The candidates entered the final Boston mayoral debate Monday night much as they have in prior meetings: City Councilor Michelle Wu held a commanding lead, and fellow Councilor Annissa Essaibi George needed to make up significant ground to contend in next Tuesday’s election.
While Essaibi George was credited with strong performances in the first two debates, Wu is significantly ahead, leading by more than 30 points in the last two polls. Some voters already have cast ballots, either at early polling places or by mail. Nothing said in the final debate can change ballots already cast. But nonetheless, the pair debated anyway.
Here are three takeaways from the final debate, which was sponsored by The Boston Globe, WBUR, WCVB Channel 5, and UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.
All politics is the Commonwealth
It has come to this: The two candidates, each with years of experience in city government, spent the last important hour in an open seat campaign for Boston mayor debating ideas they have no power to implement.
Will there be a free T, as Wu wants? Depends on the state Legislature. Will there be rent control, another Wu priority? Also up to the Legislature. Will there be major climate mitigation efforts to protect the city from rising sea levels? Well, if we are actually talking about a sea wall, such a project requires major funding from the state and federal governments. Will there be a bridge to Long Island for recovery services, as Essaibi George wants? Ask Quincy.
The mere fact that the conversation is about things that the next mayor of Boston doesn’t control is a stunning statement on where this historic campaign for mayor ended up rhetorically.
Wu won the first 30 minutes of the debate, and Essaibi George won the second 30 minutes
Taken as a whole, Monday’s forum was a tale of two debates. The first 30 minutes were a sleepy affair, where Wu entered the front-runner and looked like she was going to slip through the final debate without being seriously challenged.
But in the second half, Essaibi George woke everyone up and pulled off her best performance of the campaign.
Essaibi George became animated over the situation at Mass. and Cass. When asked what she would say to residents of Quincy, where city leaders oppose rebuilding a bridge that connects to a former treatment center on Long Island, Essaibi George responded, “I got a message first for Michelle, because she’s been stuck in conversation, she doesn’t truly understand the crisis that is Mass. and Cass.”
From there, Essaibi George smartly kept the conversation on the Mass. and Cass issue, to the point where Wu said she was “grateful the councilor is passionate on this.” But Essaibi George kept it up, hammering Wu again and again on a series of issues from then on.
Did Essaibi George convert enough votes to erode Wu’s lead?
While Essaibi George had a strong second half of the debate, the big question is whether it will be enough to make up for the deficit she faces against Wu.
In the Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC 10 poll last week, not only was Wu more than 30 points ahead, just 7 percent of Boston voters were undecided in the race. So it is not as though Essaibi George must only convert the undecided. To win, she has to convince a significant chunk of the electorate to change their minds.
Given that voters already are casting ballots, it is a tall order.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.