In the final televised debate of the Boston mayor’s race, City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu sparred over their approaches to city development and the opioid crisis, with Wu playing the role of the optimistic visionary and Essaibi George, the pragmatic doer.
Essaibi George, who is trailing Wu in the polls by 25 to 30 points, tried to cast Wu as a political dreamer, particularly when the topic turned to the opioid crisis and the tent city at the troubled intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, an area known as Mass. and Cass.
Essaibi George noted she had called for a public health emergency declaration two days before Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced it last week and claimed the issue as her own.
“I spend quite a bit of time at Mass. and Cass. It’s been a big part of my work over these last six years. I was there this morning and I was there late this afternoon. There were more tents than ever. There is more violence than ever,” she said, incorrectly saying there had been a murder there that day. There have been multiple homicides within a half-mile radius of the intersection this year but none on Monday, according to Boston police.
But Wu would cede no ground, noting she, too, has been working on the issue, which has only intensified during the pandemic. The problem blossomed in 2014, when an unsafe bridge to Boston Harbor had to be closed, cutting off access to homeless shelters and rehabilitation programs that had been located on Long Island. Former mayor Martin J. Walsh pledged in his 2018 State of the City address to rebuild the bridge, but reconstruction has been stymied by a protracted legal battle with neighboring Quincy, where opposition to a new bridge runs deep among officials and residents.
Wu said that rather than pursue a bridge reconstruction that could take 10 years and cost $250 million, she would direct that funding to housing for the people now living on the streets. One of her first hires would be a Cabinet-level chief focusing on Mass. and Cass, she said.
“Look, I’m grateful for the councilor’s passion on this, and for the many, many meetings and conversations that she’s been part of,” Wu said. “Every conversation that I have is about taking urgent action. The bridge, and the price tag of doing so, means that we would be giving up and diverting our resources away from urgent action. I’m not willing to wait.”
Essaibi George pounced, and sought to use Wu’s answer to paint her rival as a policy wonk, rather than a take-charge executive.
“Because she has been stuck in conversation, she doesn’t truly understand the crisis that is Mass and Cass,” argued Essaibi George, whose subdued demeanor from the first half of the debate fell away when this topic was broached . “I’ve spent days and nights and overnights at Mass. and Cass, and our city’s residents who are unsheltered are in crisis. They need help today, not the start of a conversation.”
Essaibi George pledged to rebuild the bridge, and said she could do it within a four-year term as mayor.
“We’ve got incredible resources; we’ve got incredible minds,” said Essaibi George. “We can do a bridge hackathon and get this done.”
Wu has pitched a “hub and spoke” model to address the Mass. and Cass crisis, a proposal that would locate recovery services and supportive housing throughout Boston so it is not just concentrated near Boston Medical Center. Wu has also pledged to perform an audit within her first 100 days as mayor to identify city-owned parcels of land or facilities on which to quickly build supportive housing to alleviate the housing crisis that is concentrating people in the area.
Essaibi George has proposed a plan that, in addition to declaring a public health emergency in the area, would also create a “Mass. and Cass czar” in the Boston Public Health Commission, who would report directly to the city’s mayor.
With Election Day eight days away and voters already casting early ballots, the debate represented Essaibi George’s last big chance to chip away at support for Wu, whom polls show maintains a substantial lead. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 poll released a week ago found likely voters favor Wu over Essaibi George, 62 percent to 30 percent.
The candidates also sparred over development, with Essaibi George saying she does not support Janey’s decision in August to scrap Boston’s Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan for not adequately addressing issues of equity and climate resilience. She noted it followed a lengthy public process involving residents, and said, “to have involved them, and hundreds and hundreds of hours of process, to then just walk away from that plan I think is irresponsible government.”
But Wu said that long planning process “did not adequately capture residents’ participation, and they certainly did not end up with a plan that reflected the dire crisis of climate that faces us.”
Wu, who has made climate action a central part of her campaign, said she supported Janey’s decision and would as mayor replace it with a substitute plan that does not “repeat the mistakes of the Seaport.”
“We have the chance to deliver something that is truly exceptional,” said Wu.
Essaibi George disagreed. “To tweak it on the edges might be fine, but to toss it out the window altogether is unfair to the work that was done on that plan in particular,” she said.
Wu retorted that Boston cannot afford to tweak around the edges “on almost any issue.”
Essaibi George also took aim at Wu wanting to abolish the Boston Planning & Development Agency. That, said Essaibi George, would stop development and growth in the city.
“I don’t think that that’s an appropriate plan when we think about the future of Boston,” she said.
Wu said Essaibi George’s characterization was a misunderstanding of the plan Wu has detailed in a 77-page proposal. “The structures of the BPDA and our process as it currently stands is making Boston less affordable, it’s pushing people out,” Wu said.
Essaibi George rejected Wu’s assertion, saying there is no misunderstanding the term “abolish.”
There were other big-picture clashes that showed substantial differences between the two City Council colleagues. On housing, Essaibi George, as she has repeatedly done in recent weeks, challenged Wu over rent stabilization. The former public school teacher from Dorchester said that rent stabilization, which she equated to rent control, will freeze rents at very high levels and push out residents who would like to stay in the city.
Wu, a Roslindale resident, batted away that assertion, saying it “insults the intelligence of our residents.”
“There are many units across the city already that are restricted at affordable rates,” she said.
Essaibi George was unmoved, declaring that rent control is not the answer and advocating for more opportunities for home ownership and more down payment assistance.
“It has been tried and it has failed,” she said.
Wu countered she will fight for every possible tool to make sure that “we are keeping people in their homes.”
On climate action, Essaibi George talked about the need for a greater tree canopy in the city, the threat of sea-level rise, and asthma levels in East Boston, saying “We have to act fast.”
Wu, meanwhile, highlighted her city-level Green New Deal, and said she had received the endorsement of every climate group engaged in the mayoral race.
“The cost of delay and inaction far outweigh what we need to put in,” said Wu.
The consortium sponsoring Monday’s debate included WCVB Channel 5, The Boston Globe, WBUR, and UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.
Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this story.
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.