Boston mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George has sharpened her appeal to the city’s Black voters and on Monday launched a “Listen & Learn Tour” with the aim of promoting her equity, inclusion, and justice agenda.
Her opponent, City Councilor Michelle Wu, is also focused on the Black vote, after getting a huge endorsement jolt last weekend from Acting Mayor Kim Janey. She spent Monday evening greeting potential Black voters in Grove Hall, in an appeal for their support.
Two weeks after the preliminary election extinguished the hopes of three Black candidates vying for the city’s top job, Essaibi George, who is Arab American, and Wu, who is Asian American, are in a full courtship of the Black vote. The two at-large councilors have been attending Sunday services in Black churches, targeting ethnic media, going on peace walks, and fanning out in key areas of the city wooing Black voters, many of whom supported a Black candidate for mayor in the preliminary election.
“We have a lot of work to do in Boston,” said Wu of her campaign. “We’re at a moment where there is not a Black finalist in the election. But this is still very much a moment for the Black community.”
Essaibi George’s campaign is promising “to call out and root out racism and discrimination in city business, policies, and initiatives” and ensure people in the city’s marginalized communities, including Black residents, “are heard and elevated.”
But courting the Black vote will be a delicate dance for Wu and Essaibi George, both of whom remain largely unknown in the Black community, where post-election blues remain heavy and disillusionment in government is steep.
“My community is in grief‚” said state Representative Russell Holmes from Mattapan, a predominantly Black neighborhood.
Malia Lazu, an MIT lecturer and founder of MassVote who is Afro Latina, said capturing the Black vote is “not going to be a cakewalk for either of these candidates.”
“Black voters know ... that they have the margin of victory sitting in their community and are going to make sure that candidates commit to championing solutions that include them,” Lazu said.
Though Janey endorsed Wu, City Councilor Andrea Campbell — who had a solid showing among Black voters in the Sept. 14 preliminary election — said she is withholding her support for now. Instead, she wrote an op-ed last week, saying her endorsement “will go to the candidate who makes the most credible case and who inspires the most confidence that she will meet these challenges.”
She wrote that the next mayor must take decisive, transformative action on closing the racial wealth gap; dramatically improving Boston Public Schools; enacting policing reforms; making all neighborhoods safer; and implementing a comprehensive plan to address the public health and public safety crisis at the area around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Wu, who is from Roslindale, and Essaibi George, from Dorchester, will need to make real connections in the Black community, be authentic, and present plans that are concrete and measurable, said Eric Esteves, a community activist in Roxbury.
It’s a tall order. Already Black voters are holding private meetings on Zoom and plotting their alliances. One such meeting, organized by Holmes, was held Saturday in Mattapan at Morning Star Baptist Church, where nearly four dozen Black politicians, faith leaders, activists, and residents gathered for more than two hours. They hashed out a list of priorities on large white Post-it sheets, which they then narrowed to six. The potential priorities range a broad gamut, Holmes said, from education to housing to economic development, public health, and public safety. The goal is to develop a questionnaire and get commitments from Wu and Essaibi George around the six key issues, Holmes and others said.
Still, the blow from the election is on the minds of many in Black community. Holmes said the results were tougher to take than in 2013, the last open mayoral election that produced a diverse set of candidates. This time around, he noted, the city had a Black acting mayor and could not hold on to her.
Those same grieving voters are now among the most coveted constituencies in the city for Wu and Essaibi George as they seek to build a coalition that can carry them to the corner office. A Globe analysis of the city’s 25 precincts with the most Black residents found that Janey dominated those precincts, while Campbell followed with 26 percent and Wu took third with 14 percent of the vote.
Support for Essaibi George hovered in the single digits in those precincts, followed by John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development.
Lazu said both Wu and Essaibi George have different paths to winning the Black vote. Wu needs to persuade Black voters that she stands with them and their issues, and Essaibi George needs to show them that she’s “not old school” Boston, which is how she is being depicted based on her endorsements.
“One is trying to expand a relationship, and one’s trying to start a relationship,” Lazu said.
Essaibi George, who has the backing of law enforcement, will need to win over Black voters who live in communities that feel overpoliced. Wu, who is best known for backing lofty policy goals like rent control and free public transit, also has to persuade voters that her plans are realistic and rooted in the present-day needs of Black people.
Both must contend with voters such as Anthony Meeks, a 65-year-old real estate agent who lives in Hyde Park and voted for Janey, like many of his neighbors in Ward 18 along the Hyde Park-Mattapan line. With Janey out, Weeks said he might not vote again this year.
“We are left on our own,” he said, adding that he never supported Wu’s or Essaibi George’s mayoral platforms. “I put this in God’s hands and do the best that I can. It’s sad.”
Grace Roberts, who is Black and lives in a high-Janey precinct in Hyde Park, said she voted for Wu because the councilor has “always been on the ballot.” She will vote for her again. “I don’t know any of the other candidates,” she said.
On Friday morning, Essaibi George acknowledged her single-digit showing in the Black community, and attributed the split vote to the fact that there were “high-caliber candidates” on the ballot. She stressed on Black News Hour, the Globe’s new radio program with Boston Black News, that she will continue to knock on doors in every neighborhood, meeting people where they are in “living rooms” and on “front porches” to talk about the issues.
She spent Friday afternoon on a peace walk in Roxbury with Black clergy and members of the Twelfth Baptist Church, the former Boston church of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. She took selfies in barbershops and bumped fists with school children. Her tour of the neighborhoods include coffee hours and meetings with Haitian community leaders. She is slated to appear at a public safety meeting Wednesday at the Ella J. Baker House, located in a predominantly Black section of Dorchester.
Wu made a less-than-impressive appearance at Baker House meeting last Wednesday. The candidate arrived halfway through the hour-long morning event, gave a brief statement, and then seemed to be caught off guard by a series of questions from people in attendance, according to eight people who were at the meeting.
She informed the group that she was invited to come to listen and learn and was not initially prepared to take questions, which surprised some in the audience, who said any candidate for mayor should be ready to detail their plans.
One member of the gang unit asked about whether she had been on a ride along with the unit, a clergy member asked for a commitment to not removing police from the city schools, and a man asked about additional community services, according to people at the meeting.
The questions ranged from tough and respectful to edgy, and Wu’s answers often veered into “political speak,” according to the accounts from the meeting.
“She really didn’t answer any of the questions,’’ said Isabella Harris, a member of a faith-based antiviolence group who attended. “She skated away from the questions.”
“There was a bit of [her] being unprepared for that group and that setting,” said the Rev. David Searles, senior pastor of Central Assembly of God Church in East Boston. “There wasn’t a clear, public safety policy proposal [from her].”
Wu did appear to rebound later Wednesday evening at a forum that she and Essaibi George attended Wednesday evening at Second Church of Dorchester in Codman Square. The event was hosted in part by the Black Ministers Alliance–Ten Point Coalition.
“She did really good at the church. She seemed more relaxed‚’’ said Rev. Vernard Coulter, who was at both meetings. “A lot of people were disappointed with her at the Baker house meeting.”
Wu also did not appear as scheduled at 8:45 a.m. Friday on Black News Hour. She arrived after the show ended at 9 a.m., apologizing.
In an interview, she explained that she came prepared to take notes at the Baker House event and said she “answered every question that was asked of me.” She was invited to make another appearance with the group.
Wu also faulted “an unexpected logistical situation” for not making Black News Hour as planned.
The next day, she joined the festivities in front of the Faces of Dudley mural as Janey gave Wu her whole-hearted endorsement.
But Essaibi George, in remarks to a GBH reporter Saturday, seized on Wu’s absence at the radio interview, telling the reporter that she was disheartened at Janey’s endorsement and making sure to point out that she showed up for the radio program while “Councilor Wu did not show up.”
Wu, in the interview with the Globe, said her campaign will continue to build a multiracial, multilingual coalition and “lean heavily into direct community outreach, organizing, going door to door, and being present to listen and engage at community events.”
She’s been crisscrossing the city, in Roxbury, Mattapan, and in Grove Hall. She acknowledged the challenges that remain in a “siloed” city, adding that she has worked to get to know “every corner of our city” in her almost eight years on the City Council and that her campaign will approach the election through an “organizing and community building lens.”
“I will continue to fight for families in our city to have everything that I know the city can deliver,’' she said. “I am eager to engage anytime.”