Boston mayoral candidates Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George tangled Wednesday night over schools, housing, public safety, and the city’s opioid crisis during the first televised debate between them, hoping to draw out their differences as they head into the final weeks of a historic Nov. 2 election.
Wednesday’s forum, part of which aired on WBZ-TV, was a prime opportunity for Essaibi George to make up ground on Wu, whom a new poll shows holding a commanding lead less than three weeks before Election Day. For Wu, it was a chance to solidify her status as the front-runner.
Essaibi George came out strong and confident, portraying herself as the candidate with the deeper experience working at the neighborhood level, a former teacher who has received the support of city workers. And she went hard at Wu on several fronts, challenging her ideas on housing and policing as ill-advised.
Wu held steady enough, and though her performance was not always as strong as that of her opponent, she did not make any major missteps. Wu at several turns accused Essaibi George of fear-mongering with her criticism of Wu’s plans.
Differences between them became clear when Essaibi George poked at Wu, starting with housing. She challenged Wu to explain how she would implement rent control and what she would do to protect small landlords. Essaibi George said rent control would keep rents high and noted it can be enacted only by the state Legislature. She also emphasized her own proposals to bolster opportunities for homeownership and increasing access to housing stability services in the city.
“Michelle does not believe in the power of that small landlord,” she said, arguing Wu’s approach would “create further disinvestment in our city . . . and push our city’s residents further and further away.”
In response, Wu said she would take a multi-pronged approach that would stabilize rents while also spurring new investments.
“Everything should be on the table when it comes to addressing our housing crisis,” she said. “We can’t be afraid and listen to scare tactics around what our residents need right now.”
The starkest difference centered on public safety: Wu called for a more public health-oriented approach to policing, while Essaibi George accused her of wanting to “defund” the police — which became a third-rail slogan in the debate over police reform around the country last year.
“We need to ensure that our city is a safe city and a just city — that work is incredibly important,” Essaibi George said. She pledged to fulfill “the promise of community policing,” engaging residents with police officers. But, she added, “I believe in investing in public safety, not defunding our public safety agencies and the work we need to do as a city.”
Wu took issue with the suggestion she would defund police, saying, “What Boston needs right now is solutions, not sound bites, not scare tactics.”
Wu said she would bring greater accountability and transparency to the department. She argued for a different response to incidents involving health crises, citing her own experience in getting her mother, who has suffered mental health episodes, treated by medical workers not police officers.
“We need to ensure that our resources are being spent in the right way, delivering the services that our residents need,” she said.
Essaibi George drew out another contrast, citing their differences over the city budget in recent years. Former mayor Martin J. Walsh had warned in 2020 that failure to pass his budget proposal amid the pandemic would result in the layoff of 43 emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Opponents at the time characterized the warning as fear-mongering.
Essaibi George reprised that debate again Tuesday night. “If we want these activities, these actions, these decisions to succeed, we need to invest in them,” she said. “It takes money, it takes dollars, it takes decisive decisions to make it happen.”
Wu responded, “That is simply not true. Again, we don’t need scare tactics in the city of Boston. We don’t need false choices that pit our residents against each other or underestimate what is possible for this city.”
The debate came hours after a new poll was released that showed Wu leads Essaibi George by a commanding 32 percentage points, with 57 percent to Essaibi George’s 25 percent. The poll of 500 likely registered Boston voters was conducted by MassINC Polling Group for WBUR, the Dorchester Reporter, and the Boston Foundation. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Nineteen percent of voters surveyed said they remain undecided.
Hoping to sway those undecideds, each candidate sought advantage on the schools front. Wu pushed for improving the school assignment process so that it is more equitable, closing gaps in early education and child care, delivering universal pre-K, and rebuilding crumbling school facilities. Wu also highlighted the importance of details, whether it be punctual school buses or the lack of working water fountains in buildings.
“We need to get the operations right,” she said.
Essaibi George spoke of the need for a strong early literacy program and a curriculum that ensures “every school is high quality.”
“You want to fix the Boston Public Schools, hire a teacher. I’ll get it done,” she said.
On the ongoing humanitarian crisis around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, Wu reiterated her commitment to performing a city audit within her first 100 days as mayor to see what city properties could be repurposed for housing and services to help alleviate problems in the area, known as Mass. and Cass.
Like Wu, Essaibi George indicated she was open to discuss turning a former detention center run by the county sheriff into temporary housing with addiction services, and also using the Shattuck Hospital at Franklin Park for housing and services to help solve the Mass. and Cass crisis.
Essaibi George also mentioned the importance of rebuilding the bridge to Long Island, where the city offered homelessness and addiction services for years before the bridge was closed in 2014. But Wu said such a project is years away and will be costly.
“We need action right away,” said Wu.
Responding to a question about quality of life matters, Essaibi George said a mayor is also responsible for the “little things that maybe aren’t considered broad vision, or big goals, or fancy,” an apparent dig at Wu’s bold proposals.
“We need to fill potholes, we need to repair sidewalks, we need to make sure the trash gets picked up and the lights get turned on every single evening,” she said. “It’s not fancy, but it’s important.”
Wu agreed, saying her proposed Green New Deal has a big vision approach on everyday affairs, such as planting more street trees in Boston, and electrifying the city’s school bus fleet, to help cut down on diesel pollution.
“This is about the day to day, that we can only fix if we are actually getting to the scale of where the issues are in the city,” she said.
Asked how they rated Walsh, both were complimentary. Wu, who had been one of the mayor’s strongest critics on the council, surprisingly said Walsh did well as mayor, though she said the city faces growing pressures to fix schools and address a housing crisis. “I will make sure that we are not just continuing to take baby steps to where we need to go,” she said.
Essaibi George called Walsh a good mayor, and said the two have shared values. But she said she would bring to her administration her years working as a teacher, and experience as a councilor addressing homelessness.
“There’s so much work we have to continue to do, and do in a very different way, and I look forward to doing that as Mayor Essaibi George,” she said.
Emma Platoff and Shannon Larson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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