In the final days of the preliminary election, City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu was campaigning in the South End amid drums, tambourines, and dancing by Latinx supporters, who cheered her on with an impromptu and bullish refrain: “Michelle Wu … Va a ganar (will win),” they sang.
Outside Housing Court in Boston, the vibe was far more somber at a press conference convened by mayoral contender Andrea Campbell to urge Acting Mayor Kim Janey to impose a pandemic eviction moratorium — Campbell’s latest effort to nudge her way into the news by needling Janey. Mayoral rival and Councilor Annissa Essaibi George soon piled on, suggesting Janey was doing too little, too late to protect renters, eliciting a rare, sharp pushback from the acting mayor, who has tried to stay out of the fray.
With just nine days left until the election and early voting already open, the contrasting dynamics showcased a race in which polls suggest only one candidate, Wu, has a clear shot at advancing to the Nov. 2 final, while the other three women in the race are grappling in an intensifying competition for the chance to face off against her.
“Kim Janey, Annissa Essaibi George, and Andrea Campbell are all fighting for that second slot,” said Democratic political consultant Mary Anne Marsh, who is not working with any of the campaigns and isn’t otherwise supporting a specific candidate.
The fifth major candidate, John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, is running far behind the women in polls.
The shift has been most noticeable for Janey, who was riding high in polls earlier this summer but who slipped in recent surveys, and who appeared to adjust her strategy of ignoring her rivals last week as she sustained more criticism. The acting mayor, for instance, took a swipe at Essaibi George last week and, two weeks ago, suddenly scrapped the city’s long-developed Boston Harbor zoning plan over concerns about equity and climate change — an issue on which Wu dominates.
Another sign Janey’s supporters feel the need for more aggressive pushback: A super PAC supporting Janey is now poised to launch the first negative ad in the race, with a radio spot opposing Campbell, according to campaign finance filings.
But Doug Rubin, a political consultant to her campaign, expressed confidence about Janey’s position, noting she raised nearly $400,000 in August, her highest cash haul in a single month to date.
“We feel good about where Kim is in this race,” he said.
As City Council president, Janey assumed the role of mayor in March, when former Mayor Martin J. Walsh stepped down to become President Biden’s labor secretary. Since then, she basked in a surge of publicity as the first Black woman in the seat and amassed endorsements from progressive groups and influential community leaders, including Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and Tito Jackson, the former city councilor and 2017 mayoral candidate. She also snagged the backing of WAKANDA II, an initiative that is seeking to unite Black voters behind a single Black candidate.
Assuming the air of an incumbent, Janey largely ignored her rivals, steering the city through a perilous stretch of the pandemic and more than one police scandal, and making pivotal decisions that her rivals could only issue press releases about.
But incumbency has its disadvantages, as well, and Janey has stumbled at times, giving her opponents opportunities to pounce — most notably when she initially compared vaccine passports to slavery and birtherism. As the occupant of the mayoral office, she has become the likeliest target of criticism from the four major candidates who want her job.
“She’s the one who has the position. She’s got a big ol’ bullsye on her,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who has endorsed Wu. “Everyone else can pontificate about what they’d do as mayor. Her successes and her failures are up for public scrutiny right now.”
Wu, meanwhile, has surged ahead, according to the latest polls. An at-large councilor who has been elected citywide four times, she has topped or statistically tied Janey in every poll released publicly since the race began. Yet she barely merits a mention from her rivals, who seem to have ceded the lead.
“There’s just too much real estate between them to catch her,” Marsh said. “They’re going to take Michelle on another day, but they can’t if they’re not in the final.”
Only two candidates will survive the Sept. 14 preliminary to compete in the Nov. 2 general election.
Wu is not resting and said in an interview that she expects it to be a close race.
“For me, this was never about other candidates, this has always been about residents across the city and what we need in this moment,” she said. “I’m not in this to run against anyone, I’m running to take on big challenges and shift to what’s possible in Boston, and that means building coalitions.”
Campbell, a district city councilor from Mattapan, had been hammering the acting mayor regularly on her leadership, and trying to create the impression that Janey is following her lead. Janey issued both a vaccine mandate and an eviction moratorium after Campbell publicly pressed her to act, though Janey’s team said City Hall was already working on an eviction moratorium when Campbell called for one.
Still, Campbell maintains that she is not targeting Janey. “It’s not the acting mayor. It is about me getting out there and making the distinction between me and every other candidate in this race,” Campbell said.
Campaign consultants say that Campbell’s strategy challenging City Hall has been both clear and effective.
“It’s clear that Andrea’s approach to really put it at the desk of the acting mayor really is having an impact, buoying her campaign as well as part of a bigger message” that she’s willing to take on leadership, said Wilnelia Rivera, a campaign consultant who is not involved in the race, but is personally supportive of Wu.
A district city councilor who preceded Janey as the first Black woman elected president of City Council, Campbell has tried to reclaim attention heaped on the acting mayor and last week touted the endorsement of the Elect Black Women PAC, a national organization working to increase representation.
“Andrea’s trying to position herself as the Black woman who can win this race, if she can just make it to the final,” said Marsh.
Campbell also seized the endorsement of the Boston Globe editorial board, a surprise win that her campaign immediately publicized as a show of strength. Campbell has tried to demonstrate she has a broad coalition of support citywide.
She also has the backing of a well-funded super PAC whose top donors support the expansion of charter schools — the issue drawing the objection of a super PAC supporting Janey.
Janey, meanwhile, has mostly declined to engage her rivals, and rarely responds directly to their criticism, instead taking executive action to confront some of the issues they have raised.
Rubin said she has been laser-focused on governing the city rather than responding to political sniping.
“Kim Janey is acting mayor in the middle of a pandemic with a lot of issues around affordable housing and public safety and education that she’s had to deal with. Her top priority has always been to focus on those issues and do what’s best for the residents of Boston,” he said. “It’s more important that she engage on those issues than to engage in a back and forth with the candidates over the sort of criticism they’ve levied at her.”
But in a signal that the gloves are coming off, Janey last week pushed back at Essaibi George, who had criticized Janey for a “lack of leadership” in getting federal funds to help protect people from eviction, saying, “nobody should lose their home right now.”
Suggesting hypocrisy, Janey pointed to another Globe story showing that Essaibi George’s husband has a history of evicting low-income tenants and that her council office had been involved in a city hearing into a project that could affect one of his developments.
“While I’ve worked to keep Boston residents in their homes, make housing more affordable, and put in place a ban on evictions, Councilor Essaibi George has used her office to support her and her husband’s business — which has a documented history of evictions, housing court violations and late payments of property taxes,” Janey charged in a statement to the Globe.
Essaibi George’s campaign did not take kindly to the reminder.
“As the Acting Mayor has yet to put forth any housing plan of her own, and clearly could not find anything to criticize in Annissa’s plan, it seems she found it more opportunistic to attack an opponent’s family instead,” the campaign responded. “Personal attacks won’t speak to voters, leadership will.”
Essaibi George has scarcely been targeted by her competitors, but that could change with recent polls showing her on the rise.
She also has increasingly differentiated herself from the rest of the field by embracing a more moderate agenda. In a crowd of candidates proposing dramatic changes to city police to address national concerns about police abuse and specific scandals within the Boston Police Department, Essaibi George has taken the opposite tack. Last week, she called for hiring more police officers and doubling down on community policing, and former Boston police commissioner William Gross, who has endorsed her, formed a new super PAC that appears to be lined up to back her.
With a more moderate stance and a down-to-earth style, Essaibi George’s advisers say she would welcome a general election contest against Wu, viewed as the candidate of big ideas on global issues like climate change and a far more liberal figure. Essaibi George is also an at-large city councilor, who has won citywide three times, and a Dorchester native who dominates the same turf that gave rise to Walsh’s mayoralty; she often touts her relatability as a mother of four teenage boys, a hockey mom, small-business owner, and a former classroom teacher.
“The personal imprint that she has in her community — that’s a real thing,” said Rivera. “You can’t underestimate those real tribal connections that she has.”
With polls showing that a sizable share of voters remain undecided, and over a week left in the race, the field could still shift. The excitement level of the electorate will make a difference, too, said Steve Koczela, president of MassINC, who conducted the most recent poll.
“Turnout will really make a difference,” said Koczela, noting that higher- or lower-than-expected turnout could skew the results.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who supports Janey, believes she’ll benefit from an election with unusually high turnout, boosted by communities of color.
“Everybody would agree we’ve never had a Black mayor before,” Arroyo said, “and I think the excitement is pretty high.”
Globe staff writers Danny McDonald and Milton Valencia contributed to this report.