In what was a mostly genteel affair with little fireworks, Boston’s five major mayoral candidates jousted over housing, the COVID-19 pandemic, and police during their first televised debate Wednesday night, making their pitches to voters less than a week before the preliminary election will narrow the field to two.
In the highest-profile gathering of the race so far, the candidates — City Councilors Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, and John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief — spent most of their allotted time touting their bona fides as lawmakers and advocates, pledging to address deeply entrenched issues in the city, and highlighting how their personal stories intertwine with the fabric of Boston.
The campaign testiness that flashed in recent days was in short supply, although there were a few moments of friction. When there were barbs in the debate, they were almost always directed at Janey.
Barros, for instance, at one point criticized Janey for taking credit for a reduction in street violence, a dip that he attributed to former mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration.
“She doesn’t have a plan,” he said.
And in response to the first question of the night, Campbell gave the city a “D” grade in its handling of the pandemic, in what was a direct swipe at Janey’s approach to managing COVID-19. Echoing her past criticisms of Janey’s pandemic decisions, Campbell said Boston should be doing what New York City and San Francisco have done — two cities that have issued vaccine requirements for some indoor spaces.
Essaibi George, too, was sure to mention that Janey as council president had dissolved a committee whose work was focused on homelessness, mental health, and addiction recovery. She was responding to a question about Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, an intersection that is the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis.
“Since then, things have fallen apart and have gotten to a breaking point,” she said of the area known as Mass. and Cass.
Janey countered that she formed a public health committee as council president, shortly before the pandemic hit.
“Fortunately, we did that,” she said.
Janey said that she has spoken to residents in the Mass. and Cass area about their concerns and that her staff connects people with addiction services every day. She said she is looking at a regional approach to address issues of homelessness and drug addiction.
“This can’t just fall on Boston,” Janey said.
Wednesday’s debate came amid escalating tensions between a school bus drivers union and Boston Public Schools. The union had encouraged officials to postpone in-person classes because of “massive” problems with bus routes. And the early part of the debate was dominated by discussion of that situation.
Janey said the city has reached an agreement with the bus drivers and expects to be adequately staffed for the return to school Thursday morning.
“We are expecting and welcoming all of our bus drivers back to welcome our children . . . tomorrow,” she said. “I am very encouraged by that.”
Barros wasn’t so sure, saying bus drivers and parents he has spoken with are worried the start of the school year will be chaotic.
“People aren’t so confident out there,” he said.
Janey replied, “Well, I remain encouraged.”
Campbell, meanwhile, described receiving a robocall saying there was going to be a shortage of bus drivers with little direction about where to get information.
“That’s just absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
But overall, there was minimal clashing as the five candidates emphasized how their experiences prepared them to lead the city. The size of the field made the debate feel at times unwieldy, with little room for withering critiques or feisty exchanges. Some questions were addressed to just a few of the candidates, leaving others out of the discussion.
Janey, as she has done throughout the campaign, continued to hail her record leading Boston as an interim executive for five-plus months. She touted various programs that have unfolded while she has been acting mayor, including multimillion-dollar investments in HVAC systems in schools, rent relief, foreclosure prevention, and vaccine equity grants.
She largely ignored Campbell’s COVID-19 evaluation, and pointed out that she instituted a mask mandate for Boston Public Schools, required city employees to be vaccinated, and issued an eviction moratorium.
The debate was framed by a recent poll that helped crystalize the state of the race. It shows Wu as the clear front-runner in the contest with 31 percent support of likely voters. Campbell, Essaibi George, and Janey appear to be competing for the second spot in the Nov. 2 general election, according to the most recent poll conducted by the Globe and Suffolk University. The margins in that race-within-a-race are small, as the poll found the trio of women all within 2 percentage points of one another, well within the poll’s margin of error. Barros trailed far behind, as he has in previous polls, at 3 percent.
The neck-and-neck nature of the battle for second means that undecided voters, who make up about 8 percent of those surveyed in the recent poll, could be a significant factor Tuesday. That dynamic has heightened the importance of this week’s debates, which offer opportunities for candidates to make one last pitch to the electorate. Early voting is already underway.
Wu, for her part in the debate, stayed away from directly criticizing others, instead focusing on her mayoral plans. To combat the housing crisis, Wu said she would use “every tool in the toolbox,” including rent stabilization measures, sometimes referred to as rent control.
On the climate crisis, the city must do “a whole lot more, a whole lot more quickly,” said Wu. She painted Boston Public Schools as rudderless, without a long-term plan.
“The next three to five years, and the decisions that we make, will shape the next three to five generations,” said Wu.
Essaibi George has been more moderate on policing matters throughout the campaign, for example, calling for the city to hire hundreds more officers. On Wednesday night, she tried to create daylight between herself and her competitors on that issue, saying she was the only candidate committed to investing in public safety.
“As mayor I am committed to having a safe city, not defunding public safety,” she said
In one of the debate’s lighter moments, moderator Shannon Mulaire asked the candidates if any had been a customer at a local cannabis shop. Campbell and Janey raised their hands.
After a largely civil campaign season, the race turned testy in the lead-up to the forum, including clashes between Janey and Campbell, and between Janey and Essaibi George. A super PAC supporting Janey has gone after Campbell for associating with charter school proponents, while Janey and Essaibi George have traded barbs over Janey’s handling of the city’s housing problems and a new eviction moratorium.
Two mayoral forums will follow on Thursday. The first is scheduled for the morning and will be hosted by A Better City, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and CommonWealth Magazine. The second will start at 7 p.m. and will be hosted by WBUR, the Globe, UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, and WCVB.