly 1.2 million votes were cast, a turnout that fell well short of even the most pessimistic projections and more than 1 million votes fewer than had been cast in the 2010 special election to replace Sen. Ted Kennedy just three years earlier.

In fact, Scott Brown – the victor in that 2010 race – received more votes alone than Markey and Gomez had earned combined.

The reinvention of Ed Davis

Then-Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis was embattled.

Widely respected by most of the city’s political class, Davis faced constant opposition within and from outside of his department during 2012 and early 2013 as the city’s minority community called for his head due to a lack of diversity in the department brass and a series of allegations of police brutality. Meanwhile, the number of shootings in the city was spiking.

Several of the early entrants in Boston’s mayoral race made dumping Davis central parts of their early campaign platforms.

But, as the international media looked to Boston in the days after the bombings, no figure seized the moment quite like Davis.

Davis captured the national limelight. Soon, he was everywhere. On CNN, CBS, ABC. Profiled in national magazines and newspapers. Appearing before Congressional committees. To this day, there is no public figure whose face and legacy are more directly tied to the marathon bombings.

The Globe’s Adrian Walker, one of the city’s best-known political columnists, even suggested that Davis should consider throwing his name into the then-developing mayoral field. Soon, national outlets were speculating that Davis was on the shortlist to be named the next homeland security director – reports that were never substantiated and, ultimately, did not result in a cabinet appointment for Davis.

But his public handling of the bombings had vaulted Davis to near-deity status. Now, mayoral candidates who had previously promised to get rid of Davis were praising him during campaign speeches.

Months later, as Menino prepared to clean out his office, Davis announced his resignation – taking a position at Harvard: his legacy forever boosted by his department’s response to the marathon bombings.

“Boston Strong”

What began as a rallying cry during the Boston Bruins’ unsuccessful Stanley Cup run, and was eventually co-opted by the Red Sox as they dominated the baseball postseason and won the World Series, the “Boston Strong” messaging has found what seems to be a permanent place in the New England political lexicon.

In November, after being elected the city’s first new mayor in decades, Martin Walsh invoked the phrase as he delivered an emotional and passionate speech in a ballroom packed with supporters.

“Boston is tough, and we’re smart, but we’re caring, too. The city proved it in the tragedy that happened on Marathon Monday,” Walsh declared. “This is Boston Strong, and together we’re going to make Boston even stronger.”

And the phrase hasn’t gone anywhere. Just last week, Sen. Ed Markey used the phrase while discussing the city’s responses to the attack during an appearance on “Meet the Press.” “We were Boston Strong because we were Boston Ready,” Markey said during the interview.

There’s been an ongoing debate in Boston about whether “Boston Strong” has become an over-used cliche. But, like it or not, expect politicians from the Bay State to be declaring the city’s strength for years to come.

___

Prior to joining The Washington Post in February, Lowery worked as a breaking news and local politics reporter for the Boston Globe.

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