In the race to become Boston’s next mayor, Michelle Wu has been buoyed by a surprising demographic: thousands of out-of-state donors who have pitched in to put the Harvard-educated lawyer and city councilor in charge of one of the nation’s most prominent cities.
Wu has raised more than four times as much money from out-of-state donors as Annissa Essaibi George with less than a month until Election Day. Of the nearly $1.8 million Wu logged in individuals’ contributions from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, almost 20 percent, or more than $350,000, came from outside the state.
Essaibi George, on the other hand, has raised only about 5 percent of her campaign war chest from outside Massachusetts. Out-of-state donations accounted for about $80,000 of the $1.57 million she’s raised in 2021. Inside Massachusetts, Essaibi George, a fellow city councilor and teacher from Dorchester, out-raised Wu by about $50,000 as of Sept. 30.
The infusion of out-of-state dollars to Wu is reminiscent of the last open mayoral election in 2013, after incumbent Thomas M. Menino stepped down. That year, more than 22 percent of total contributions to former mayor Martin J. Walsh for his first run for the office came from out-of-state, fueled by his longstanding labor ties and strong union support drummed up from around the country.
But Wu’s reach — some donations came from as far away as Puerto Rico and Hawaii — are an indicator of unique dynamics at play in her candidacy, political observers said.
Wu’s contributions from other states such as California and New York come disproportionately from Asian American donors, likely drawn by the historic possibility of making an Asian American mayor in one of the country’s biggest cities, said Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies campaign finance.
Until Acting Mayor Kim Janey took office earlier this year, Boston’s mayors had always been white men. Either Wu or Essaibi George would be the first woman and the first person of color elected to the office.
“We’re still talking about firsts all the time in this country,” said Cunningham.
Wu’s more progressive policy positions — such as her proposals on climate change — have provided a sharp contrast to Essaibi George, giving her access to a nationwide network that has honed raising small-dollar donations for local candidates, he said. Drawing from those kinds of networks “speaks to different kinds of campaigning,” he said.
The contribution numbers reflect only individual giving, which is governed by strict campaign finance limits in the state. They don’t account for the additional hundreds of thousands of dollars both candidates have received from various political action committees or the big-name donors behind them, including New Balance chairman Jim Davis’s recent $495,000 donation to a PAC supporting Essaibi George’s candidacy.
Though Boston’s mayoral race is a local one, it holds outsize importance in New England, said Erin O’Brien, a UMass Boston political science professor. “So Boston goes, so goes the region.” The high profile of the campaign makes it attractive to out-of-state residents, especially those with business interests in Boston, she said.
The race between Wu and Essaibi George has intensified since both advanced past the preliminary election early last month, as the two city councilors clash and fund-raising ramps up.
In September campaign finance reports filed this week, Wu held a fund-raising lead over Essaibi George by a comfortable margin, raising $412,378 that month in contributions compared to Essaibi George’s $260,183.
For the year, Essaibi George has narrowly led Wu in in-state contributions — $1.49 million to $1.44 million — but Wu raised more money inside Boston itself in September, bringing in $157,656 from Boston residents compared with her opponent’s $134,773.
Endorsements in the race have also swung in Wu’s favor, with former rival and acting mayor Janey as well as Senator Edward Markey publicly backing her in the general election. Markey’s endorsement in particular is likely to further boost Wu’s wider profile, paired with previous endorsements from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley that have bolstered her progressive bona fides.
With weeks to go before the first votes are cast, both candidates have sought to more sharply contrast themselves with each other. Wu has pushed for her more sweeping proposals like making public transit free, while Essaibi George has described her own plans as a more pragmatic approach, leaning on her upbringing in the city.
During a recent appearance on a GBH radio show, Essaibi George sparked controversy when she responded this way to a question about whether Wu’s Chicago roots should be relevant to voters: “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.
After a campaign event Tuesday, Essaibi George said her local support was a point of pride. “The representation of my donors has been local, has been not just inside the state but inside the city,” she said. “To me that’s an important data point.”
Sarah Anders, a spokeswoman for Wu, said the same for her candidate’s support — both in and out of the state.
“We are excited by the fact that we have consistently had the most donors and volunteers, including by far the most Boston resident donors, and the lowest average donation, demonstrating the enthusiasm of our grass-roots supporters,” she said.
Bostonians head to the polls Nov. 2.
Elizabeth Koh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.