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OPINION

Are Marty Walsh and his mom on the same page in the Boston mayoral race?

Annissa Essaibi George could be Walsh’s not-so-secret favorite candidate. But her agenda is about tweaks, not shake-ups. And she does nothing to discourage speculation about Walsh’s support.

The notion that Annissa Essaibi George is Marty Walsh’s not-so-secret favorite candidate isn’t new.
The notion that Annissa Essaibi George is Marty Walsh’s not-so-secret favorite candidate isn’t new.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

As Marty Walsh’s mother goes, so goes Marty Walsh?

At his farewell press conference, as he left the mayor’s office to become US labor secretary, Walsh said he wouldn’t endorse or play any role in the race to replace him. He made no such pledge about his mother, Mary, who still lives in the Dorchester home where she raised her family — and supports Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George, who grew up on the same street.

Asked on WCVB’s “On the Record” whether the former mayor backs her candidacy, Essaibi George said: “I have not asked him directly for his vote. I hope he will consider me on September 14. . . . I would say I’m grateful to have the support of his mother.” To which co-host Janet Wu noted, “She has a sign on her front lawn for you.” Of course, Walsh’s mother has every right to make that political statement. But does it also say something about where her son stands? A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor said Walsh can’t speak about the mayor’s race “in light of rules limiting political activities by federal employees” and his focus on Biden administration priorities.

The suggestion that Essaibi George is Walsh’s not-so-secret favorite candidate isn’t new. She made it the central joke of her St. Patrick’s Day breakfast video, photoshopping him into old photos of herself. Her campaign manager, Cam Charbonnier, and communications director, Nicole Caravella, worked for Walsh, as did her political adviser, Tim Sullivan, now of the Liberty Square Group. With less than two weeks before the preliminary election, how does the Walsh factor play in a race billed as historic because no white man is in the running?

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Boston voters still like Walsh, at least according to a June poll in which he received a 72 percent job approval. Yet he also left behind serious problems in the police and school departments for Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the first Black person and first woman to hold that office, to handle. Meanwhile, minus the burden of executive decision-making, Essaibi George is working to assemble the coalition that twice elected Walsh, drawing support from West Roxbury, Hyde Park, South Boston, and Dorchester, along with backing from unions representing firefighters and EMS workers. William Gross, who was appointed by Walsh as the city’s first Black police commissioner, also endorsed Essaibi George. Yet while Janey had to deal with fallout from Walsh’s controversial appointment of Dennis White as Gross’s successor — on Gross’s recommendation — Essaibi George is unencumbered by it. On “OTR,” she said she has never asked Gross about White, who was fired by Janey because of domestic abuse allegations, which he denies.

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Essaibi George calls herself pragmatic, but she’s often described as the status quo candidate. She wants to hire more police and keep admissions exams for Boston exam schools. During the “OTR” interview, she said she’s “nervous” about vaccine passports and sounded equally nervous about a mask mandate.

The delicate issue of race also influences the perception of her as something less than a change agent. Besides Janey, the other mayoral candidates are John Barros and Andrea Campbell, who are Black, and Michelle Wu, who is Asian American. Essaibi George’s mother is Polish American and her late father emigrated from Tunisia; she identifies as a woman of color. Yet she’s viewed as the candidate of white Boston. (According to a recent poll, she and Wu drew the same support — 24 percent — from white voters.) The Essaibi George campaign said that, like Walsh, she’s ”a constant presence” in all Boston neighborhoods. It’s also true that Walsh won his last campaign against Tito Jackson, who is Black, with crossover support from Black voters.

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In some ways, Essaibi George does represent change from the Walsh era. She’s a mother, a former teacher, and a small-business owner. But her agenda is about tweaks, not shake-ups. And she does nothing to discourage speculation about Walsh’s support.

“We are happy to have Mrs. Walsh’s support,” a campaign spokesman said. “Secretary Walsh made it clear that he is not going to publicly endorse in this race. We’re respecting that.”

That leaves a private door open — and an open question about what that means for real change in Boston.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.