By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – To the surprise of no one, Kim Janey is in. And behind their confident demeanors, the five other currently-declared candidates are surely nursing a dark thought: what if it’s 1993 all over again?

That was the year then-Mayor Ray Flynn was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Vatican by President Bill Clinton, and a relatively obscure district councilor from Hyde Park named Tom Menino became acting mayor by virtue of being City Council president.

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Menino didn’t take over until July 12, barely two months before the preliminary election. He wasn’t considered the frontrunner. But he topped the ticket in September by 5,000 votes and blew away Jim Brett in November with 64% of the vote.

How did Menino do it?

By using the power and visibility of the acting mayoralty to dominate the evening news and morning headlines, branding himself as a populist unafraid to stand up to Beacon Hill and powerful public employee unions. By consolidating the important Italian-American vote by making sure every man, woman, child and household pet in the city understood the history he was making as the city’s first mayor of Italian descent. By avoiding blunders and unnecessary controversies. And by carefully managing the transition to preserve his already-formidable support among the legions of Flynn supporters and admirers.

Sound familiar? Acting Mayor Janey is already touching all those bases, with poise and calm.

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It’s potentially a nightmare for candidates like Andrea Campbell, Michelle Wu and Anissa Essaibi George who reasonably expected to do well with black voters; they may soon relive the daunting experience of prominent Italian-American candidates back in 1993 like Bob Rufo, John Nucci and Rosaria Salerno, watching Italian-American supporters peeled away by Menino.

Imagine the consternation of former city economic development chief John Barros watching Janey front-and-center at the announcement this week of a new tourism campaign touting Boston’s diversity when he was a key player in its development under Mayor Walsh. “Proud to have led this campaign,” Barros tweeted, when he had to have been thinking: Hey! That’s my credit you’re taking!

Janey has been careful (and wise) to avoid any hint of a huge housecleaning of Walsh-era talent. Even as Janey talks about lingering problems and the city’s improvement needs, she has been unfailingly gracious toward the former mayor during the transition period, as he was toward her. That approach promises to undercut the hopes of others – most notably Barros, Essaibi George, and Jon Santiago – to attract Walsh voters.

(WBZ-TV graphic)

And Janey’s unelected incumbency may prove especially helpful in the context of what we’ve learned about local politics during the pandemic. It’s been a field day for incumbents, from the Ed Markey vs. Joe Kennedy U.S. Senate primary through last fall’s legislative races.

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Voters have seemed to crave continuity and stability, even amid social clamor for change. Markey effectively argued that he was already the change voters wanted. As this race approaches the starting gate, Janey is well positioned to make the same case.

Jon Keller