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Change will be on the ballot in November

Poll workers Elisa Cange (left) and Maria Gomes counted mail-in ballots at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center on Dudley Street early Tuesday.
Poll workers Elisa Cange (left) and Maria Gomes counted mail-in ballots at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center on Dudley Street early Tuesday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As this historic mayoral preliminary election began to approach its endpoint, the candidates touted their contrasting visions of the city’s future.

Michelle Wu talked about thinking big and meeting the moment. Andrea Campbell highlighted her decisiveness and willingness to make bold decisions. Annissa Essaibi George talked about being a former Boston Public Schools teacher and a mom. Kim Janey’s closing argument revolved around having lived the challenges voters were facing in this time of rising inequality. John Barros spoke of his Roxbury roots and commitment to community.

In different ways, all of them were addressing the big, unspoken question looming over this election. Yes, Boston is clearly a city on the cusp of change. But how much change do voters really want?

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Given the field — all five of the major candidates were people of color and four were women — this was always going to be an election that reflected a changing city. But how changed is it, politically?

An answer came last night with Wu’s impressive win in the preliminary. She appears to have trounced a strong field, and performed well across the city in the process, according to unofficial tallies.

On Monday, addressing a group of reporters outside her Jamaica Plain headquarters, Wu seemed confident that her campaign spoke to this moment in Boston’s history.

“We’ve been at this since September of last year. This is about building coalitions so that every single community sees themselves reflected in the decisions that get made. We have a bold vision. We have a long track record of having gotten things done because of this coalition work.”

It’s easy to forget that this campaign started before Marty Walsh was nominated to become secretary of labor, back when City Councilors Wu and Campbell decided to do the nearly unthinkable and challenge a popular sitting mayor.

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But a year later, their gambles look inspired. Wu roared into Tuesday’s preliminary polling well ahead of her rivals, while Campbell was making a strong bid for the other spot in the November final.

Wu’s eight-year journey from political unknown to serious mayoral contender has been a remarkable one.

When she launched her first bid for City Council, in 2013, she had a number of strikes against her. She was a woman, running to join a body then dominated by men. She was a native a of Chicago, running in a city with little history of electing leaders who weren’t from here. (Ayanna Pressley, another Chicago native, being a notable exception.) Though she had served a stint in the Menino administration and worked on Elizabeth Warren’s first US Senate campaign, virtually no one knew who she was.

But Wu topped the ticket in her first campaign and two years later became the first woman of color elected council president. Along the way, she methodically built a citywide organization that was expected to pay off handsomely on Tuesday.

Essaibi George entered the race best poised to assemble the coalition that elected Walsh — a labor-dominated, largely white base anchored in neighborhoods like her native Dorchester, South Boston, and West Roxbury. They are the city’s most consistent reliable voters, and in a low-turnout race like this one, they are gold.

They are also, I would argue, the voters least in favor of sweeping change — partly because they are the ones best served by the status quo. They don’t want to hear about police reform. They don’t much care about the ethnic makeup of the city’s exam schools. They have seen their homes skyrocket in value over the past 10 to 15 years. If stability was what you were after, Essaibi George was your choice.

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This was supposed to be the election in which Boston stood a realistic chance of losing its standing as one of the few major cities that has never elected Black mayor.

But Janey and Campbell — both district councilors until Janey’s move to acting mayor — both faced the daunting task of introducing themselves to thousands of voters who knew relatively little about them.

Campbell ran an inspired campaign — some of it built on causes she championed for years on the city council, particularly police reform And some of it built on critiquing what she clearly viewed as the lackluster leadership of Janey, especially in addressing the pandemic.

She made the probably correct calculation that there wasn’t room for both of them in the final. By Tuesday, though, the question was whether there would be room for either of them, whether Campbell’s late momentum could carry her into the final. A final without a Black candidate will come as a bitter defeat to many, especially given Janey’s position entering the race.

Wilnelia Rivera, a political consultant who was not working for any candidates in this race, said both Janey and Campbell should hold their heads high. “What I’m not going to do is define either of them by this result. They were competing, they had a plan, and they put it out there.”

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Yet neither will advance to the final — a sobering fact in a city still struggling under the weight of a reputation for being less than inclusive.

“What I think is important for Black voters to understand is that it’s a multiracial city with multigenerational dynamics,” Rivera said. “Regardless of who gets to the final, there will be an accountability we haven’t had before.”

Obviously, historic change is still coming — but likely in a different form than some voters had hoped.

Indeed, the final round of this election — if the results hold — now offers the intriguing matchup of the candidate calling for sweeping reforms (Wu) against the candidate with the smallest ideas in the field (Essaibi George.)

After 30 years of cautious, caretaker mayors, change itself promises to be on the ballot in November. That alone will make for a race to remember.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.