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Boston mayor’s race offers master class in women’s political competition

Clockwise from top-left: Boston mayoral candidates Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi George, Kim Janey, John Barros, and Andrea Campbell.
Clockwise from top-left: Boston mayoral candidates Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi George, Kim Janey, John Barros, and Andrea Campbell.Globe Staff

Boston’s down-to-the-wire preliminary election for mayor features a phenomenon still rare in American politics but eagerly anticipated: A fierce contest among multiple women candidates.

All women of color, often ideological compatriots, the four leading candidates to be Boston’s next mayor rose through the political ranks together. A squad before The Squad, they formed the core of the first-ever female-dominated Boston City Council and became emblematic of a changing city and time.

But political observers anticipated they might one day turn campaign rivals after one of their “sisters in service,” former councilor Ayanna Pressley, catapulted to Congress in 2018. Now, the four colleagues — Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi George, Andrea Campbell, and Kim Janey — are jockeying for a single pinnacle of political power, along with the city’s former economic development chief John Barros.

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Voters go to the polls Tuesday to determine which of these candidates will advance in this closely watched and historic election, with the top two finishers set to face off in November’s general election.

It hasn’t always been pretty. The gloves came off in recent weeks, as Janey — the council president who became acting mayor with the departure of former mayor Martin J. Walsh — enjoyed the advantage of the pulpit to the irritation of her competitors, who had to earn their media time.

Campbell, in particular, has hammered the acting mayor with criticism over her performance, leading some voters to pine for the good old days of collegiality.

“Can’t we all just get along,” said Chanda Smart, a Black voter from Roxbury. “We’re fighting for the same cause.”

But political consultants say no — not in their world, where campaigns are built to highlight differences between candidates who, particularly in a nonpartisan election like Boston’s, may not otherwise seem all that different. Though the tone has grown more contentious in recent weeks, they say, the criticism has been mostly issues-based and substantive.

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“That’s called a campaign,” said Democratic political consultant Mary Anne Marsh, who is not involved in the race. “It’s the first race I can remember in maybe forever that all the disputes and all the differences and all the contrasts have all been based on substance. Finally.”

Advocates for women’s political participation say they’ve already won, no matter which of the four women advance.

“They’re all bringing their own individual record and style into the race and it’s showing voters that women are not all the same,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, where she leads efforts to increase women’s representation. “Women can support each other and also have diverging views and that’s OK. In a way, it helps show others women are multidimensional people when they run for office.”

Things got increasingly tense over the summer, as Janey irritated her fellow councilors by freezing them out of budget talks, leading councilors to pass a measure that would let them remove the council president — a calculated warning to the acting mayor that she could easily be dethroned.

In mid-August, Essaibi George blasted the Janey administration for not playing fair with public information after Janey’s team acknowledged releasing to the Globe city records that showed her competitors were violating a city policy on rental units, even as she quietly cleared up her own violations without exposing them.

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“It’s not OK that the acting mayor is using her office to either obtain an inappropriate advantage over or intentionally create hurdles for, her political opponents,” Essaibi George told the Globe then. “Our campaign believes this is part of a pattern in which Acting Mayor Janey oversteps to undermine her fellow candidates’ work, record, and character.”

In an interview over the summer, Essaibi George acknowledged the mood had changed among the councilors, who used to socialize outside the chambers every month in their “own little girls’ club.” She and Campbell had joined Pressley and Wu on the council in 2015 and were later joined by Janey and Councilor Lydia Edwards, who is now running for state Senate.

She agreed the mood had turned, calling the relations at the time “a little chippy.” But as she put it: “We all believe in Boston. We all want what’s best for Boston. It doesn’t mean that we have to think the same about how we get there. It’s hard work, and there’s going to be different approaches to the work and that’s OK.”

Wu took a similar tack on the campaign trail Sunday. “This election is about the future of our city and it’s important to lay out the distinctions.

“I still enjoy whenever I see my colleagues at forums, at events, we still find a moment here or there,” Wu said. “It’s still fun.”

Marsh noted the toughest blow landed in recent weeks might have been Janey’s jab at Essaibi George during a live debate, in which she called her former colleague “someone who benefits from a company that . . . routinely evicts tenants of the city,” a reference to her husband’s development and real estate company.

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Still, Marsh said: “In politics in Massachusetts, and particularly in Boston, that’s the cleanest fight you’re going to see.”

Even politicians who validated or amplified one another’s views in one arena are going to have to distinguish between themselves in another — and if that sounds harsh, then Wilnelia Rivera would be glad to remind you of ever-evolving allegiances in professional sports.

“I loved Kyrie Irving when he was our point guard,” said the Boston-based political consultant. “But I can’t stand him now cause he plays for the Nets.”

Now that the councilors are in a different field of contest, “We should expect them to be competitors,” said Rivera, who is supporting Wu.

She pointed to “a little bit of naiveté among gender studies and academic circles that if you just put women in these spaces, it will resolve itself.”

But the fact is, voters haven’t had much experience watching women compete for power. That’s changing now after years of rising engagement, with the candidacies sprung from the women’s marches of the Trump era and a surge in the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This is indicative of changes we’re seeing across all levels of office,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar and director of research at Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, pointing to the dynamics of Boston’s preliminary election. The same holds in North Adams, where only women are running for an open seat for mayor next week.

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All-female political showdowns are increasing – and becoming increasingly diverse. In one of the closest parallels, Lori Lightfoot emerged from a crowded field and defeated Toni Preckwinkle in a runoff to become Chicago’s first Black woman mayor in 2019. In New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell became the city’s first Black woman mayor over another, Desiree Charbonnet, in 2017. And last month, Shontel Brown and Nina Turner faced off in a bitter primary for Congress in Ohio that stirred surprise that Black women candidates would target one another.

Dittmar noted that such races reveal remaining biases: Why should a voter not expect differences among candidates, even if they’re of the same race and gender?

“We’re not surprised that white men . . . don’t agree on the same thing,” Dittmar said.

While tough contests among women politicians may cause some discomfort, Rivera, who has worked with several of the women now aggressively competing to be mayor, is not threatened by the new normal.

“They are sisters in service in service, still,” said Rivera. “It’s just they’re now sisters in competition.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.