Black Bostonians thought the moment had come. When the mayor’s office opened up after a national awakening on race, a field of credentialed candidates of color rose to the challenge. A city that has long struggled with racial tension seemed to have landed at its moment of redress.
But Tuesday’s preliminary election delivered the stinging realization that Boston has only changed so much. A woman will be elected mayor for the first time, but she’ll either be Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, or Annissa Essaibi George, whose father was a Tunisian Arab Muslim and her mother of Polish descent — in either case a woman who brings the lived experience of a first-generation American.
Their victory also means the absence in the general election of any candidate who knows the weight of being Black in a city with deep racial scars. The three Black candidates in the race were the three candidates eliminated.
“We had an opportunity to shift the narrative. And the world was watching us,” said former state representative Marie St. Fleur, who supported Councilor Andrea Campbell and who fumed Tuesday night about what the vote told the rest of the world about Boston. “And all they said tonight was, ‘Here they go again.’ “
Despite the hype and hopes for a post-racial Boston or a post-racial America, white voters did not enthusiastically embrace the Black candidates for mayor. Worse, the two Black women in the race landed only 275 votes apart, placing third and fourth, giving credence to concerns that they hurt one another’s chances. Campbell narrowly claimed third place with 21,221 votes; Acting Mayor Kim Janey garnered 20,946. Meanwhile, John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, finished a distant fifth with 3,436 votes that might have vaulted either Campbell or Janey over Essaibi George. As Campbell noted in her concession speech Tuesday night, the two Black women, combined, garnered more votes than anyone else.
But that was small comfort to those who had urged Black voters to coalesce behind one candidate, fearing this outcome.
“This was our best chance,” said Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a media and communications strategist. Instead, she said, this election moved Boston one step forward, two steps back.
Ferriabough Bolling, who supported Janey, noted that Campbell had relentlessly criticized the acting mayor’s leadership.
“You got the woman doing the job, another Black woman tagging her,” Ferriabough Bolling said. “And look at the results.”
But she didn’t blame Campbell so much as the media for amplifying Campbell’s agenda and the community for not heeding the warnings of those who presaged such an outcome. An initiative of Black voters, called WAKANDA II, called for Black voters to unite behind Janey.
“What I’m really bothered by is the real divide, the continuing of the divide-and-conquer strategy that has been used for Black people in this city on campaigns that go back 30 and 40 years,” Ferriabough Bolling said.
Yet prominent Black women who supported Campbell felt just the opposite, deeming it racist to suggest that the presence of two Black women in the race hurt both.
“The idea of that angers me deeply,” said Andrea Cabral, the former Suffolk County sheriff and former state secretary of public safety, just after Campbell gave her concession speech to a teary audience in Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Roxbury Tuesday night.
“I don’t think you can deny a worthy candidate the opportunity to run that every white male candidate has,” Cabral said. “Have you ever in your entire life heard the argument that there are too many white men in this race?”
Not all were so wedded to the outcome for a Black mayor, though. Several Black voters interviewed at the polls said the ballot presented a wealth of good and uncommonly diverse options. Stephanie Young said Tuesday that she’d voted for Janey but would be happy “as long as it’s a woman.” By Wednesday afternoon, the Dorchester voter was raving about Wu. “I think she’s going to do awesome.”
Others were thrilled to see so much diversity on the ballot but said they weren’t wedded to a Black candidate.
“It’s nice to see. Representation matters,” said Tricia Steele, a Dorchester mother originally from Jamaica. “However, race wasn’t a huge factor in the reason why I chose the candidate,” said Steele, a self-described “huge fan” of former mayor Martin J. Walsh. She voted for Janey, but also liked Wu and Campbell.
Campbell had entered the race before Walsh exited it, challenging him along with Wu. Janey launched a campaign after Walsh stepped down and she, as council president, was elevated to acting mayor.
Despite their commonalities, the two women presented very different campaign personae. Janey, a 56-year-old grandmother, was an education advocate who often noted on the trail that she’d become a single mother at 16 and had struggled with housing insecurity. Her family is known for development in Roxbury, and she gained support from old-school Black Boston, including Mel King, the city’s first Black mayoral candidate, who endorsed her on the eve of the election. Dianne Wilkerson, the former state senator who’d lost her standing on Beacon Hill after a conviction on bribery charges, led the WAKANDA effort and introduced Janey to the crowd at her get-out-the-vote rally on Sunday.
But after basking in a surge of publicity for becoming the first woman acting as mayor of Boston, Janey assumed a role that critics found imperious, distancing herself from the media and her former colleagues on the council, who grew increasingly frustrated with her.
Campbell, a 39-year-old mother of two small children, was the lesser-known candidate who played the aggressor in the race, bird-dogging Janey over her stewardship of the city and offering detailed alternative plans of her own. Campbell also highlighted her life story — marked by poverty and family incarceration — to personalize the inequalities in Boston she aimed to correct. But the Princeton- and UCLA-educated lawyer received huge outside financial backing from a political action committee, in part for her past support of charter schools and her aggressive promises to overhaul police and the Boston Public Schools to remove inequities. Campbell did better than Janey among white voters.
The question to St. Fleur was not whether the Black candidates splintered their votes — but why white voters had again resisted supporting either of them.
“We cannot move the white community to really come out overall to support a Black candidate as mayor,” St. Fleur said. “New York has managed to do this. Chicago has managed to do this. But for some reason, the liberal, progressive city of Boston is stuck.”
Though the city had yet to release full election results Wednesday afternoon, an analysis from select precincts confirmed that white voters did not flock to any of the Black candidates, according to Steve Koczela, the president of The MassINC Polling Group. In the whitest precincts, 77 percent of voters backed Wu or Essaibi George. In the least white precincts, 69 percent of voters favored Campbell or Janey.
Doug Rubin, the political consultant who led Janey’s campaign, agreed with that assessment, based on the numbers his team had amassed.
“For us, it was overperformance in communities of color and underperformance in the white community,” said Rubin.
But he also blamed “Campbell’s attacks,” and Campbell’s endorsement by the Globe editorial board for hurting Janey’s chances. And, he noted, the election seemed to draw “traditional turnout,” which analysts had predicted would benefit Essaibi George, who casts a more moderate profile and who draws support from older, white, more conservative, and more reliable voters.
Conversely, Campbell was counting on votes from late deciders and less reliable voters like those who helped then-councilor Ayanna Pressley win an upset race in a congressional primary in 2018. Despite the surge in activism of recent years and a mayoral field composed entirely of candidates of color, those voters do not appear to have delivered this time.
“Precincts that were expected to have higher turnout did — and obviously that played into Annissa’s hands,” said Wilnelia Rivera, a political consultant who supported Wu. “But we also had lower than expected turnout in communities of color and in Black communities in particular.”
Rivera pointed to the challenges for Janey campaigning as she assumed the role of mayor and led the city through an ongoing pandemic — a time of constant public second-guessing that eroded some of the advantages she enjoyed as a quasi-incumbent.
“Heavy is the crown, and she wore it for five months and that was hard,” said Rivera.
But given her contributions, and those of Campbell on the City Council, Rivera did not fault either for not measuring up; in fact, she suggested they helped move the city forward.
“We have not failed as a city. Black women in particular have contributed to meet this moment. How do we celebrate that?” Rivera said. “It does actually show the larger moral obligation that there is in this moment for whomever the next mayor becomes when it comes to issues that were too long neglected in the Black community.”