Ellen BarryWed, September 15, 2021, 7:57 AM
BOSTON — Michelle Wu, an Asian American progressive who has built a campaign around climate change and housing policy, earned one of two spots in Boston’s preliminary mayoral election on Tuesday, setting the stage for change in a city that for nearly 200 years has elected only white men.
As a front-runner, Wu, 36, marks a striking departure for this city, whose politics have long turned on neighborhoods and ethnic rivalries.
The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, she is not from Boston, and has built an ardent following as a city councilor by proposing sweeping structural changes, like making the city’s public transportation free, restoring a form of rent control, and introducing the country’s first city-level Green New Deal.
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The vote count moved slowly into Wednesday morning and The Associated Press did not immediately announce who had finished second behind Wu. But another city councilor, Annissa Essaibi George, announced that she had won the other spot in November’s general election, and her two closest competitors told supporters they had lost.
Essaibi George, 47, has positioned herself as a moderate, winning endorsements from traditional power centers like the former police commissioner and the firefighters’ union.
In a debate last week, she promised voters that if elected, “you won’t find me on a soapbox, you’ll find me in the neighborhoods, doing the work.”
The Nov. 2 matchup is expected to test the consensus that emerged among many national Democrats after New York’s mayoral primaries: that moderate Black voters and older voters will tug the Democratic Party back toward its center, particularly around the issue of public safety.
For weeks, polls showed two leading Black candidates — Acting Mayor Kim Janey and City Councilor Andrea Campbell — in a dead heat with Essaibi George for second place. But turnout in the nonpartisan preliminary election was low on Tuesday, and they appeared to fall short.
The prospect of a general election with no Black candidate came as a bitter disappointment to many in Boston, which had seemed closer than ever before to electing a Black mayor.
“Boston is a Northern city,” John Hallett, 62, who had supported Janey, said in frustration. “They have had Black mayors in Atlanta, in Mississippi, and other places down South. I think this is just ridiculous. Really, I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s going to take.”
The winner of the election will take the helm of a swiftly changing city.
Once a blue-collar industrial port, Boston has become a hub for biotechnology, education and medicine, attracting a stream of affluent, highly educated newcomers. The cost of housing has skyrocketed, forcing many working families to settle for substandard housing or to commute long distances.
Wu, a Chicago native who moved here to attend Harvard University and Harvard Law School, speaks to those new arrivals and their anxieties, acknowledging that her flagship proposals are “pushing the envelope.”
“Others have described them, at times, as ‘pie in the sky’ because they are bold, reaching for that brightest version of our future,” she said. “So much of what we celebrate in Boston started as visions that might have seemed ‘pie in the sky’ initially, but were exactly what we needed and deserved. And people fought for them.”
Throughout its history, she says, Boston has served as a laboratory for new ideas, like public education, and for movements like abolitionism, civil rights and marriage equality.
“This is a city that knows how to fight for what is right,” said Wu, who credits Elizabeth Warren, her law professor, with helping to launch her in politics.
But Boston’s most faithful voters are in predominantly white precincts, where many look askance at many of Wu’s policies, and at the calls for policing reforms that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Those voters have rallied around Essaibi George, who grew up in Dorchester, the daughter of Tunisian and Polish immigrants, and is the only candidate to oppose cuts to the police budget and favor increasing the number of officers on Boston streets.
At a victory celebration that began shortly before midnight, Essaibi George, flanked by her teenage triplets, launched into a critique of Wu and her policy-wonk platform.
“We need real change, and that doesn’t come with just ideas or an academic exercise, that comes with hard work,” she said. “I don’t just talk, I work. I do. I dig in and get to it. It’s how my parents raised me. It’s how this city made me.”
She went on to poke holes in two of Wu’s signature platforms, to cheers from the crowd. “Let me be clear,” she said. “The mayor of Boston cannot make the T free. The mayor of Boston cannot mandate rent control. These are issues the state must address.”
Essaibi George’s supporters, who gathered on a Dorchester street corner on the eve of the election, wearing her campaign’s trademark hot pink T-shirts, were mostly white, and named public safety as a top concern. Robert O’Shea, 58, recalled “Dirty Water,” the 1965 pop ode to the polluted Charles River and its “lovers, muggers and thieves.”
“Well, when that was written, nobody wanted to be here,” he said. “Look what it is now. I’ve seen this city grow so much, I can’t afford to buy the house I live in.”
O’Shea said he was not hostile to Wu, or what he called “all this progressive stuff.”
“It’s all great, though the socialism aspect of it kind of scares me a little bit,” he said, noting that several of his relatives are Boston police officers. “But people need to be safe. People need to feel safe in their homes before they can save the world.”
One reason Boston may prove more receptive to progressive candidates is that it is a very young city, with roughly one-third of its population between the ages of 20 and 37.
Its manufacturing jobs have mostly vanished, making way for affluent, better-educated newcomers, “people who may read The Times but don’t necessarily go to church,” said Larry DiCara, 72, a former Boston city councilor. And it was not jolted by a rise in violent crime over the summer, something that probably shifted votes in New York toward Eric Adams, the Democratic mayoral nominee.
Wu had no choice but to build her political base around a set of policies because she could not bank on ethnic or neighborhood affinities, said Jonathan Cohn, the chair of the Ward 4 Democratic Committee, which endorsed her.
“There is a real way that politics is often done here, of ‘what church, what school, what neighborhood,’ and she is trying to shift it to a policy discussion,” he said.
When Wu entered the City Council in 2014, the body had largely concerned itself with constituent services, but over the next few years it became a platform for national-level policy, on climate change and police reform. The policies Wu zeroed in on, like fare-free transit and the Green New Deal, emerged as her mayoral platform.
Some observers question whether Wu’s policy platform will be enough to carry her through the general election in November.
“People just want the city to work for them, they don’t want nice policies,” said Kay Gibbs, 81, who worked as a political aide to Thomas Atkins, the city’s first Black city councilor, and to Rep. Barney Frank. Boston’s next mayor, she said, will have her hands full with the basics, taking control of powerful forces within a sprawling city government.
“The electorate is smarter than we think they are, and they have certain interests that don’t extend to all these dreamy ideas of free public transport and Green New Deal,” she said. “They are going to choose the person they think is most able.”
Boston is growing swiftly, with rapid growth in its Asian and Hispanic populations. It has seen a shrinking percentage of non-Hispanic white residents, who now make up less than 45% of the population. And the percentage of Black residents is also dropping, falling to 19% of the population from about 22% in 2010.
Janey, who was then the City Council president, became acting mayor in March after Martin J. Walsh became the country’s labor secretary, and many assumed she would cruise into the general election. But she was cautious in her new role, sticking largely to the script in public appearances, and damaged by criticism from her rival Campbell, a Princeton-educated lawyer and vigorous campaigner.
At a campaign stop on Monday, Janey said incumbency had not necessarily proved an advantage.
“I certainly would say, if anything, it’s a double-edged sword,” she said.
Municipal elections, especially preliminary ones, tend to draw a low turnout, whiter and older than the city as a whole. It is only in the last few years that change has begun to ripple through Massachusetts, which has seen a series of upsets for progressive women of color, said Steve Koczela, president of the MassInc Polling Group.
“This is the culmination of a lot of flexing of new political muscle,” he said