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In 2020, with help from young, Twitter-savvy activists known as the “Markeyverse,” Senator Ed Markey beat back a serious primary challenge from then-Representative Joe Kennedy and won reelection.

In the 2021 Boston mayoral race, some of the same young activists are with City Councilor Michelle Wu. After Wu’s first-place finish in last week’s preliminary election, can they seal the deal in November and spark “a municipal revolution?” asks Natalie Shure in The New Republic. Their case for Wu is all about changing a city that often resists change by officially moving it left, directly from the mayor’s office. To do it, activists will also try to position Wu’s challenger, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, to the right, just as they did with Kennedy.


A political action committee that backed Essaibi George with $495,000 from New Balance CEO Jim Davis — a Donald Trump supporter — handed the Wu campaign a quick and easy weapon. Yet that may not be the last word on Essaibi George. For one thing, praising him as “a true progressive,” Essaibi George endorsed Markey — the only Boston city council member in the mayoral race to do so, said John Walsh, who quarterbacked Markey’s primary campaign and now serves as his chief of staff. The press release the Markey campaign put out announcing her endorsement touted her work for Boston public school students and the homeless, and said she fought to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in the opioid crisis. Viewed through the prism of her council priorities, “she’s not a conservative,” said Walsh in a telephone interview.

Of course, everything in politics is relative, and every race is different. To win her at-large council seat, Essaibi George finished ahead of Stephen Murphy, a conservative incumbent. For Boston’s preliminary election, she carved out a moderate lane, to the right of other candidates, which stressed support for police and won the backing of several powerful unions. Wu, meanwhile, championed an agenda of progressive causes like the Green New Deal, rent control, and free public transit. In victory after the mayoral preliminary election, Wu talked about the need to “tackle big, bold challenges . . . and not sit back and wait and just nibble around the edges of the status quo.” Essaibi George embraced the nuts and bolts of the mayor’s job and painted herself as “a little more pragmatic than others.”


Now, said Walsh, “the real strategic battle is defining the middle ground.”

Based on preliminary election returns, Wu has the advantage when it comes to numbers and geography. She placed first, winning 35,699 votes — 33.3 percent of those cast. According to a Globe analysis, she drew solid support from across the city and dominated in liberal neighborhoods. Essaibi George placed second, winning 24,140, or 22.5 percent of those cast. Much of her support came from white, more conservative Boston neighborhoods. In November, who will win the votes that went to the three Black challengers? Who can grow turnout, from which Boston neighborhoods — and most critically, from what age group? According to Walsh, 33 percent of Boston voters who backed Markey in the statewide primary fell in the 18-34-year-old age group; overall, 19.3 percent of Markey voters came from that same group.


With a large turnout of young voters, the middle ground skews left, said Walsh. The mayor’s race “is going to turn on the turnout of young people,” he predicted.

That will be Wu’s challenge. Causes that motivate turnout in a US Senate race may not resonate the same way in a city election. Issues that fire up Boston voters in certain neighborhoods, like the admissions policy for Boston exam schools, may not attract younger voters. Affordable housing is a rallying cry for voters of all ages, but rent control stirs up its own opposition. Police reform attracts young progressives. But public safety drives voters in neighborhoods most affected by crime, and that’s where Boston voters of color live.

Wu has the Markeyverse of young activists and the “wonkyverse” that goes with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s support. Will Markey formally back her? According to Walsh, he likes both candidates and hasn’t decided whether to endorse. Given what Markey owes the Markeyverse, that’s a courtesy worth noting. For now, it gives undecided voters permission to consider either candidate.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.