BOSTON – For the first time in 200 years, Boston voters have narrowed the field of mayoral candidates to two women of color who will face off against each other in November.
City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George topped the five-person race in Tuesday’s preliminary runoff. They bested acting Mayor Kim Janey, City Councilor Andrea Campbell and John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief. All five were candidates of color — a major shift away from two centuries of Boston politics dominated by white men.
Wu’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. Essaibi George describes herself as a first generation Arab Polish-American.
Whoever wins on Nov. 2 will make history in a city that has never elected a woman or Asian American mayor. For the past 200 years, the office has been held exclusively by white men.
Wu and Essaibi George's advancement to the general election ushers in a new era for the city which has wrestled with racial and ethnic strife.
Essaibi George said she was confident she could pose a significant challenge to Wu in November.
“I am so grateful to you showing up not just tonight but showing up for the last eight months,” she told supporters.
Wu spoke to reporters outside Boston City Hall on Wednesday.
“This is the moment in Boston that our campaign and our coalition has been calling for for a long time," she said. “We got in this race over a year ago — actually exactly a year ago today — to ensure that Boston would step up to meet this moment."
Essaibi George in her victory speech said the mayor of Boston can’t unilaterally restore rent control — a jab at Wu, who wants to revive a version of rent control, or rent stabilization, which was banned statewide by a 1994 ballot question.
Wu pushed back, saying she's addressed tough challenges during her years as a city councilor.
“We took on issues that people said were pie in the sky, would be impossible to accomplish but by building coalitions, working across all levels of government and continuing to bring community members to the table, we knocked those down, one by one,” she said.
Earlier this year, Janey became the first Black Bostonian and first woman to occupy the city’s top office in an acting capacity after former Mayor Marty Walsh stepped down to become President Joe Biden’s labor secretary.
“I want to congratulate Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George on their victories this evening," Janey said in a statement. “This was a spirited and historic race, and I wish them both luck in the final election.”
There had been an effort among some leaders in the Black community to rally around a single candidate to ensure that at least one Black mayoral hopeful could claim one of the two top slots.
All of the candidates were Democrats. Mayoral races in Boston do not include party primaries.
Wu was elected to the Boston City Council in 2013 at age 28, becoming the first Asian-American woman to serve on the council. In 2016, she was elected city council president by her colleagues in a unanimous vote, becoming the first woman of color to serve as president.
Essaibi George won a series of key endorsements during the race including from unions representing firefighters, nurses and emergency medical technicians. She also won the backing of former Boston Police Commissioner William Gross.
Essaibi George grew up in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood and taught in the Boston Public Schools. She was elected to the city council in 2015. Her father immigrated to the United States from Tunisia in 1972. Her mother was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany of Polish parents.
The November contest could also be a test of whether voters in a city long dominated by parochial neighborhood and ethnic politics are ready to tap someone like Wu, who grew up in Chicago.
Wu moved to Boston to attend Harvard University and Harvard Law School and studied under U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, then a law professor. She's the only candidate not born in Boston.
Boston has changed radically since the 1970s and 1980s, when it was overwhelmingly white and was riven by racial tensions. Today, while still struggling to overcome its racist legacy, it's a majority minority city: The latest U.S. Census statistics show residents who identify as white make up 44.6% of the population compared to Black residents (19.1%), Latino residents (18.7%) and residents of Asian descent (11.2%).
Among the challenges facing modern Boston are those brought on by gentrification, which has forced out many long-term residents, including those in historically Black neighborhoods.
Added to that are a host of other challenges that will face the new mayor, from transportation woes, racial injustice and policing to schools and the ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic.