Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, a former public school teacher, confirmed Wednesday she is entering the Boston mayoral race, becoming the third candidate — and third female city councilor of color — to declare.
The latest development in the rapidly changing contest comes more than two weeks after President Biden announced plans to nominate Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a popular incumbent, for labor secretary. Before that Cabinet announcement, Walsh was expected to seek reelection.
Essaibi-George, 47, of Dorchester, plans to formally announce her candidacy Thursday morning at East Boston High School, where she taught health, economics, and other subjects for 13 years before she was elected to the council. She joins council colleagues Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell in the race and is the first candidate to declare since news of Walsh’s nomination broke.
“I want Boston to thrive and be great,” said Essaibi-George in a phone interview.
Essaibi-George said Wednesday that her experiences as a mother, educator, small business owner, and Dorchester native have uniquely prepared her to bring the city through the COVID-19 crisis, into a sustained recovery, and an “eventual rebirth.”
“If we don’t have a strong economy, we will not find that sustained recovery,” she said.
First elected to the council in 2015, Essaibi-George holds an at-large council seat, meaning she represents the entire city. She is seen as something of a centrist on a political body that has become increasingly progressive in recent years.
Last year’s much-scrutinized budget vote underscores a stark difference between Essaibi-George and her two mayoral rivals. A handful of councilors, including Campbell and Wu, voted against Walsh’s $3.6 billion operating budget last summer, saying it did not do enough to address systemic racial inequities within the city. The group that voted in favor of the proposal, including Essaibi-George, argued that it would have been fiscally irresponsible to reject Walsh’s proposed budget, and that it included laudable programs and services. The budget ultimately passed on an 8-to-5 vote.
Speaking to the Globe on Wednesday, Essaibi-George declined to describe herself “in contrast to any other candidate.” Instead, she touted her detailed knowledge of special education, vocational education, and school curriculum. She advocated for a library in every school and highlighted the importance of more mental health professionals in the school district.
“There are pieces of the system that are broken, when we think about schools, and there is so much work that is left undone,” she said.
Essaibi-George is known for her advocacy around issues of mental health and homelessness. In recent months, she spearheaded a proposal to set up a city commission to examine family homelessness. Just this week, Essaibi-George introduced proposals at a City Council meeting that sought to establish a mental health commission and access to wellness programs for first responders, as well as a pair of proposals related to the ongoing opioid crisis.
If any of the current candidates win the mayoral election, they would make history. The city has never had a mayor who was not a white man.
Essaibi-George identifies as Arab-American. Her Polish mother, who worked as a telephone operator at The Boston Globe for more than 25 years before she was laid off, was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany after World War II. Her late father, who worked as a security guard at Boston University for more than two decades, was an observant Muslim who emigrated from Tunisia. Essaibi-George was raised Catholic, but has said she was imbued with both of her parents’ cultures.
The mother of four sons — including triplets — owns a yarn emporium on Dorchester Avenue called Stitch House. She graduated from Boston Technical High School and holds degrees from Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her husband, Doug, is a developer.
She grew up on the same road — Taft Street in Dorchester — as Walsh and is considered to be a Walsh ally on the council. The mayor endorsed Essaibi-George in her 2019 council run.
On Wednesday, Essaibi-George praised Walsh’s handling of the pandemic, saying he has led the city through a time of “great crisis and trauma and despair.” She added that she would work to continue Walsh’s “ambitious housing goals.”
Responding to sustained calls to dismantle systemic racism, Walsh recently signed an ordinance creating a new, independent city watchdog that will have the authority to investigate police misconduct. On Wednesday Essaibi-George said the next mayor will have to put such reforms “into practice in a meaningful way.”
She also spoke of the importance of supporting police officers “who go to work every single day to protect” Boston residents.
Walsh’s imminent departure has had a seismic effect on city politics, prompting an array of city leaders to contemplate a mayoral run. City Council President Kim Janey, who will become acting mayor once Walsh steps down, is among those names, but she has yet to announce her plans.
Walsh had yet to make a public announcement regarding a reelection bid before the labor secretary news broke, but he was expected to run again, which likely made many would-be candidates think twice about running for mayor. Historically, it is extremely difficult to defeat a Boston incumbent mayor; the last time it happened was 1949.
In terms of campaign funding, both Wu and Campbell appear to have a head-start on Essaibi-George.
At the end of December, Essaibi-George’s campaign had $110,000 cash on hand, compared to $513,000 for Campbell and $535,000 for Wu, according to state records.