Denver’s population is only 10 percent black, and has never been above 12 percent in any Census, yet in July 2011 the city elected a black mayor. Michael Hancock, a former city councilman, is actually the second African-American mayor of Denver. Wellington Webb served the limit of three terms through 2003. Three of the city’s last four mayors have been of color. Federico Peña, a Mexican American, became the first in 1983.

At 24 percent, Boston’s black population is twice as large as Denver’s and has been so throughout the three decades during which Denver has sent two African Americans to the mayor’s office. Boston has never elected a black mayor or, more broadly, one of color. An African American came the closest in 1983, when former state representative Melvin H. King placed second in the preliminary election before losing to City Councillor Raymond Flynn in a landslide in the general election. King remains the only black candidate who has run a competitive race for mayor in Boston.

What accounts for the divergent outcomes in mayoral elections in the two cities? The traditional explanation within Boston’s black community has been its population is too small, an assessment premised on an unspoken assumption that racially polarized voting will prevail. The first black mayors elected in major northern cities did ride black majorities into office in the 1960s and 1970s, but in recent decades African American candidates have been winning urban mayoralties without that political advantage. How did Webb and Hancock win in a majority-white city?


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