It’s Wu vs. Essaibi George in final election for Boston mayor
At-large councilors claim victory, moving them to November showdown
BREAKING TWIN BARRIERS in a city that has often been resistant to change, city councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George topped Tuesday’s preliminary election for mayor of Boston and will face off in the November election, a contest that will usher in the first woman mayor and first mayor of color in the city’s history.
Wu, 36, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, appeared to notch a first-place finish, pushing a progressive agenda on issues ranging from housing and transportation to climate change that made her a favorite of younger, educated voters who are flexing more muscle in municipal elections.
Essaibi George, 47, whose parents were Polish and Tunisian immigrants, appeared to finish second, running up big margins in high-turnout, heavily white precincts of her home Dorchester neighborhood as well as other sections of the city where the balloting was dominated by more moderate, white voters.
Virtually no official returns were released on Tuesday night — less than 1 percent of results were reported by midnight — and results are based on unofficial tallies from the various campaigns.
Finishing behind Wu and Essaibi George were City Councilor Andrea Campbell, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, and former city economic development chief John Barros.
The top two finishers in the preliminary election advance to the November 2 final election.
The looming November matchup will be a showdown between the two candidates in the preliminary election whose political profiles may have diverged most sharply, with Wu staking out ground on the political left while Essaibi George claimed the center in an increasingly liberal-leaning city where that now often defines the right flank.
Wu, addressing supporters at a Roslindale brewery, looked ahead to the November election.
“This is a choice about whether City Hall tackles our biggest challenges with bold solutions or we nibble around the edges of the status quo,” she said. “This is a choice about who is in the rooms where decisions are made and about whether the doors are burst wide open.”
“But that chant should be ‘Boston,’” she said, “because this is about our city, this about our future, this is about the people of Boston.”
Campbell addressed supporters after 11 pm, and said she had called Wu and Essaibi George to congratulate them. “This is not the result we wanted or hoped for,” she said.
Janey released a statement just after midnight saying, “While we are still waiting on some results, it appears that we have come up short in the election.”
All five candidates identify as people of color, but the three Black candidates were left out of the running for the final election, an outcome likely to prompt hand-wringing in the city’s Black community about a missed opportunity to seize the city’s most powerful office.
Wu, a Harvard Law School graduate and Roslindale resident who tapped some of the same activist energy that helped Ed Markey beat back a Kennedy challenge last year, championed the idea of fare-free public transit, a return to rent control, and laid out an ambitious Green New Deal for Boston to confront climate change.
Essaibi George, a former high school teacher and the owner of a Dorchester yarn shop, captured much of the political base of former mayor Marty Walsh, whose departure to serve as labor secretary for President Biden unleashed a race for the open seat. Essaibi George and Walsh grew up on the same Dorchester street. He endorsed her 2019 reelection campaign and his mother supported Essaibi George’s mayoral campaign.
Essaibi George resisted efforts to label her the moderate of the race, saying she was simply a “pragmatic and practical elected official, legislator, leader.” She framed her approach as one in which she was willing to have “tough conversations” about issues.
She emphasized her experience as a small business owner and a Boston teacher, which she said equipped her to take on the challenge of improving the struggling school district. But it was on issues of public safety and policing that Essaibi George’s views contrasted most sharply with those of her liberal-leaning rivals, who embraced calls for sweeping police reform and redirecting police funding to other services.
“Boston needs both reforms to policing and safe neighborhoods,” Essaibi George wrote in a Boston Herald op-ed in July. “Choosing one over the other is an unnecessary and harmful false choice. Justice and safety are not mutually exclusive, we just need to have the tough, honest conversations about the hard work that needs to be done to achieve both in this city.”
She decried the talk of “defunding” the police, calling for the addition of 200 to 300 more police officers in the city, while also working on the root causes of crime and violence. One of her most prominent backers was former police commissioner William Gross, who formed an independent super PAC that raised money to promote her candidacy.
Notwithstanding her effort to wave off labels, Essaibi George had the advantage of carving out a clear lane in the political middle in a race that featured a group of strong progressive voices.
Wu enjoyed the backing of her former Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, a high-profile signal to liberal voters in the city that helped establish her progressive bonafides. Wu, who grew up outside Chicago and was the only candidate not born and raised in Boston, did not face the kind of headwinds from that background that might have hampered a candidate in Boston’s more provincial past.
She made a direct appeal to those who have felt marginalized or shut out of power in the city. In her campaign kickoff video, Wu highlighted her parents’ arrival in the US with no money, and said it’s hard to make it when “fighting a system that wasn’t built for us, doesn’t speak our languages, doesn’t hear our voices.”
Much was made of the fact that all five major contenders were people of color and four of the candidates were women. In the 199 years since Boston established the position of mayor, the seat has only been held by white men. The last open race for mayor, just eight years ago, looked a lot like those before it, with two Irish Catholic sons of the city, Walsh and John Connolly, squaring off. Only twice has a candidate of color made it to the final runoff election — Mel King, a longtime Black activist and former state representative, in 1983, and Tito Jackson, a Black Roxbury city councilor, in 2017.
Wu and Campbell both announced their candidacies a year ago, when it was widely assumed then-Mayor Marty Walsh would be seeking a third term this year. When President Biden tapped him in January to be labor secretary, it scrambled the race. Essaibi George and Barros jumped into the contest for the open seat, and Janey, who became acting mayor when Walsh resigned in March by virtue of her position as City Council president, quickly threw her hat in the ring as well.
Wu and Janey led in early polling, but nearly half of voters were undecided. As more people made up their minds, Wu’s lead grew, while Janey saw her support eclipsed by Essaibi George and matched by Campbell.
Barros, who ran in the 2013 mayoral race and then served in City Hall under Walsh, was never able to gain traction in the race, despite claiming more executive experience than anyone in the field.
When Janey took the mayoral reins, many immediately drew comparisons to 1993, when then-city council president Tom Menino became acting mayor following Ray Flynn’s departure for an ambassador’s post. That fall, Menino topped the field in a seven-way preliminary election and then rolled to a 2-to-1 victory over Dorchester state rep Jim Brett in the final election.Janey, a Roxbury district city councilor, initially looked like a strong contender to make the final election. But she operated cautiously as acting mayor and often seemed to be running the risk-averse campaign of an incumbent — but without the solid base of support enjoyed by someone who had actually won a citywide race for the office. That may have only magnified the damage of any missteps she made, most prominently her ill-considered comparison of vaccine passports to a time when Blacks in the country had to carry identification papers.
Campbell, a district city councilor from Mattapan, started the race polling in single digits, but made steady gains, fueled by strong fundraising and a solid field organization. She won the endorsement of the Boston Globe and appeared to be surging in the race’s final weeks, but not enough to catch Essaibi George.