In the years that the Globe has been handing out grades to candidates in political debates, few have faced the daunting situation that Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George did as she entered her first debate of the general mayoral election against fellow Councilor Michelle Wu on Wednesday.
There are two factors that make up these grades. First is the candidate’s performance on the stage, like their command of the issues and their ability to get attention. The second is whether the candidate did what they needed to do in the context of the election.
For Essaibi George, the context of this election is pretty grim. Just 10 days before early voting begins and less than three weeks until Election Day, a new poll out Wednesday showed her trailing Wu by 32 points.
If Essaibi George is going to have any shot at winning, she needed a performance so good it becomes part of Massachusetts political lore.
For Wu, however, what she needed to accomplish was clear: First, do no harm.
Let’s explore how each candidate did.
Annissa Essaibi George
This debate was about one person: Essaibi George. Wu’s path, after all, was obvious. All she had to do was avoid engaging with her opponent and run out the clock. Down over 30 points in Wednesday’s poll, all the pressure was on Essaibi George to make this race interesting. With a gap that big, Wu came into the debate as something of an incumbent and Essaibi George needed to follow the playbook of a challenger, which is to first fire at the person in the lead and then show an ability to be a palatable alternative.
Or in the specific context of this debate, Essaibi George needed to yell to the city’s voters to “stop Wu now.”
The debate was over in the first seven minutes. WBZ debate moderator Jon Keller handed the keys to Essaibi George right at the top by asking her — and challenging her — to tell voters the difference between herself and Wu. Other than with subtle language about “talking bold” and “acting,” she did not make the case that Wu needed to be stopped.
The odd thing about it is that Essaibi George often talks about how she grew up in Dorchester and knows how to fight. She came to the debate prepared to challenge Wu on the issues. Keller is a treasure in Massachusetts politics because he actually lets candidates engage, and yet Essaibi George didn’t land a punch.
She did get close once. Her push back on Wu’s support of rent control was strong in the beginning. But Wu slipped out of it by talking about housing in general and never had to actually defend the policy or explain exactly how it would be implemented.
On style and substance, Essaibi George showed she knows the issues and can explain where she is coming from. If that is all we were grading on she would score well. But in the context of the campaign, however, this debate was a very high-profile moment that could have changed the race and didn’t. She will never get that night back. There are only two more television debates left and their moderators are not likely to give her as much time as Keller did to try to land a hit.
All Wu needed to do to win this debate was to show up, pretend her opponent wasn’t there, and take up as much time as possible to say as little as possible. Every moment that she was talking —but not engaging with Essaibi George — she was winning.
Boston voters — or anyone watching, for that matter — likely came away from the debate with no better idea about what kind of mayor Wu would be than they had before.
Each answer she gave conveyed that she understood the issues, but she did so by answering in a progressive word salad of “urgency,” “boldness,” “community,” “conversation” and “leaning in.” It sounded good enough, but often meant absolutely nothing.
But you know who also rarely offers anything but cliches? Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. He has a record number of Super Bowl rings because he let his actions on the field speak for him.
As things stand now, Wu is headed to a big win and nothing in this debate stopped that.