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Boston mayoral candidates take a sharper tone in final debate before next week’s election

Key moments from the final Boston mayoral debate before next week’s election
Thursday night's Boston mayoral debate marked the final major confrontation before the field is winnowed to two finalists next week. (Photo by MATTHEW J LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

In their last encounter before the preliminary election Tuesday, the five major contenders for Boston mayor faced off in a live debate Thursday, sparring over how to best handle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, shortcomings in city schools, and the city’s lack of affordable housing.

The debate featured sharpened distinctions and criticism among candidates, with Councilor Michelle Wu, who has led in the polls, weathering some of her first attacks in the race from John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, who has lagged behind. Meanwhile, City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George sparred with Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who aimed to present herself as a solid leader of the city since she stepped into that role.


“In the last five months we’ve accomplished a lot,” Janey said in her closing statement. “I’ve opened up the city. We have our kids back in school. Crime is down, we’re keeping people in our homes,” she said, a reference to the eviction moratorium she put in place late last month.

But her rivals in the tight race faulted her for what they described as unsteady stewardship of the city amid a pandemic. Campbell — who has needled the acting mayor for weeks — said she would go further with pandemic restrictions than Janey has, by requiring New York-style vaccine passports rather than leaving it to businesses to decide whether to require proof of vaccination.

“Because we’re in a public health crisis and I think we made it clear when COVID began that this is not about an individual’s health,” Campbell said. “You get sick and you go out into the community, you can not only harm others. You can kill them.”

Campbell, Janey, and Essaibi George have been jockeying for position in recent days since polls show them in a virtual dead heat for second place. A new Emerson College and 7News poll released Thursday night showed Wu with 30 percent support, Essaibi George with 18 percent, Campbell with 17 percent, and Janey with 16 percent.


Only two candidates will survive Tuesday’s preliminary election to face off in the general election on Nov. 2.

The candidates’ debate Thursday night, held at WBUR CitySpace without a live audience, was the second in as many days, and offered further insight into the candidates’ personal stories. During a discussion on gentrification, Janey recalled how her family lost a brownstone in the South End, noting the property is worth millions today.

Barros, a father of four, talked about how his kids ask him about the human misery on display at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis. Campbell, meanwhile, talked about attending five Boston public schools, an education that took a “poor girl from Roxbury” to Princeton, and how the same system failed her twin brother Andre.

Essaibi George spoke of her 13-year stint as a public school teacher. And Wu talked about “the stress, the tightrope” of navigating Boston Public Schools as her younger sister’s guardian.

The debate also highlighted sharp contrasts between candidates. Wu, for instance, is the only candidate in the race who supports rent control, and said the other candidates were not acting with the same urgency regarding the housing crisis.

“We know every single day our residents are at risk of getting pushed out,” Wu said. “And so the real question isn’t why I’m the only candidate who is willing to fight for every tool in the toolbox. It is, why the rest of the candidate field isn’t acting with the same sense of urgency.”


Barros retorted that Wu has not articulated how rent control would help.

“It would create a further shortage of housing,” he charged.

Asked about tackling the opioid crisis on Boston’s streets, Wu recalled walking in and around “Mass and Cass” and feeling that government had given up on the complex problems of homelessness and drug addiction that mar the area.

“That is unacceptable,” she said.

Campbell faulted her rivals, noting that their districts, unlike hers, cover the troubled area but said they “took no action and had no plan” to fix the problems there. And, in another dig at Janey, Campbell said she had issued a plan that has not been pursued. “It has to come from the mayor’s office,” she said.

Essaibi George, for the second night in a row, directed blame at Janey for the worsening situation, and slammed the acting mayor for eliminating a committee focusing on mental health, homelessness, and addiction recovery when she was City Council president.

“It is not a coincidence that we have gone to a place of chaos,” said Essaibi George.

But Janey pushed back, noting she created an umbrella public health committee that is also overseeing the pandemic and taking a swipe at Essaibi George for overstating the might of a City Council committee. “There’s a lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue to suggest that a City Council committee correlates with what is happening on the streets,” Janey said.


The pair further tangled after Essaibi George alone raised opposition to Janey’s eviction moratorium, calling it “a band-aid over a bullet hole.” She favored making existing housing resources more accessible to families who need them.

Janey wasn’t having it. She countered that “it was important to act on the local level” after a Supreme Court decision ended a nationwide eviction moratorium, and she highlighted $50 million in rental relief that the city has made available, among other housing investments.

And, in the fiercest exchange of the night, Janey referenced Essaibi George’s husband, who runs a development and real estate business.

“It is disappointing to hear anyone on this stage disagree with the eviction moratorium, particularly someone who benefits from a company that . . . routinely evicts tenants of the city,” she said.

In response, Essaibi George said, “I think it’s interesting that Acting Mayor Janey thinks it’s appropriate to bring up my family.”

“I am concerned about the families in this city,” said Essaibi George.

Janey also tried to beat back criticism of her stewardship of the schools, whose reopening Thursday was marred by bus delays that caused many children to arrive late.

Asked if she took any personal responsibility for the bus problems, Janey touted that 57 percent of buses reported arriving on time, a higher percentage than in recent years. The district also had its highest attendance rate for the first day of school on record, at 80 percent attendance, she said.


”We had a great first day,” she said.

Her opponents were not impressed. Fielding calls from waiting parents Thursday morning, Campbell said, “the common refrain was, ‘Well, we’re used to this.’ Unacceptable.”

When asked to evaluate the performance of Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, both Janey and Wu spoke of the challenges she has faced steering the district through a pandemic.

Janey graded her performance with a B+ compared to a C from Wu. Essaibi George also issued a C, pointing out that the on-time bus arrival of 57 percent is “not a passing grade. . . . I don’t want my kids bringing that grade home from school.”

Campbell was even harsher, grading a D that she said was based on hearing from parents who were unsure their children’s buses would arrive that morning.

“This is a $1.2 billion system, a transportation budget that’s $130 million and going up, and it still can’t deliver excellent service to our families,” Campbell said.

Barros did not issue a grade but called for a $4 billion investment to create quality schools in every neighborhood, relying on green bonds and social justice bonds.

Thursday’s debate was hosted by WBUR, the Globe, UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, and WCVB.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.