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Is the Boston business community afraid of Michelle Wu? Not anymore

As the preliminary vote approaches, progressive city councilor is starting to draw big-name backers from the business world, though Janey and Campbell have lots of fans too.

Mayoral candidate City Councilor Michelle Wu addressed union members at an event were fellow Boston mayoral candidates and members of the congressional delegation spoke at a Labor Day event which was followed by a demonstration at the Marriott Copley Place and a cookout in Copley Square.
Mayoral candidate City Councilor Michelle Wu addressed union members at an event were fellow Boston mayoral candidates and members of the congressional delegation spoke at a Labor Day event which was followed by a demonstration at the Marriott Copley Place and a cookout in Copley Square.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Who’s afraid of Michelle Wu? For months, the conventional answer has been: the business community.

I started to believe that, too, until this fund-raising invite flew into e-mail boxes last week from one of the biggest business honchos around: Jack Connors. The founder of Boston advertising firm Hill Holliday is a political rainmaker too and will hold a fund-raiser on Wednesday at his new office on Newbury Street.

“I am writing today to let you know that I have decided to support the candidacy of Michelle Wu for mayor of the city of Boston,” wrote Connors. “I have watched her for quite some time, and I sincerely believe she is both bright and compassionate. She cares about the future of this city, and the folks who live in every one of its neighborhoods.”

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The more I dug, the more I saw how Wu has staunch supporters in Boston’s business community, and they’ve been with her before she recently took a commanding lead in the polls. The Wu super PAC — which like other political action committees operates independently of the candidate’s campaign — is studded with bold-faced names and sizable checks: former Citizens Financial Group chief executive Larry Fish ($50,000), Boston construction magnate Jay Cashman ($35,000), former BJ’s chief executive Laura Sen ($10,000), and retired Goodwin Procter partner Paul Lee ($10,000).

Some of Wu’s relationships are longstanding, like the one with Heather Campion, a well-known Boston banking executive who is now managing director of executive recruiting firm Diversified Search Group. While Wu was at Harvard Law School, she spent a summer interning at Northeast Bank, where Campion worked at the time.

“Those bankers loved her,” recalled Campion who is enthusiastically backing Wu. “Michelle is a proven leader, who is exceptionally competent and who people have seen produce results.”

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Others, like former John Hancock chief executive David D’Alessandro, have only gotten to know the longtime city councilor after she announced her mayoral bid last fall. D’Alessandro acknowledges the concern in some business circles about Wu.

“There are a lot of business people afraid of her because she is by far the smartest person in the race. She is more likely not to play favorites in the business community,” said D’Alessandro. “What will happen is when she becomes mayor they will all line up. In my view, she is a very, very progressive Tom Menino.”

The fear of a Mayor Wu is palpable among developers and real estate lawyers, and a group of them are actively raising money for Acting Mayor Kim Janey. Among them: real estate attorney Mike Ross, real estate investor Richard Taylor, and prominent Boston developer Tom O’Brien. (As I previously reported, O’Brien has donated to other campaigns, but I’m told he’s squarely in the Janey camp.)

Last summer Wu, unsatisfied with how the Walsh administration was handling a corruption scandal at the Zoning Board of Appeals, held up new appointments to the board, which in turn stalled approvals for many small and midsize projects. Wu has also been the candidate most unequivocal in her support of rent control.

“We have real serious concerns about Michelle Wu,” said Ross, a former Boston city councilor who ran for mayor in 2013. “Developers always play defense, and they try to cover their bets. That is not what is happening here. There is a critical mass of developers who are supporting the mayor.”

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Ross, who is also on Janey’s finance committee, believes Janey understands development best, which is critical to growing the city’s economy. The race is barreling toward Tuesday’s preliminary election with the two top vote- getters moving on to the Nov. 2 final. A Boston Globe poll released Tuesday showed Wu clearly in the lead, with Janey and City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George locked in a battle for second place.

Ross thinks Janey has the best shot in November. “She’s the only person who can beat Michelle Wu,” he said.

Others will tell you that candidate is Campbell. The district city councilor and former deputy legal counsel to former governor Deval Patrick has her own list of bold-faced name supporters in the business community. Her super PAC backers include Cove Hill Partners partner Andrew Balson ($175,000), retired venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli and wife Hilary ($100,000); Third Rock Ventures cofounder Mark Levin ($25,000), Kraft Group president Jonathan Kraft ($25,000), Jill Shah, president of Shah Family Foundation ($25,000), and former FleetBoston chief executive and Bank of America chairman Chad Gifford ($12,500).

Gifford told me he was drawn to the Boston mayoral race because of the opportunity to elect the city’s first woman and first person of color. In the spring, he met with Campbell, Janey, and Wu. Gifford, whose nonprofit work revolves around Boston public schools, saw Campbell as the best candidate on education because she’s willing to make tough decisions like closing schools.

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As Gifford put it, Campbell has “a real steel conviction to what had to be done.”

Gabrieli, whose civic priorities have also focused on improving education, said he encouraged Campbell to run and has been impressed by her political courage, an attribute necessary to solve intractable issues like police reform and fixing schools.

He also believes Campbell, who is Black and grew up in Boston shuttling in and out of foster homes, is best poised to deal with Boston’s greatest shortcoming: inequality.

“Boston writ large is doing great, but Boston living up to its ideals of equity is doing poorly,” he said.

As for Essaibi George, I could not find that many high-profile supporters in the business community. But ask the chattering class about the mayoral race, and the ones who follow politics closely predict Essaibi George will be in the final.

Like Wu, Essaibi George has a big advantage having run as a citywide councilor. At the same time, she has smartly positioned herself as the moderate candidate in a progressive field, and appears to have strong support in neighborhoods that traditionally turn out in city elections.

Likewise, John Barros has drawn relatively little big-name support, despite his time as head of economic development under former mayor Marty Walsh. His major donors include Kayak cofounder Paul English, DraftKings cofounder Jason Robins, Oxford Properties executive Chad Remis, and Maven Construction chief executive JocCole “JC” Burton. Barros has consistently placed last in the polls.

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A lot can happen between now and November, of course. And the two-person final may shake out differently than the current five-candidate field. One thing’s for sure: The race is a woman’s to lose, and a woman’s to win. How far Boston politics has come.



Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.