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Boston fields historically diverse crop of mayoral candidates; all top candidates identify as people of color

Boston's mayoral candidates, from left, Kim Janey, Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, John Barros, and Jon Santiago.
Boston's mayoral candidates, from left, Kim Janey, Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, John Barros, and Jon Santiago.Globe

As Tuesday’s deadline to take out papers for city office came and went, the field of candidates for the next mayor of Boston emerged as a historic one: For the first time, all of the major candidates identify as people of color.

It is a significant and transformational milestone in a city with a notorious history of white political power, although most of its residents are Black, Latino, Asians, or other people of color. This moment highlights the fact that “the city is ready to move on,’' said state Representative Russell Holmes of Mattapan, who added that he does not see Boston returning to a time when there aren’t any women or people of color on the mayoral ballot.

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“It reflects the fact that people of color have now become significant players in the political scene here in Boston,’' said Holmes, who is Black. “It’s a testament to the hard work that so many folks have put in over the years that we don’t have to be a city that’s only governed by whites or white men.”

The pandemic and social justice protests — for Black lives and to stop Asian hate — have introduced a new sense of urgency in reckoning with Boston’s racist past and confronting the lingering effects. Residents of color now represent more than 55 percent of Boston’s population, city data show. Acting Mayor Kim Janey shattered a City Hall barrier when she, as City Council president, took over after former mayor Martin J. Walsh went on to become the US labor secretary. But the election this fall would be the first time a person of color is elected by popular vote.

James Jennings, a professor emeritus at Tufts University, said the national reckoning over the past year has helped increase civic participation. “The people who are becoming motivated to participate in the elections . . . [agree with] the notion that Boston can finally turn the corner with a person of color as mayor of the city,” he said.

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The major candidates are City Councilors Michelle Wu, who is Asian American; Andrea Campbell, who is Black; Annissa Essaibi George, who is Arab American and Polish and identifies as a person of color; Janey and former city economic chief John Barros, who are both Black; and state Representative Jon Santiago, who is Latino.

Earlier in the campaign, a citywide coalition formed with the mission of putting a nonwhite candidate in the mayor’s office. That effort could now be considered moot, though coalition members say they still want to see a mayor with a track record on issues important to them and lived experiences that resonate with the majority of people in the city.

“It’s not just about what the candidates’ identity is, it’s also about what do they represent in terms of the policies that communities of color have been advocating for‚’’ said Lydia Lowe, who is on the steering committee of the Right to the City Vote, a group that empowers communities of color to participate in elections and is helping to lead the coalition’s efforts.

The effort, described by organizers as a coalition of “coalitions and organizations,” represents activists and advocates in the Black, Latino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indigenous, and other communities of color. The group recently launched a series of mayoral forums on key issues: racial justice, immigration, jobs, climate change, and housing.

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Tuesday was the last day for candidates to pull nomination papers. Candidates still need to submit 3,000 signatures from registered voters by May 18 to have their name on the ballot in the preliminary election on Sept. 14, a week earlier than originally scheduled.

Two candidates, Wu and Janey, have already met that threshold, according to the city’s Election Department, which verifies the signatures the candidates submit. The top two vote-getters in the preliminary will square off Nov. 2.

Eleven other people have also pulled papers to run for mayor.

The road to the mayor’s office leads through Roxbury, which is predominantly Black. It also winds through predominantly white and high-voting sections of the city such as West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Hyde Park. The winning candidates will only triumph with momentum, mobilization, and money.

Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George posed for a portrait at the Dudley Cafe in the Roxbury.
Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George posed for a portrait at the Dudley Cafe in the Roxbury.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Over the past few months, the major candidates, all Democrats, have joined mayoral forums, made the rounds at neighborhood businesses and housing developments, and presented their best case on news and community shows — all in an effort to stand out in a crowd.

In interviews and public comments, they said they welcome input and scrutiny from Boston’s diverse communities, stressing that the policies and agenda defining the campaign should reflect the urgency of the moment.

Janey has spoken publicly about her deep roots in Roxbury, telling a mayoral forum last week that equity is “in my DNA.”

She said that she comes from people who were very active in the African abolition society in the 1800s, and that her ancestors escaped slavery in the South via the Underground Railroad and made their way to Nova Scotia, Canada.

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”As the first woman and the first Black mayor of Boston, I bring to City Hall, and to this race, a life experience like none of my predecessors,’' Janey said in a statement. “As a daughter of Roxbury and the South End, I understand the challenges so many of our residents are facing — from structural racism, food and housing insecurity, failing schools, and faltering public transportation, hurdles to home ownership, and fear for our family’s and neighbor’s safety.’'

Campbell, a lawyer who lives in Mattapan, said she jumped into the race in September — when Walsh was expected to run for reelection because she saw a unique opportunity for Boston to “address our own painful history of race and racism marginalization, and oppression.”

Mayoral candidate, City Councilor Andrea Campbell (left) talked with resident Kimaada Shelton (right) during a rally against a rent increase at Grant Manor in Boston.
Mayoral candidate, City Councilor Andrea Campbell (left) talked with resident Kimaada Shelton (right) during a rally against a rent increase at Grant Manor in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“In this moment in time, folks are demanding that change in different ways,’' Campbell said. “I know that I feel the momentum in my race. We have consistently raised more than any other campaign. I am connecting with voters every day, and they are responding from every neighborhood [and] every demographic to this message around inequities, and the opportunity for our city to work together to close these persistent gaps.”

Wu, a lawyer from Roslindale, reflected on what it was like to grow up as the oldest child of immigrants who arrived in America not knowing how to speak English. She said she never expected to run for public office but understood early on what it meant to face “invisible” language and cultural barriers. Raising her siblings and being caregiver to her mother, who suffered with mental illness, helped shaped her life and career, she said.

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“Politics is very personal for me,’' said Wu, who was the first to declare her candidacy and is now in her eighth year on the council. “It is an understanding of just how big the gaps are for families in our city and just how much potential there is to connect people to the resources and the opportunities that are available.”

Santiago, an Army Reserve captain and emergency room doctor who was born in Puerto Rico, said that it is not lost on him that when he enters the Legislature or the hospital he might be the only person of color in that room. “I know that lonely feeling,’' he said, “and I imagined that’s something that many people of color have felt.”

He said he hopes voters will judge him based on the content of his character and his values in public service. Boston, he said, is a changed city and people need a leader. “[In] the conversations I’m having across the city . . . [people] understand that the city is in crisis and that the next two, three, four years might be the most challenging period in terms of our recovery. They want to pick the best person for the job, irrespective of race,’' said Santiago, who is serving his second term in the Legislature.

Barros, who left his job in City Hall to campaign for mayor, said a diverse face in Boston political leadership sends a “different signal to the rest of the community about who Boston is.” He was born in Roxbury to West African parents, became a teenage activist, led Black student groups in high school and in college, and spearheaded a revival in a blighted section of Dorchester. He said he knows what is like to be attacked by police or have relatives suffer and die from the coronavirus.

“I was born within the Black American reality,’' said Barros, adding that his “lived experiences matter” will show up in how he governs, if elected. “When I walk into the room with the police and I sit down as mayor, I can talk about that personal experience. It helps the conversation and moves the dial in terms of reform and what we’re trying to get out of here.”

Essaibi George said that as a citywide councilor she has broad support and key alliances throughout the city. But as she makes the rounds, some residents have expressed concern that she does not support using ZIP codes as a criteria to increase diversity in the city’s exam schools. Some residents have raised questions about her identity.

“People tend to be a person of color when it’s convenient,’' said Jacquetta Van Zandt to the councilor on Van Zandt’s Politics and Proseccopodcast during Black History Month. “How do you identify? And how do you show up in the world?”

Essaibi George, in a Globe interview later, said that she has always identified as Arab and Polish, and said she is proud of the sacrifices of her Polish mother and her father, who was born in the North African country of Tunisia. Essaibi George, who first campaigned as a mother of four, business woman, and former educator, said she hopes voters will judge her based on her advocacy on the council, including for small businesses, and those struggling with homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse.

“I have worked tirelessly to improve the quality of our schools across the board, specifically when we think about the impacts in our schools around our Black and brown children,’' said Essaibi George, checking off her accomplishments. “I’m committed to that work. . . . I’ve been doing that work on the City Council.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.