She wants to keep Boston public exam school entrance as it always was — determined by a test. She doesn’t want to defund the police. The firefighters union endorsed her. So did former police commissioner William Gross.
Boston at-large city councilor Annissa Essaibi George is getting noticed for the political ground she’s staking out — ground that she describes as “pragmatic,” but some might call status quo — and for a recent poll showing her leading a field of more progressive candidates. In that poll, first reported by the Bay State Banner, Essaibi George had support from 22 percent of likely voters. At-large councilor Michelle Wu came in second, with 18 percent, and Acting Mayor Kim Janey was third, with 16 percent. While most were still undecided, the results showed “there’s room for a more moderate candidate to be competitive in a six-way race,” wrote Michael Jonas in Commonwealth Magazine.
Or, as Essaibi George told me during a telephone interview, “I bring to the table a healthy balance between dreams and utopia and the reality of today.”
Liam Kerr, the organizer of the Priorities for Progress initiative, a political action committee that promotes Democratic Party unity, said via e-mail that while he questions some aspects of the poll, he believes it accurately reflects the “same story playing out again and again and again … at every level and nearly every election.” From intra-party fights in Washington to the New York City mayoral race, the issue is how far left Democrats should go.
As for Boston, Kerr said, “It is indisputable that it is getting more progressive … but the narrative has so far overshot the pace of change of actual voters.” That’s partly because of who votes; the electorate, he said, is 62 percent white in high turnout elections and 68 percent white in low turnout elections.
Which brings us to Essaibi George. A former Boston high school teacher, she grew up on the same street as former Mayor Marty Walsh and calls him a friend. She said that when he was mayor, their relationship allowed her to have “honest and difficult conversations with him,” and she pushed him to take up issues like homelessness. The controversy over Walsh’s appointment of Dennis White as police commissioner is slightly complicating, since she accepted the endorsement of Gross, who suggested in an affidavit that Walsh knew about past domestic abuse allegations against White. (Walsh denies that.) But Essaibi George said, “I wasn’t privy to” any conversations between the two men. Meanwhile, she supports Janey’s decision to fire White, saying, “Domestic violence is unacceptable.”
Asked if she can be a change agent, given her union endorsements, she described her relationship with unions as a “partnership” that gives her an ability to “change the culture and fix the parts that are broken.”
“Watch out for her,” said Jeffrey Sanchez, a former state representative who lost his Jamaica Plain seat to a progressive challenger and now works as a senior adviser at Rasky Partners. “Because while everybody’s talking about the same eight progressive litmus test pieces, she’s talking bread-and-butter issues and quality of life.” In a mayor’s race, he said he sees room for someone who “speaks to a particular part of the electorate.”
While all the mayoral candidates identify as people of color, racial identity has become something of an issue for Essaibi George, whose roots include a Polish mother and a father who was born in the North African country of Tunisia. She said that while her experiences “are different than those of a Black woman or a Latino woman” identifying “as an Arab woman of color is something I’m very proud of.” She said her father, who was Muslim, once told her that with her last name she could never win in Boston and proving that theory wrong “is a big part of why I’ve maintained my maiden name.” She also said that when she was first elected to the city council, she was invited to attend meetings of “electeds of color.”
As a mayoral candidate, her message is, “I am ready to lead this city.” If the destination is somewhere between utopia and reality, where exactly is that? That’s the question she still must answer.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.