Boston's mayoral race is busy. Here's what possible candidates have to say about addiction

Interviews, public comments and legislative actions on addiction reveal common recognition of key issues, but frequent differences in opinions on how Boston should respond to its current drug problem

Marty Walsh is on his way out of town.

A week ago he was on the steps of the US Capitol watching his future boss, Joe Biden, take the oath of office as president.

Now, the US Senate has scheduled a hearing to begin the process of confirming Walsh as Labor Secretary. Granted, the Senate won’t actually vote at this hearing. There will be more meetings to come. But Walsh is expected to begin his work in DC sooner rather than later, leaving behind an upended political landscape back here in Boston.

That’s big news for local addiction communities closely intertwined with city politics and government.

How do the police handle drug crimes?

How should the city proceed with ongoing efforts to expand recovery services?

And what should the city do about the spiraling public health crisis in its Mass and Cass region where homelessness and addiction frequently combine in the form of rampant public drug use?

As City Council President Kim Janey will fulfil the restricted duties of an acting mayor immediately following Walsh’s departure, it will be the winner of city-wide elections later this year that will have to find answers to many of those questions as Boston’s new long term leader.

Recognizing that weight, I’ve spent the past three weeks since Walsh announced his planned departure combing through the records of the nearly dozen candidates who have either confirmed or teased the idea of a mayoral campaign, this year.

Piles of interviews, public comments and legislative actions on addiction reveal common recognition of key issues, but frequent differences in opinions on how Boston should respond.

This list isn’t exhaustive. These notes are not perfect transcripts of everything every candidate has said about addiction.

Likewise, this article is not a flawless prediction of what Boston ballots might look like later this year. Three individuals have declared their candidacies. Others are reportedly just exploring the concept and may soon make public announcements.

These notes are previews, nonetheless, and signposts for what the coming months could hold as Boston makes a series of electoral decisions that could reshape the lives of some of its most vulnerable citizens battling substance use disorder.

Check it out…

JON SANTIAGO - State Representative: 9th Suffolk District

Jon Santiago, the upstart progressive legislator whose district includes Boston’s troubled Mass and Cass region is reportedly exploring a run for mayor.

Should he opt to actually run, he will showcase, for better or worse, one of the largest portfolios of frontline addiction experience out of even a sprawling field of candidates.

“Jon is acutely aware of the quality-of-life issues brought on by the opioid crisis,” reads a statement on Santiago’s website. “He will work to expand services to neighboring towns and across the state so that his community doesn’t bear the full burden.”

Santiago won his seat in 2018 by ousting high ranking Boston Democrat Byron Rushing. He did so, in part, thanks to a message of health care literacy delivered to a constituency that, indeed, sits at the center of the regional drug epidemic.

He’s supported decentralization of addiction services currently overburdening the capacities of the Mass and Cass area.

He’s encouraged statewide expansion of medication-assisted treatment programs, like methadone clinics, to help get people off dangerous drugs.

He’s called for better housing options to support low-income people in their addiction recovery journeys.

And he’s loudly called on officials to ensure that the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain gets redeveloped as a new state recovery campus to further reduce those current burdens on the South End and Roxbury.

Santiago championed these efforts throughout both his campaign and the early days of his actual State House service.

His calls got amplified, though, after a police crackdown following an attack on a corrections officer commuting through the Mass and Cass area snatched headlines and shined a spotlight on this issue in Boston.

In an op-ed following what police controversially dubbed “Operation Clean Sweep,” Santiago walked a tightrope.

He acknowledged that police shouldn’t try to “arrest their way out” of the addiction crisis. But he didn’t nearly blast the department with the kind of fervor that other politicians like City Councilors Michelle Wu and Julia Mejia did.

“We must ensure public safety for all who use that space,” he wrote of Mass and Cass. “The city’s decision to clean the area was important on a number of fronts for the residents, businesses, and schools reaching their breaking point.”

Through all this, Santiago has continued working as an emergency room physician at the Boston Medical Center.

Though he’s framed this choice as a way to remain connected to his community and its most pressing issues, some local activists have branded him a “part time politician.” That, combined with support for a safe drug consumption site bill currently pending on Beacon Hill, has not earned Santiago many friends among the prominent South End-Roxbury Community Partnership activist group, in particular.

“All the folks who hold office shouldn’t be allowed to represent us part time,” City Council Candidate and longtime community organizer Domingos DaRosa said in a recent Facebook post criticizing Santiago. “Our taxes [aren’t] part time.”

“In my heart, I truly believe he is a good guy,” another area resident noted. “But the part-time aspect is really tough for me.”

KIM JANEY - City Council President

After taking over as acting mayor, current City Council President Kim Janey may make a bid to make her job permanent.

In conversations primarily with the ACLU and in statements made after the aforementioned Operation Clean Sweep, Janey has particularly laid out her vision for the intersection of addiction medicine and criminal justice in Boston.

“The criminalization of our children, Black and Brown people, immigrants, Muslims, poor people, and those struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse must end,” she said in one ACLU Q&A in 2019.

Specifically, in that same Q&A, she called on Boston police to deprioritize arrests for minor offenses. In the addiction community, which saw nearly 70% of all state-wide drug arrests in 2019 made on simple possession charges, according to state data, that message rings particularly loudly.

“Substance use disorder is a medical condition, and treatment, not incarceration, is the answer,” Janey told the ACLU. "I am a strong supporter of efforts to eliminate mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and I support establishing early release programs for those convicted of nonviolent drug charges.”

Janey has called for more defined paths to addiction recovery, involving better jobs programs, housing opportunities and publicly funded social services.

Likewise, though, she’s periodically clashed with her own City Council constituents particularly in the South End and Roxbury.

In one particularly heated community forum following Operation Clean Sweep, Janey chimed in, urging patience and suggesting that the kinds of further action by Boston Police some called for would push people with addictions away from services and simply into the neighborhoods of other Boston residents.

"People are sick and they need help,” she said. “It's important that we do not pit neighborhoods against each other."

Read more about some of the mixed community opinions on Janey via my reporting from earlier this month…

NICK COLLINS - State Senator, 1st Suffolk District

A popular state senator from South Boston, Nick Collins has reportedly not ruled out a possible mayoral campaign.

As he mulls his options, Collins’ record on addiction tells a unique story of shifting priorities and legislative strategies.

"This is not just a city problem, but a statewide issue,” he said in an interview with WBUR back in 2019. “We can't just sit and wait. We need to move forward.”

Before his election to the State Senate in 2018, Collins still held office as the State Representative for the 4th Suffolk District, which primarily encompasses South Boston.

In that position, Collins pushed to ramp up penalties for people who deal drugs that ultimately kill others via overdoses.

“This bill will further aid our district attorneys and law enforcement agencies in this important public safety matter by making those profiteers who are responsible for drug and opioid distribution accountable for the deaths caused by their distribution,” then Suffolk County DA Dan Conley said in a 2015 press release, supporting the effort.

Around the same time, Collins also helped increase penalties for those caught trafficking the drug fentanyl by closing what was a loophole in state law. Under legislation he supported, these “drug traffickers” can now end up behind bars for up to 20 years.

Though often passed with broad support, bills like those just mentioned are not without problems.

Some addiction experts note that there is not always a clear binary delineating “users” and “dealers.”

As addiction pushes some towards sex work to pay for drugs, for one, it pushes others towards drug dealing. Those individuals don’t necessarily distribute drugs out of greed or malice. They’re just trying to get money to buy drugs to avoid detox symptoms that can be crippling and dangerous especially when living on the street.

In many other cases, likewise, people selling drugs don’t know if and when their product comes cut with fentanyl.

What might look like heroin could be a more potent pile of fentanyl that could get a person charged under the harsh penalties legislators like Collins helped enact a half decade ago.

“Drug-induced homicide provisions were intended for kingpins and major traffickers,” Boston researcher Leo Beletsky wrote in a 2018 article co-written with journalist Zachary Seigel. “Today, friends, family members, and...romantic partners of the overdose victim are all potential targets, effectively stretching the definition of a dealer beyond recognition.”

Influenced by changing understandings of addiction or not, Collins has altered his tone slightly in the wake of the Boston Police Department's Operation Clean Sweep in 2019.

He introduced new legislation that year. 

He also spoke out widely in the press, discussing personal experiences of having a cousin battle addiction for years in Boston.

Seeking to reform part of Massachusetts’ controversial civil commitment system, Collins broke from old rhetoric that was more supportive of heavy police involvement in addiction responses.

Something major needed to change, he said.

"When somebody overdoses and is horizontal — that's a cry for help,” Collins elaborated in his conversation with WBUR. “When we send public health and safety officials to respond to someone who has had an incident, and we [then] just send that person on their way, that's irresponsible in my opinion."

Collins now supports expanding and repurposing the Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain for use as a recovery facility.

He’s proposed a bill that would require any facility in Massachusetts selling or dispensing syringes to develop plans to recover those products if abandoned on the street. That’s a framework the Boston City Council emulated and passed as a local ordinance last year in an effort to curb surging waves of discarded needles in places like the Mass and Cass neighborhood.

A solution now gaining popularity, Collins has also long backed the use of ferries to restore access to a large but currently vacant recovery campus on Long Island in the Boston Harbor.

And while he tepidly supported police actions against them, Collins is also well liked among some members of the local homeless community who recognize him from walkthroughs and visits.

MICHAEL FLAHERTY - City Councilor At Large

Former Assistant District Attorney and sitting City Councilor At Large Michael Flaherty is reportedly considering another run for mayor, 12 years after he unsuccessfully challenged Mayor Thomas Menino for the city’s top executive job.

If he runs and wins, he would take over the Mayor’ Office as an experienced local leader suddenly tasked with amending and building on addiction solutions he, himself, helped implement over decades in municipal government.

“Every Bostonian deserves to live a healthy, fulfilling life,” Flaherty’s campaign website reads. “Michael will continue to fight for expanded addiction and recovery services, mental health resources, and to support our community health centers to achieve this goal.”

Specifically, Flaherty has said he wants to prioritize reconstruction of the Long Island Bridge as a primary answer to existing drug issues in Boston. That project and the resulting reopening of the aforementioned Long Island Recovery Campus could alleviate major strain on communities like the Mass and Cass region of the South End and Roxbury.

From there, he’s also called for the same kinds of decentralized addiction services other potential candidates like Jon Santiago clamor for.

“Let’s put something in Wellesley, let’s put something in Westwood, let’s put something in Lexington — treatment facilities, halfway houses, three-quarters houses, detox facilities,” he said during a city council debate in 2019. “You get crickets from our suburban counterparts. Yet it’s their kids, their constituents that are down at Mass and Cass."

Decentralized or not, Flaherty could also fight addiction and concurrent issues of homelessness using the Community Preservation Act, which he helped Boston finally adopt in 2016.

The CPA is an opt-in taxation program available to all Massachusetts municipalities. Under its framework, cities or towns divert a portion of their tax revenue into designated CPA accounts. In turn, the state also fills those accounts with additional aid that a municipality would not have otherwise received.

That money then must be used for any one of a handful of types of community projects, including affordable housing developments.

MARTY MARTINEZ - Chief of Health and Human Services

Boston Chief of Health and Human Services Marty Martinez is helping lead Boston’s COVID-19 response and develop its policy reactions to addiction issues. Now, he’s also reportedly considering a mayoral campaign.

A familiar face for many advocates and health care workers in the local addiction community, Martinez has a bevy of quotes, public positions and suggestions that could hint at how he would make decisions on drug topics as mayor.

“The ability to keep people alive has been one of the key things that we've been focused on,” he told WBUR in November of last year. “You can't get people on the path to recovery and making decisions that will help their lives if you can't keep them alive."

Martinez has, indeed, been strong in his support of jail diversion programs that keep people out of the criminal justice system.

“We see addiction, we know it’s happening,” he said in a separate 2019 conversation with the Boston Business Journal. “There are so many folks that end up on the path toward corrections, and, if their path was recovery they would end up in a path toward healing.”

As he’s been able to take those generally popular stances, Martinez has also ended up in the midst of local controversies during his tenure with the Walsh administration.

In 2018, students at Orchard Park Elementary School in the city organized a walkout after repeatedly finding used needles on their playground.

Martinez spoke on the issue when Boston 25 News covered the story.

"It's a tough balance,” he said. “Child safety is really important. We want to make people feel safe. There's no question that that's a priority for us. But we also want to make sure we remember that we're fighting a disease."

Those types of answers, which some see as diverting conversations off of city culpability for addiction issues, have drawn criticisms from advocates in the South End and Roxbury who have only grown further frustrated with public health actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of the pandemic and the [opioid] epidemic being together at the same time, it’s been a tough time down [at Mass and Cass],” Martinez told Boston 25 earlier this year. “There’s more people there, there’s more people sick, there’s more people needing help.”

"This is a huge challenge and there is no singular answer," he elaborated when speaking with WBUR a few months later. "There's no simple thing. Anyone who tells you that doesn't understand the complexity of the issues."

ANNISSA ESSAIBI GEORGE - City Councilor At Large

The latest of three City Councilors to declare their mayoral candidacy, Annissa Essaibi George offers a list of addiction opinions that sometimes set her apart from competitors and colleagues in city government.

She’s opposed to the safe consumption site bill that people like Rep. Jon Santiago support.

And while she’s in favor of rebuilding the Long Island Bridge, she also has her eyes set on more immediately accessible recovery facilities.

“The work to rebuild the Long Island Bridge will bring additional recovery services including about 500 recovery beds to that campus," she said in a 2019 city council debate. "But that is years away. We need a regional approach to recovery. We need more than just Boston.”

Like many addiction experts, Essaibi George also wants to see services decentralized in the coming years.

“The opioid crisis impacts every community in Massachusetts and in the region, which means that every community needs to be equipped to provide comprehensive recovery services,” she wrote in a “Term 2 report”published on her campaign website in late 2019. “Until then, Boston’s resources will be overburdened and insufficient.”

Running on a platform that prominently includes municipal drug policy reform, Essaibi George has touted herself as an insider.

Within that, she’s particularly mentioned her membership on the Mass and Cass 2.0 Task Force.

That’s potentially problematic as a Substantive investigation earlier this month found Essaibi George missed nearly a third of all full task force meetings between March and December of last year.

Others missed far more meetings than her. She did send a stand-in in her place when she missed meetings. And her workload did soar as public officials throughout Boston city government contended with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Constituents are concerned, though, and have not necessarily been satisfied with such justifications since this news broke.

“I’m tired of COVID being an excuse,” advocate and Boston resident Ashely Curran wrote in a Facebook post, this week. “Bottom line is, they don't give a crap because they don't live here.”

Essaibi George still has not responded to a request for comment sent to her office prior to the publication of that initial Substantive investigation.

MICHELLE WU - City Councilor at Large

The first candidate to jump into what was then a race against Marty Walsh for mayor, City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu continues her campaign as a potential frontrunner with backing from political kingmakers like US Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Often sharp tongued in her critiques of the outgoing Walsh administration, Wu is seen by some as a chance for a fresh start in local drug policy.

"The so-called plans put forward by the administration so far have been largely public works and law enforcement-oriented plans..." she told WGBH shortly after announcing her campaign, last year. "But we still don't have a citywide plan to address homelessness and our substance use epidemic right now that is shifting and growing."

Wu called Operation Clean Sweep “cruel,” back in 2019 and has blasted city failures in affordable housing after serving as City Council president between 2016 and 2018.

"We don't have housing that's affordable, trauma goes untreated, and we have a growing epidemic of folks turning to substance use as a way to self medicate,” she told WGBH.

Though often aligned with advocates also frustrated by Walsh’s leadership since he first won a seat at City Hall in 2013, Wu has broken rank on a handful of issues.

Her support of efforts to create a safe drug consumption site, likely in Boston, ruffled feathers with the Worcester Square Neighborhood Association back in 2017. That neighborhood sits just blocks from the actual intersection of Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Blvd., where some are concerned a facility could worsen existing problems of discarded needles and public intoxication.

Similarly Wu has indicated that she might back off Walsh’s current position favoring rebuilding the Long Island Bridge. 

The city remains deadlocked in a legal battle with Quincy over whether it can rebuild the bridge that had to be torn down almost a decade ago due to structural decay.

That decision, by extension, forced Boston to close the massive recovery campus that existed on Long Island itself in the Boston Harbor.

While Walsh has celebrated victories in court in recent months, it could take years to actually complete construction AND rehabilitate now abandoned buildings that used to make up the recovery campus.

"I have deep concerns about whether this is the most effective and immediate way to address the opiate crisis,” Wu said in a 2019 city council debate.

ANDREA CAMPBELL - City Councilor at Large

A sitting City Council Member, like Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, Andrea Campbell is part-way through a declared mayoral campaign.

Serving as an At Large City Council Member, specifically, Campbell runs as perhaps the most outspoken ally of activists fighting for better conditions in the Mass and Cass region of the South End and Roxbury where drug use is common and often tragic.

“Enough is enough,” she told many of those advocates during a call, Jan. 22. “We absolutely can have a better, more improved response at Mass and Cass.”

After the South End-Roxbury Community Partnership, an advocacy group, began convening weekly stand-out protests in the region, last September, Campbell earned praise. She was the first City Councilor to meet with key organizers, in person, for a “walkthrough” conversation about local issues.

Then, this month, she further curried favor when she rolled out a sprawling policy plan written with input and help from some of those same leaders.

“We are honored to see this level of commitment on this issue by an elected official and mayoral candidate,” the South End-Roxbury Community Partnership Twitter account tweeted, Jan. 22, after Campbell made her announcement.

Campbell says she wants to decentralize addiction services clustered in the South End and Roxbury, while centralizing Boston’s response to its addiction issues.

That latter effort, she says, involves organizing everything from outreach programs, to communication efforts, to diversion initiatives under a Mass and Cass Chief that the city would hire.

Likewise, Campbell wants to see a designated first responder team uniquely equipped and trained to handle the kinds of public health emergencies unique to the Mass and Cass region of Boston.

Fatal overdoses, there, are common.

There have been multiple deadly stabbings outside homeless shelters in recent years.

Large crowds often bunching up on sidewalks have sometimes inadvertently pushed individuals onto streets. People have been hit by cars.

“I will make sure that we bring every resource to bear, so that we actually can activate more safe spaces, more supportive housing, more temporary solutions to folks dealing with homelessness, and do more to decentralize services so that recovery services are available all across the City of Boston,” she said in an exclusive interview with Boston.com announcing this effort.

Read more about Campbell’s plans and work via my reporting...

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