Wu and Essaibi George face off in Boston mayoral debate
A few sparks fly, but it's mostly a civil affair with plenty of agreement on issues
WITH LESS THAN three weeks to go before the election, Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George faced off Wednesday night for the first time in a one-on-one debate in the race for mayor of Boston, each strongly arguing their case to voters who are poised to elect the first woman mayor in the city’s history.
The candidates sparred in the hourlong WBZ-TV forum over housing policy and who can claim credit for redirecting the city’s emergency response approach to mental health crises, but they often seemed to be on the same page in talking about issues such as the need to address homelessness and addiction or to ensure that all Boston public schools have equal access to resources.
With a poll released earlier on Wednesday showing her trailing by a wide margin, Essaibi George came into the debate facing pressure to shake up the race, but neither candidate appeared to walk away with a decisive victory or having delivered a memorable line that might gain traction in defining the race.
One of the sharpest exchanges came on housing policy, when moderator Jon Keller asked what could be done to help small landlords, who have filed for eviction at a lower rate than other property owners during the pandemic.
“Michelle does not believe in the power of that small landlord,” said Essaibi George, citing Wu’s support for rent control. Essaibi George called rent control, which was banned via a statewide ballot question in 1994, a “failed policy” that promotes disinvestment. “Rent control is not the answer, it is not the fix to the challenge here in the city,” she said.
“Everything should be on the table when it comes to addressing our housing crisis,” Wu said. “We can’t be afraid and listen to scare tactics around what our residents need right now.”
Essaibi George said her 13 years as a high school teacher in East Boston and work as a small business owner in Dorchester are what set her apart and give her the real-world experience to take on the issues facing the city.
Wu stuck to her theme of pushing for “bold” action, saying she is running to “take on the big challenges in Boston.”
Wu’s focus on big change has faced criticism from Essaibi George, who has suggested her idea of fare-free MBTA service, for example, is impractical and has questioned her rival’s attention to the everyday tasks facing city government. “I think there are very clear distinctions between not just our style, but our ability to get this work done,” Essaibi George said. “This work is too important to do in City Hall behind a podium.”
“We have both been out in community,” said Wu, who described her call for sweeping change as grounded by her own experience with day-to-day challenges. “I know what it means when government works and especially when it doesn’t work,” she said, pointing to her role as the mother of two young Boston Public School students.
On the addiction and homelessness crisis centered at Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard, both candidates deflected a question asking whether they support Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins’s proposal to involuntarily commit some of those living on streets to receive treatment in empty space at the South Bay House of Correction campus.
“I’m open to conversations,” said Wu, who has been endorsed by Tompkins.
Essaibi George said the city “should explore” the idea, “but it needs to be a public-health overseen effort.”
A poll released Wednesday morning showed Wu with a commanding lead in the race. The survey of likely voters by the MassINC Polling Group, conducted for the Dorchester Reporter, WBUR, and The Boston Foundation, showed Wu with 57 percent and Essaibi George with 25 percent, with 19 percent of voters undecided.
Wu outpaced Essaibi George by 11 percentage points in the September 14 preliminary election that eliminated the three Black candidates vying in the race. Despite the belief that Black voters will now play a pivotal role in determining the election outcome, there was little discussion of race issues in the debate.
Wu has pushed a progressive agenda that includes fare-free public transit, a city-focused Green New Deal to combat climate change, and calls for “dismantling racism in policing” and “reimagining” public safety by diverting 911 calls related to homelessness and mental health issues to public health workers. Her platform has resonated with the city’s growing population of younger, progressive voters and she has sought to tap some of the same activist energy that propelled Sen. Ed Markey’s reelection win last year.
Wu has racked up endorsements from lots of prominent Democratic elected officials, including Markey, Pressley, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Essaibi George has rolled out a series of union endorsements.
Essaibi George has emphasized her track record addressing homelessness issues and has said there can be greater police accountability and heightened attention to public safety. “We need to ensure that our city is a safe city and just city,” she said during the debate. Essaibi George has called for adding 200 to 300 additional police officers and enjoys the backing of lots of law enforcement personnel, including former Boston police commissioner William Gross.
Essaibi George rode a wave of strong support in predominantly white precincts in Dorchester, South Boston, and West Roxbury to land a spot in the final election. Her challenge since then has been to expand her support to other areas, particularly heavily Black neighborhoods in Dorchester, Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Mattapan.
Last week, Essaibi George unveiled an “Equity, Justice, and Inclusion Agenda.” She vowed to deploy $100 million to various initiatives focused on minority residents, including down payment assistance for home buyers and a fund to help minority business entrepreneurs. She also pledged to release police body camera video within 24 hours of any incident receiving scrutiny.
Wu has consistently led in polls since the spring, when Marty Walsh left office to join President Biden’s cabinet.After finishing his moderating duties, Keller joined WBZ anchor Anaridis Rodriquez to serve up a bit of analysis, calling it “a high road debate by any measure.” Given her clear underdog status, Keller expressed surprise that Essaibi George “didn’t come on a little bit stronger.”
“I didn’t see anything happening that’s going to necessarily change the trajectory of this race,” he said.