“History has its eyes on Boston’s mayoral campaign,” I wrote in a column shortly before the recent preliminary election.
Four of the five candidates were women. All of those vying to lead Boston were people of color, including three Black candidates. At the time, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who succeeded former mayor Martin J. Walsh to become the city’s first woman and person of color to occupy the office, was expected to be one of two candidates in the November final.
We know what happened. City councilors-at-large Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George finished in the top two. History is still staring at Boston, but with a lot more side-eye.
On Nov. 2, voters will elect the first woman and first person of color as its 55th mayor. In a city where white men traditionally hoard political power, the significance of that should not be undersold. Yet the fact that three viable Black contenders went 0 for 3 in a five-person race will sit sour for a good long while.
For a time, it seemed the city was ready to scale the insurmountable. A majority of voters, at least those who bucked the election’s dismal turnout, were not.
During her concession speech Tuesday night, councilor Andrea Campbell, who missed making the mayoral final by about 3,000 votes, said: “What was clear from the results tonight is that the real winner tonight was actually Black women. Collectively, our vote shares surpassed all others, and what that shows is there is an appetite indeed in this city for change, and I know my candidacy helped ignite it and I’m proud of that.
“We worked hard to talk about issues,” she said. “We worked hard to reject the status quo, and let me tell you we still have work to do with respect to that.”
A lot of work to do.
In her 1980 novel, “The Salt Eaters,” Toni Cade Bambara ponders the fate of the Old Testament woman that God turned into a pillar of salt. “Wasn’t that what happened to Lot’s wife? A loyalty to old things, a fear of the new, a fear to change, to look ahead?”
Now Boston looks ahead to an election that could be transformative not just for the city but for its national image. Narratives are quickly taking shape about the two women vying to be mayor. Wu is viewed as a progressive who proposes broad changes such as a city-level Green New Deal to combat climate change and tackling systemic racism “as foundational to our pandemic recovery and every action we take as a city.”
Essaibi George, a Walsh acolyte, is seen as a pro-police, pro-business moderate. In a tweet after her Tuesday win, she wrote, “It’ll take all of us to move this city forward. Real progress comes with hard work.” Intentional or not, she echoed the name of Real Progress Boston, a super PAC founded by New Balance chairman and longtime Republican donor Jim Davis, which gave Essaibi George’s campaign $495,000.
That Essaibi George is being boosted by a billionaire Donald Trump supporter doesn’t inspire belief that she’s the person to break Boston’s old, exclusionary ways. Not surprisingly, she rejects the progressive vs. moderate framing, although her base skews older, whiter, and more conservative.
Even in a city that loves to flex as a bastion of liberalism, it’s a mistake to write off Essaibi George’s chances in Boston. Whatever happens in November, it means that for at least four more years Boston will remain one of this nation’s few major cities never led by an elected Black chief executive.
It’s shameful, and many Black Bostonians will salvage the bones of what could have been.
Yet we shouldn’t remember that glimmer of hope in the spring and summer as too grand. We’re weeks away from the most defining election in Boston’s history. It’s not just a contest between two contenders. It’s a referendum on whether the city will continue to settle for what it’s always been or finally embrace everything it should be.