CNN anchor and Massachusetts native John Berman wrapped up a political segment Monday with Mark McKinnon, a longtime Republican adviser, by asking about what he called “a matter of parochial interest.”
In general, Berman meant Boston’s historic mayoral race between Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, both city councilors at large. In particular, he meant Essaibi George’s running mate — her accent.
After playing a clip of Essaibi George’s TV ad catch phrase — you know the one — Berman said she’s “really leaning into the Boston accent there to show that she has a connection, I think, to the working-class roots in the city.” McKinnon agreed. “[T]he most important thing in politics these days is if you can communicate some sense of authenticity,” he said. Essaibi George’s accent is “the real deal, and that just says to people she’s one of us — she’s from here.”
Berman didn’t explain what he meant by the city’s “working-class roots” any more than McKinnon specified which “people” would consider Essaibi George “one of us.” Then again, they didn’t have to — Essaibi George’s accent is a dog whistle to Boston’s white conservative voters, the core of her base.
In this instance, I’m not using “dog whistle” as it’s commonly applied in this era of divisive, race-baiting politics. Born and raised in Dorchester, where she still lives, Essaibi George’s accent is authentic. Yet in a city whose aspirations for world-class sophistication run head-on into its stubborn parochialism, it’s a tangible emblem of kinship for older white voters in a city that increasingly looks and thinks less like them.
Her accent even garnered a recent page one story in The New York Times. In it, Essabi George says, “I will say we’ve had a little bit of fun with the accent,” but denied hamming it up purely as a political tool. “I don’t think about it at all. It is how I think. It’s how I talk.”
How Essaibi George talks offers her base the reassurance of familiarity. She sounds like the Boston they recognize, one they may believe is slipping away. Her implication seems to be that if she wins, she’ll be the first woman and person of color to hold the job, but she won’t be too different.
Using an accent is an old tactic, a code switch other candidates have deployed during their campaigns. Throughout her public life, Hillary Clinton has occasionally affected her approximation of a Southern accent. Though she spent years as Arkansas’s first lady when her husband was the state’s governor, Clinton does not sound like a Southerner. If anything, it only added to pernicious ideas of her as inauthentic and untrustworthy.
Essaibi George is reaching for the opposite by highlighting her Boston bona fides as an asset in leading the city. During a conversation on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” last month, she was asked whether it should be a “relevant consideration” for voters that Wu is a native of Chicago, not Boston. “Well, I think 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 this city — because I’ve seen this city for many, many years.”
Essaibi George didn’t say why it’s relevant to her that Wu is from Chicago, or specifically which voters would find that relevant. What’s relevant here is its irrelevancy, except as a cynical attempt to otherize Wu, an Asian American, as an outsider. Essaibi George, of Tunisian and Polish descent, identifies as an Arab American.
On Twitter, Wu responded to Essaibi George’s comment. “Reminder: The Mayor of Boston needs to lead for ALL of us,” she posted. “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.”
And that’s the key here, or at least it should be. A Boston mayoral candidate shouldn’t need to sound like they’re auditioning for a remake of “Good Will Hunting” to be viable. Plus, the city’s demographics are shifting. Boston is already majority people of color, and its white population continues to decline. The city’s growth is due, in part, to people not born in Boston, and by the children of those born elsewhere.
For better or worse, the city’s native accent may be losing its currency as a distinct regional marker. Given its association, especially among Black people outside Massachusetts, with the city’s persistent image as racist and hostile toward outsiders, this isn’t a bad thing.
On CNN, McKinnon said of Essaibi George’s accent, “I mean, not only does she walk the walk, she talks the talk, right?” Wrong. What she and Wu say, not how they say it, should be the only factor in determining which of these women should usher Boston into this crucial, potentially transformative moment.