City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George of Dorchester sparked a fury Thursday after she attempted to draw stark distinctions between herself and her mayoral rival Michelle Wu on their leadership style, presence in the city’s neighborhoods, and homegrown bonafides.
Essaibi George began an interview on Boston Public Radio on Thursday by highlighting what she believes separates her from Wu, a Chicago-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who lives in Roslindale.
Essaibi George spoke at length about her career as a teacher, her background as a small business owner, and experiences as a lifelong Boston resident.
Asked by one of the cohosts whether Wu’s Chicago roots should be relevant to voters, Essaibi George responded: “It’s relevant to me, and I think it’s relevant to a lot of voters whether or not they’re born and raised in the city.”
Her remarks set off a storm on Twitter, with some people accusing her of “othering” Boston residents who are not originally from the city.
Nicole Caravella, the campaign’s spokeswoman, said the campaign was caught off guard by the uproar, explaining emphatically that while Essaibi George did criticize Wu on her leadership style and presence in the community, the Dorchester councilor was not criticizing where Wu — or anyone — grew up.
“Annissa was only speaking about her individual experiences,” Caravella said. She said Essaibi George, who like Wu is a daughter of immigrants, talked about her immigrant parents and shared her own story about where she grew up and the experiences that shaped her.
“There was no knock on Michelle or anyone for that matter who is not from here,” Caravella said.
At the start of the conversation, one of the hosts of the radio program asked Essaibi George to explain what separates her and Wu in their historic run for mayor.
Essaibi George highlighted her track record, including her 13 years as a teacher at East Boston High, and her reputation as a politician who shows up in the neighborhoods — a criticism some residents have lodged against Wu.
“I don’t see Michelle in our neighborhoods, in our city, the way I am present,” Essaibi Geoge said. “I hear that ... from our city’s residents. I hear that from community members. I hear that from civic leaders. I hear that as I knock the doors, that I am the first person that has ever knocked a door... I think that a mayor of Boston should be engaged in that way, and that is what I bring to the table in a very different way.”
Turnout in the preliminary election was a dismal 24 percent across the city, and a Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll in early September showed said 54 percent of the respondents said they had not met any of the candidates in the September election.
When asked whether Wu would be a good mayor, Essaibi George did not compliment her rival. “If I thought she’d be a good mayor, I wouldn’t be running for mayor,” Essaibi George said.
She also spoke at length about her experiences as a lifelong Boston resident.
“All those experiences ... have brought me to this moment,” she said. “And... they continue to inform the work I do as a city councilor and certainly informed the work that I will do as mayor of the city.”
The campaign said Essaibi George “pivoted” on the question of whether it should matter to voters that Wu is not from Boston, and focused instead on her own life experience, without any references to Wu. Caravella contended that Essabi George had every right to hit Wu on leadership, policies, and substance, and every right to pivot to her own life story on growing up in Boston.
It was not a criticism of Wu, they said.
But Twitter and Wu apparently saw things differently, as the conversation was tweeted in real time by a boston.com reporter.
Wu retweeted one of the threads, and wrote: “Reminder: The Mayor of Boston needs to lead for ALL of us. I’m ready to fight for every resident—whether you’ve been here since birth or chose to make Boston your home along the way.”
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who endorsed Wu along with his father Felix D. Arroyo earlier this week, responded to the thread, noting that though his parents were not born in Boston, they gave much of their lives in service to the city as a teacher and a public official.
“Pushing rhetoric that someone born here, like me, somehow has more standing to run our city than them is “othering” & wrong,” his Twitter post said.
Former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi joined the fray, pointing out that a “great city is not a stagnant city or a place that casts a condescending eye on residents” who were born elsewhere.
“A great city embraces change, encourages diversity, provides opportunity for all its residents. Insularity is a recipe for decline,” he wrote.
Pollster Steve Koczela added his own tweet, writing that less that half — or 43 percent — of Boston residents were born in Massachusetts. “Probably even a lower ... in Boston itself,“ Koczela said.