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Fact checking the second Boston mayoral debate between Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George

City Councilor Michelle Wu, left, and City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George partake in a mayoral debate on NBC10 on Oct. 19, 2021.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, left, and City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George partake in a mayoral debate on NBC10 on Oct. 19, 2021.Mark Garfinkel/NBC10Boston

Tuesday’s debate between City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George in their campaign for mayor grew heated at points. The Globe took a deeper look at statements by the candidates.

Conflicts of interest

Midway through the debate, the moderator asked Essaibi George to explain a Globe report in July that found she appeared to have violated the state’s conflict of interest law. Essaibi George’s office tried to block a development next door to her husband’s that would obstruct the view from his million-dollar condominiums.

In Tuesday’s debate, Essaibi George said that after the Globe inquired, she “filed a report with the Ethics Commission to clarify all that transpired.” In opposing the project next to her husband’s, Essaibi George said she was simply heeding the concerns of residents and neighborhood groups who opposed the project.

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Essaibi George did not mention, however, that her husband was later sued by buyers of his condominiums in that building who had paid a premium for a view that would be obstructed. Essaibi George has declined the Globe’s request to make her ethics filing public, saying she would keep the disclosure “confidential” until the commission made a ruling or issued guidance.

During the same set of questions, Essaibi George also linked Wu to Terry Considine, a Republican businessman from Colorado who is the father of Wu’s college roommate and close friend. Essaibi George said Wu has accepted “thousands of dollars” in campaign donations from Considine, whom Essaibi George described as a “hate monger” who said “terrible racist and discriminatory things about people from Mexico” when he ran for US Senate.

What exactly was she referring to?

The issue dates back to 1986, when Wu was a toddler. Considine was making an unsuccessful bid for US Senate in Colorado, but had grown up in California near the Mexico border. In an interview with the Boulder Daily Camera, Considine discussed his doubts about hard-line immigration laws and used a derogatory term to refer to Mexican immigrants. He apologized at the time and said it was a word commonly used where he had come from. Six years later, he told the Denver Post he was repeating a word that had been used in the question to him.

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“I grew up on a cattle ranch where we were 50 miles of the border, where seeing a wetback didn’t happen once a year; it happened once a week,” Considine was quoted in 1986 as saying, according to the 1992 account in the Denver Post. “They’re people like you and I are. They care for their families. They have a sense of church, sense of family, sense of music. Great food.”

Since 2013, Considine has donated $2,500 to Wu’s political campaign, which includes $1,000 last September after she launched her bid for mayor. Wu purchased a two-family home with his daughter, one of Wu’s closest friends, and the godmother to her oldest son. Records show Wu and her husband bought them out at fair market value.

Essaibi George also noted that Wu’s husband is listed as a resident agent on a house originally bought by Wu’s college roommate and her siblings in Cambridge. The title essentially is akin to being a local contact, and doesn’t imply ownership or management. Essaibi George’s husband has more than a dozen such companies.

Income issues

In one awkward, tense moment, the two finalists were asked to characterize their financial holdings. Wu said bashfully that she and her husband, Conor Pewarski, made just over $200,000 last year and — when asked — suggested they ranked in the upper middle class. Essaibi George, did not hesitate to say her family was in Boston’s upper class, but she did not disclose her family’s total earnings, either. She said that information has already been disclosed to the media.

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But that’s not completely true.

In June, the Globe requested tax returns for all of the major mayoral candidates, after Wu voluntarily produced the 2020 joint filing by herself and her husband. The filings showed an adjusted gross income for the both of them of $221,761.

In response to the Globe request, all of the other major candidates running in the preliminary election — included those who are married and have children — produced only their individual filings, indicating they filed their 2020 taxes individually and not jointly, as Wu had.

That includes Essaibi George, who reported an adjusted gross income of $76,823, even though — as she stated Tuesday night — she was paid roughly $103,000 as a city councilor. Her returns showed $16,194 in itemized deductions, but she did not provide the Schedule A form to explain her deductions. She did not claim her four children for the child tax credit. Its not clear if the return includes any income from her private yarn business, Stitch House.

Essaibi George also did not disclose the tax records of her husband, who owns some 55 properties in Boston with an assessed value of $54 million, according to a Globe analysis of deeds and corporate records.

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The financial situation of a mayor’s spouse matters. State law forbids public employees from involvement in anything that affects the financial interests of an immediate family member, such as a spouse.

Suffolk University professor James P. Angelini, a certified public accountant, helped the Globe analyze the candidate filings in July. At the time, he said that the 1040 income statement the candidates shared don’t provide a clear picture of anyone’s wealth, since they don’t list assets, only some income generated by the candidates’ assets.

Of the four married candidates in the preliminary, Wu was the only one who provided a joint return.

And while Wu struggled a bit on where her family ranks within the city’s income tiers, Wu’s adjusted gross household income of roughly $220,000 puts her well into the city’s higher tier of earners.

Boston’s median household income is $79,018, according to the most recent census figures. Just 16 percent of Boston households earn more than $200,000 a year.

While the income of Essaibi George’s husband is not known because her campaign has not disclosed his tax returns, her city councilor salary of more than $100,000 puts her well above the median as well — which she readily acknowledged. “We have a pretty high income. ... I am in Boston’s upper class,” she said.

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Education

In her first line of attack Tuesday, Essaibi George asked Wu to explain her “inconsistent messages” to various community residents about her position on the exam school entrance process. Essaibi George did not specify what was inconsistent about her rival’s messaging or to which neighborhood groups she made differing statements. Her campaign later said that Wu has given varying accounts about her stance on the entrance process and forwarded links to news articles purporting to show the discrepancy.

Controversy erupted after the Boston School Committee approved a proposal last year to drop the admissions tests for the city’s prestigious exam schools for one year because of the pandemic, instead determining eligibility and acceptance to the city’s three exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — by using grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes.

In Tuesday’s debate, Wu said that she supports “having an entrance exam, plus grades, plus economic criteria, so there’s fairness across the board, and I want to make sure that the conversation isn’t just about three schools, but delivering the change we need to let every single high school.”

But during a forum in June on public education, Wu raised a green “YES” card indicating she would support making the no-testing policy permanent. Wu’s campaign said the candidate has been highly consistent that she supports a reformed process that takes into account a new exam that matches the BPS curriculum, grades, and socioeconomic factors.

The Globe asked the candidates this summer about what they think the future of the exam schools should be. Wu wrote that she supports “a citywide admissions process for the exam schools based on grades and an exam aligned with the BPS curriculum, accounting for differences in socioeconomic background.”

She also wrote that students at every BPS school must have access to “well-resourced academics, facilities, health and wellness supports, and extracurricular activities. The conversations about our exam schools must be part of a comprehensive community planning process to reform the offerings and quality across all high schools.”

MBTA funding

As she has before, Essaibi George criticized Wu’s push to make the T free as unrealistic and unaffordable. The move would require major buy-in on Beacon Hill, where it has gained little traction, despite Wu’s support from prominent members of the Legislature.

“If the state’s not willing to do this work, you’re expecting the people of the city of Boston to carry the $2.3 billion price tag it costs per year to operate the T,” Essaibi George said on the debate stage. “To make the MBTA free — who is going to pay for that? That’s a $2.3 billion yearly investment . . . . It is unfair to ask the people of Boston to pay that price tag.”

$2.3 billion is the size of the MBTA’s annual budget. While it’s not clear how a free MBTA system would be funded — leaders on Beacon Hill have so far shown little appetite for the proposal — it’s unlikely that the full cost of the regional transit system, which serves municipalities outside Boston and is run by a board consisting primarily of gubernatorial appointees, would fall to Boston taxpayers. Governor Charlie Baker said this week that he would not support making the T fare-free.

Essaibi George’s campaign acknowledged on Wednesday the $2.3 billion was a “ceiling” for the potential cost and said it is difficult to estimate exactly how much it would cost to eliminate fares entirely. Fare collections accounted for $671.4 million in revenue in fiscal year 2019, but aides to Essaibi George said the cost of fare-free transit would be greater than just the lost collections.

The main point stands, aides said: Making transit free would be costly.

For her part, Wu told reporters outside City Hall on Wednesday that the $2.3 billion figure is “nowhere near” the cost for free public transportation, especially in the first stage she has proposed: fare-free buses, a measure she says would cost just $30 million annually.

Wu said Tuesday evening that Boston is “already paying the price tag for transportation that doesn’t work.” If elected, she said the first step toward making public transportation free would be securing grant funding to eliminate fares on two bus lines — the 66 and the 116 — in addition to the 28, which is already free under a pilot program.

Asked on Wednesday who would bear the expense, Boston or the state, Wu pointed to “city, state, and federal funding sources,” spoke of the need to move away from financial models that rely on ridership, and said there is current State House legislation that would guarantee and fund buses statewide.

Mental health 911 calls

Essaibi George often accused Wu of “taking credit for something I’ve done,” and one such instance had to do with police reform, leading to a heated back and forth.

Wu took issue when Essaibi George accused her of a lack of focus on police reform. Wu countered saying she was the first one of the candidates to approve the 2020 recommendations of a Boston Police Reform Task Force “at the time that they were introduced, not just at this stage of a mayoral campaign.” Wu also said she “led the way on the council in partnership with colleagues in pushing for a different response to a mental health crisis call, so that . . . we are proving a true public health response.”

Essaibi George stepped in to claim, “That there is a false statement . . . You’re taking credit for something I’ve done as a member of the City Council. That work is not your work, please don’t take credit for it.”

So, who’s right? Technically, they both are.

As a councilor, Essaibi George helped persuade the Walsh administration to increase the number of clinicians working with police officers on a Boston Emergency Services Team, from two when she took office in 2016 to 19 in the last budget cycle. Most of those clinicians were added in 2020, when Walsh agreed to redirect police overtime funding toward social service programs. Essaibi George also advocated for a mental health crisis call center, and for more mental health counselors in every school.

Wu was referring to an ordinance she co-sponsored, at about the same time in 2020, that would systemically create “an alternative response from non-law enforcement agencies,” by creating a system that would automatically divert nonviolent 911 calls away from police and toward public health workers. Acting Mayor Kim Janey recently launched a pilot of the same program.

Wu told Essaibi George that she was glad to support her effort to increase the number of clinicians to 19, “and also to have been around before you joined the council,” when Representative Ayanna Pressley, then a councilor, was pushing those same efforts.

But, Wu argued, the hiring of 19 clinicians also “is nowhere near the scale of change that is needed.”

Meghan Irons and Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan. Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.