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Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George had far different approaches as councilors, hinting at how they might govern as mayor

City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu chatted after a City Council meeting.
City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu chatted after a City Council meeting.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Three days after they claimed the top slots in the Sept. 14 preliminary election, City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George met over an oatmeal breakfast at McKenna’s restaurant in Dorchester, stealing a quiet moment to reflect on how far they’ve come since they first ran for office eight years ago.

It was a cordial conclave before the plunge into the mad dash of the general election for Boston mayor, a fleeting chance to reminiscence for two councilors who often supported each other’s causes even as they embraced very different visions for the city.

“It was an opportunity to just connect before the race fully got going. It was important to do that; we’re colleagues,” Essaibi George said of the meeting.

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“And now,” she continued, “we are opponents in this race. Running to be mayor.”

“I enjoyed that moment together,” was all Wu would say of the meeting.

They have always been cordial, even friendly, as they appeared on stage to tout their records or celebrate their service on a historically diverse City Council with the most women members ever. They were part of Boston’s original version of “The Squad” — a coalition of women of color in service. In their first City Hall meeting after the preliminary, they hugged.

Yet their years of service together on the council also revealed a sharp contrast in politics and leadership that offers a window into how each woman might govern as mayor if elected in November.

Essaibi George set the edge for the race early on — in her victory speech the night of the preliminary election — declaring herself the on-the-ground candidate who has no time for the unrealistic proposals that would distract her from the duties as mayor. She did not name Wu directly, but was clearly targeting her opponent’s progressive proposals to address climate change and make public transit free.

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The next morning, Wu appeared eager to engage, saying Boston was on the verge of a transformation and that voters’ demands for racial equity and justice are urgent and leave no time for status quo complacency.

These are quite literally the lines the two councilors have drawn in various policy proposals over recent years, long before they declared their intention to run for mayor, according to a Boston Globe review of their records.

“Both have very different but nevertheless effective leadership strategies that they’ve demonstrated in their time on the body,” said City Councilor Matthew O’Malley, the longest continually serving councilor.

“Michelle has more aspirational goals and Annissa has more tangible, achievable goals,” said O’Malley, who has not endorsed in the race. He said both candidates’ styles have served them and the city well.

Wu, a 36-year-old mother of two from Roslindale, was elected to an at-large seat in 2013, promising ambitious changes that could transform Boston. Essaibi George, 47, a mother of four from Dorchester, was first elected in 2015, on a platform of addressing social-service needs such as mental health counseling and homelessness.

No episode highlighted their contrasting approaches and positions as sharply as the June 2020 vote on the city budget, perhaps the most divisive council vote in recent years.

The debate was contentious. Opponents of then-mayor Martin J. Walsh’s $3.6 billion spending plan demanded more sweeping investments in racial justice and economic equity, as the COVID-19 pandemic and a reckoning over racism and police abuses raged. The mayor had weeks earlier declared racism to be a public health crisis in Boston.

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Walsh told councilors that investments in racial justice and equity would increase over time, but that the budget needed immediate passage to avoid layoffs — what many took as fear mongering.

Essaibi George, who supported the mayor’s proposal, said at the time she recognized that the plan was not the “perfect budget,” but nonetheless one that supported health and social service programs while maintaining critical services amid the upheaval of the pandemic.

“This is a foundation for the real work that happens after the budget process, to bring real change as we face a public health crisis and systemic racism,” Essaibi George said during the June 2020 council meeting, conducted via Zoom. “A fight for change does not end with today’s budget vote.”

In the same meeting, Wu argued that councilors had a duty to force budget changes that would dismantle systemic racism and address the calls, here as across the country, for a dramatic overhaul to policing methods and priorities.

“I refuse to be complicit in the inertia of delaying structural change as too expensive, too scary, not quite the right timing,” she said. “What we owe our constituents and our communities is to deliver the measure of justice, equity, and relief that meets this moment.”

Walsh’s budget ultimately passed by an 8-5 vote, with Wu among the minority opposing it.

This past June, councilors again were split over Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s proposed budget, largely over the same issues. Essaibi George again voted in favor of the spending plan. Wu said no.

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Similar differences are evident in some of the councilors’ other votes and proposals, and illustrate how each has approached municipal leadership.

Wu spearheaded many of the council’s big-picture reforms to public policies in recent years, including the passage of laws regulating short-term rental industry platforms, including Airbnb. She pushed new regulations for lobbyists in Boston, new laws safeguarding the environment from development, and limits on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in the city. Working with then councilor, now US Representative Ayanna Pressley, she exposed the city’s embarrassingly low rate of handing out public service contracts to minority and women vendors, forcing changes in the city’s processes.

In an interview, Wu said that her legislative priorities, such as the new paid parental leave laws she pioneered in her first term in office, are shaped by conversations she has had with constituents across the city.

“All of this legislation comes from being present in the community, and being connected to the urgency in our neighborhoods,” she said. “I know how wide the gaps are in Boston because my family has lived many of them, and I continually live the stakes of our policymaking. And I also know, from nearly a decade in City Hall, how to move the levers of government to close those gaps.”

She also took issue with Essaibi George’s criticism that some of her policy visions are unrealistic and unrelated to the duties of mayor, saying many raised similar doubts about ordinances she had already led to passage. She said that she has taken a regional approach to policy issues, and would continue to do so as mayor. As an example, she pointed to the neighborhood pressure that helped sway Governor Charlie Baker to decide last week to keep the reconstruction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Soldiers Field Road at ground level through Allston, to facilitate new development in that neighborhood. Wu supported that advocacy.

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“Our track record not only sets the pace for how we can make a difference through city government but has shifted what’s possible from the City Council and from the city,” she said. “Many of these legislative fights we were told would be impossible to win, and one after another, through continuing to bring more people to the table and focusing on the urgency for our families, we set the standard.”

Essaibi George supported many of Wu’s endeavors, including the wetlands ordinance and the facial recognition ban. But she has also carved out her own portfolio, along with her own approach to furthering her signature causes. Hers is an approach rooted in behind-the-scenes advocacy, persuading both the Walsh and Janey administrations to direct more funding to address family homelessness and for mental health counseling. The number of clinicians responding to mental health crises in the city has risen from 2 in 2016, when she first took office, to 19 today, she points out. She also successfully pushed for funding for a nurse and social worker at every city school building. And she has proposed new ways to safely collect dirty needles that have polluted city streets.

After her election in 2016, she founded the council’s committee on homelessness, mental health, and recovery, and cofounded a South End Working Group dedicated to addressing the drug and homeless epidemic at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

Essaibi George said that leadership requires boots on the ground. “We cannot govern from our office, we cannot govern as if this work is an academic exercise,” she said.

She said she knows her efforts have taken hold when she hears from a constituent that his or her concern with a school transportation issue, or a problem accessing a city program, has been resolved.

“My style has been on the ground and present in our community,” she said. “That’s how we hear some of those results. . . . It’s being present at community meetings, civic association meetings, being able to direct people to the services they need.”

City Councilor Frank Baker, who represents parts of Dorchester and has served with both candidates, said he supports Essaibi George largely because of what he sees as her greater presence at community meetings, particularly those concerning the opioid epidemic at Massachusetts Avenue — what he calls the most pressing issue the city faces.

“The approach that works for me is to be in the room, be involved,” he said. “How are you going to govern when you are not involved?”

He challenged the notion that Boston must transform its politics, saying, “The status quo of the last 15 years has been a building, growing, safer city, a better city.”

But several of the newer members of the City Council have endorsed Wu, including Lydia Edwards and Ricardo Arroyo, as well as Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who served with her on the council.

City Councilor Liz Breadon, the first openly gay woman to serve on the council, backed Wu before the preliminary, citing her big-picture vision for the city on matters ranging from housing to climate change.

“We are in this moment in time in our city, our country, and our planet, actually, that we need to start thinking of different ways of doing things, different approaches,” said Breadon, who represents Allston and Brighton. “We just have to really think outside the box.”

She added, “There are obviously systemic problems that aren’t working right now, and we need to try and search for solutions.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.