A week ago, the pair of candidates vying to be Boston’s next mayor met in a television studio for their first debate of the general election. City Councilor Michelle Wu entered that debate with a 32-point advantage over her opponent, fellow City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, according to a poll at the time.
On Tuesday, the same pair met again in a different television studio for another debate. The context is the same: a new poll out from Suffolk University for The Boston Globe and NBC 10 found Wu up 32 points.
Two things were different coming into this debate. First, Essaibi George has been more forceful in her criticism of Wu, basically calling her ideas liberal pie-in-the-sky promises that cannot be accomplished. Second, another week went by with Wu in a commanding lead.
Here are three takeaways from the second debate.
1. It was the most interesting debate so far in this race
Feisty. Policy-oriented. Personal. This NBC 10 debate provided an hour unlike any we have seen in this race so far. Until now, the forums and debates have had very few direct confrontational moments. Instead, candidates have talked about a laundry list of things they claim they have done on issue after issue, and everyone agrees about the need to ambiguously do better (on Mass. and Cass and schools, for just two examples).
But not in this debate. The candidates showed clear policy differences on rent control, whether to make the MBTA free inside of Boston, the concept of a Green New Deal, and, especially, on policing. Tuesday’s poll found that only seven percent were undecided in this race. If they tuned in tonight, a good many may have made up their minds. If they didn’t decide over policy, they had opportunities to judge who they liked and trusted based on their personalities and debate skills.
2. Your plan isn’t a plan vs. you don’t have a plan
There was a lot of talk about plans in this debate. That is what debates should be about. However, instead of seeing two different visions for Boston’s future, the conversation consistently devolved into this theme: Essaibi George saying that Wu’s plan cannot be done by a mayor, and Wu charging that Essaibi George just doesn’t have a plan at all.
For example, Essaibi George questioned whether free MBTA rides, a key Wu policy wish, were realistic.
Wu used her first question to ask what, exactly, Essaibi George would do to improve transportation in the city, including automobile traffic. Essaibi George answered with a quick line about the need for the city to do better for cars, public transportation, bicycle rides, and pedestrians -- without saying exactly how she would accomplish that.
3. The debate was largely about Essaibi George
Given that Essaibi George is down 32 points, the big questions about this race focus on her.
She has a choice to make: Will she throw a hail mary pass and try to pull off the near-impossible by closing the huge gap with just two weeks until Election Day, or will she play nice and try to keep her political future open instead of potentially burning bridges.
For now, it seems Essaibi George is going for it. She directly put Wu on the defensive more in this debate than she ever has, asking not only pointed questions, but also telling Wu at one point to back off taking credit for one of her plans.
Could Essaibi George have been more aggressive? Yes. On a few occasions, she tactically did the correct thing by quickly answering a question before pivoting to make a negative case as to why Wu was wrong. There were many more times, however, that she didn’t even do that and instead went straight at Wu.
Did Essaibi George cross a line? No. As much as Wu claimed to be “disappointed” at Essaibi George’s tough tactics, all her challenges were fair game.
Bottom line: Essaibi George had her best performance yet, but with early voting starting on Saturday and mail-in ballots actively being sent out, she is running out of time to close the sizable gap between her and Wu.