In my 26 (Yikes!) years covering Boston, I’ve written eleventy times about how the city — and its municipal voting patterns — are stuck in the past.
I don’t want to write about the Old Boston vs. the New Boston anymore. And I certainly don’t want to have to unpack the ludicrous notion that being born and raised in a city jammed with newcomers makes one a more credible candidate to run the place. We should be beyond that by now.
Yet, here we are, courtesy of Annissa Essaibi George, the mayoral candidate who suggested last week that being from Boston will make her a better mayor than her rival Michelle Wu, who grew up in the Midwest.
This is the year we’re supposed to be turning the page on all of that, at last. The race to succeed Mayor Marty Walsh was joined by five spectacular hopefuls, including four women, three Black candidates, an Asian American, and an Arab American. But despite this gloriously diverse field, voting in the preliminary — anemic as it was — tracked well-worn patterns, with older, whiter, longtime voters exerting outsize influence.
So on Thursday, when Jim Braude of Boston Public Radio asked Essaibi George whether Wu being born and raised in Chicago should be “a relevant consideration for voters,” she answered in a way that seemed designed to appeal to those longtime electoral stalwarts.
“I think it’s relevant to me,” she said. “And I think it’s relevant to a lot of voters.”
She cited her experience as the daughter of two immigrants — one Polish, the other Tunisian — who grew up going to local community centers and schools, and has made a career and raised her own children in the city, and said that her lifetime in Boston would inform how she’ll govern.
“Reminder,” Wu tweeted in response. “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.”
Boston has almost never elected a mayor who wasn’t born in the city. Beyond that, even among natives, some Bostonians have been considered more authentic than others. Remember 2013, when supporters of Walsh, of Dorchester, tried to cast his opponent John Connolly, the son of a judge, born and raised in Roslindale, as an out-of-touch elitist for having gone to Harvard?
So, was Essaibi George trying to leverage the city’s parochialism here?
The candidate says no, calling the old vs. new tension “such a silly debate,” and saying she’s grateful for every resident, no matter when they arrived in the city.
“Is having been a student in Boston public schools an important experience for who the mayor is going to be?” asked her campaign consultant Scott Ferson. “She would say yes. [But] she did not mean if you didn’t have that experience, it’s disqualifying.”
Paul Watanabe, professor of political science at UMass Boston, heard it differently.
“I read it as somebody saying, ‘Make Boston Great Again,’” said Watanabe. “It hearkens back to a Boston that was not 50 percent non-white, not animated by immigrants from Asia and Africa and Latin America.”
Watanabe arrived in Boston from Utah 50 years ago and, “I am still treated like I am a newcomer,” he said. For those of us who are immigrants or transplants, the suggestion that we’re somehow less qualified or committed when it comes to improving our hometowns is deeply offensive. The question is whether enough newcomers will vote to make it politically costly, too.
Parochialism was an element in the mayoral campaign before Essaibi George answered the question that brought it into the open last week. In the preliminary, it was an easy way for the other candidates to distinguish themselves from Wu, a Harvard grad and at-large councilor since 2013. Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s campaign leaned heavily on her multi-generational Roxbury roots. The pitches of Councilor Andrea Campbell and former city economic development chief John Barros had a born-and-raised-here dimension too.
But this might just be the election that diminishes the power of that pitch. Wu certainly got a boost last week when she was endorsed not just by Janey, but by Ayanna Pressley, the former Boston city councilor who unseated a longtime incumbent to win a seat in Congress.
Pressley was raised in Chicago.