A scrappier side of City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George has emerged this week on the campaign trail as she fights to keep her mayoral candidacy alive, pressing her fellow Councilor Michelle Wu sharply and repeatedly during their first one-on-one debate and launching a new set of ads that cast her as the hands-on pragmatist taking on a head-in-the-clouds rival.
Essaibi George’s sharpened line of attack against Wu — whom she portrays as an out-of-touch visionary who hasn’t done the necessary work to connect with city workers and residents — is a strategy her good friend, US Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, also once used — to success in his own 2013 mayoral campaign.
“It’s the Walsh playbook,” said John Connolly, who narrowly lost to Walsh that November, and recalled the depiction of him as an elitist lawyer who didn’t know true Boston — even though he was born and raised in Roslindale.
The strategy, Connolly and other analysts said, is being deployed again as a new poll shows Wu with a 32-percentage point lead with three weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election. What appears to be Wu’s commanding lead has left Essaibi George in a scramble to make her mark against a candidate who has sought to stay above the fray. Wu said Thursday that she won’t allow “false choices” or “scare tactics” to take over the campaign.
Scott Ferson, a political consultant working for Essaibi George’s campaign, did not deny that she shares the same talking points as Walsh, saying they share similar beliefs. They grew up on the same street. Essaibi George escorted Walsh’s mother, Mary, to the polls on preliminary election day.
But he said the line of attack is based on Essaibi George’s focus on the bread-and-butter duties of mayor, and her connection to residents on the ground.
“That’s who she is,” he said. “She’s not afraid to engage with people, whether she agrees with them or not.”
Of the difference the campaign is looking to draw between the candidates, Ferson said, “people want bold leadership but they want somebody who knows how to implement.”
Wednesday was Essaibi George’s first high-profile, televised opportunity to shake up the race. “I believe that she is governing from behind the podium . . . not in the community, not with our city’s people, not meeting them exactly where they are when they need you to be there,” Essaibi George said after the debate, underscoring the message she delivered on stage.
Then, on Thursday, she also released two new television ads — a $100,000 buy on broadcast and cable television — that strike similar themes to her debate-night strategy.
One commercial pitches her as the candidate of “real change, not empty promises.” In it, she appears with several former students on a softball team she coached during her teaching days, complete in uniform. In another, a diverse array of supporters declare that leadership is “not a press conference or a hashtag — it’s showing up in our neighborhoods and delivering real results.”
Getting more aggressive “is the strategy that gives her the best chance of winning,” said Brian Jencunas, a political consultant who is not working for either campaign.
“When you are not winning, you need to be on offense,” he said. “You need to be driving voters away from your opponent and giving undecided voters not only a reason to vote for you but a reason not to vote for the other candidate.”
Connolly said there were several other factors that led to Walsh’s victory in 2013, particularly Walsh’s support from Black and brown communities that helped him build momentum in the final weeks of the campaign — support that seems to be behind Wu this time, given the endorsements she’s received. But Connolly said he sees Essaibi George trying to make the same contrast Walsh did between old Boston and new, the working class and the elites who don’t understand the city.
Connolly questioned whether the messaging was “resonating.” He said Wu has equally demonstrated her own record of connecting with neighborhoods, through her eight years as a city councilor.
“Conventional wisdom says to do the kinds of things she’s doing to seal this up,” he said.
Wu announced she would challenge Walsh last year, before he was appointed labor secretary. In an interview Thursday, she said her candidacy “was never about who a political opponent might be,” but about offering her own proposals. She deferred to what she called her “unmatched track record of getting things done in city government” to speak to her qualifications.
Wu did not address the strategic similarity between Walsh and Essaibi George directly, but she said she would not let “fear tactics,” dismiss her own campaign and candidacy — echoing a line she used in Wednesday’s debate.
“It can make for good political theater to be using sound bites and scare tactics, but I know from being out in the community and working with residents for eight years now that people want to see results,” Wu said.
She added, “Anyone can choose a political strategy. At the end of the day, I’m fighting for what I know our residents believe in and are ready for, which is a vision for Boston that includes everyone and takes on our biggest challenges.”
David Guarino, a veteran political consultant and partner at Melwood Global, a public relations firm, praised Wu’s performance in Wednesday’s debate, saying her goal was simply “not making mistakes and looking mayoral.” Guarino, who is not working for either candidate, said Wu was prepared to parry her rival’s jabs by framing them as “scare tactics from someone behind in the polls, and desperate to gain a foothold.”
He also praised Essaibi George, however, saying she was successful at times in poking Wu’s policies, specifically on rent control and public safety, issues that resonate with unions and blue collar workers, including police officers and firefighters — voters within her base who were loyal to Walsh.
“The pressure was on Essaibi George to take the fight to Wu, and I think she did that,” Guarino said, saying she must maintain that pressure straight through Election Day.
The strategy of appealing to traditional blue-collar workers can also backfire, amid concerns that it caters to working class white neighborhoods. Essaibi George took heat last month after she said in a radio interview that being born and raised in Boston — she was, Wu was not — can have a certain relevance to voters. Several critics, including Wu, took issue with the remark, calling it exclusionary of the majority of the city’s residents. Indeed, only 43 percent of Boston’s population was born in Massachusetts.
Essaibi George later sought to clarify her comments, saying she was trying to spotlight her firsthand experience dealing with the challenges the city faces, particularly within its schools, but that she was not arguing her rival’s Chicago roots are disqualifying.
Paul Parry, known as Notorious VOG and the host of the “Notorious in the Morning Show” on B87.7 FM, which caters to Black and brown communities, said, however, that the issue remains a talking point among some residents of all races amid concerns that some of Boston’s newest and most wealthy residents have benefited from the city’s economic successes at the expense of blue-collar workers who have been living and laboring here.
Parry, who has hosted both candidates on his show, said the challenge for both of them in appealing to those residents will be to show not where they came from or where they grew up, but how they will address economic inequalities and disparities, particularly in Black and brown communities. He said candidates can’t rely on endorsements alone.
“To drive out turnout, endorsements aren’t going to do it,” Parry said. “Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George are going to have to have those conversations [with residents] themselves.”