I believe the polls that say Michelle Wu will be the next mayor of Boston and that her victory will usher in a new and fascinating era in city politics. If Annissa Essaibi George somehow defies the odds, it would be the greatest comeback since the New England Patriots came back to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51. And the Patriots had Tom Brady.
That being said, there is — or was — a case to be made for Essaibi George. She would be a hands-on mayor with a practical, attainable agenda for Boston. She has the kind of basic connection to everyday Bostonians that comes from working as a high school teacher and small business owner. Social media clobbered her for saying it’s relevant she was born and raised in Boston; detractors said it was nativism with a wink, since Wu hails from Chicago. Yet other candidates for mayor and city council routinely point out their Boston credentials — just check out their websites and campaign materials. As Bill Forry, executive editor of the Dorchester Reporter, wrote in an editorial, where a candidate is born isn’t a qualifier or disqualifier: “But cannot a legitimate case be made that the ‘lived experience’ that makes up at least part of a candidate’s narrative includes their formative years as a child, teen, and young adult?”
Essaibi George ran her preliminary race from the political center, so if she somehow pulled off a miracle, she would have a lot to prove to woke voters. That would give those voters leverage — although not as much as they will have with Wu, which is not terrible. To win the preliminary, Wu ran from the far left lane, and any edging to the center will be harshly judged. Activists will hold her accountable for every progressive promise, from addressing climate change to delivering on free public transit and rent control. Woe to Wu if she wavers.
Meanwhile, Essaibi George has made her own promises, including a commitment to invest $100 million in Black neighborhoods. With that, she’s obviously trying to counter the narrative that she’s the candidate of older, white, conservative voters who turned out for her in the preliminary. She’s also struggling against Wu’s pile of endorsements from Boston’s Black leaders. But whatever the motivation, $100 million could make a real difference in the ongoing battle for economic equity in Boston. As Eugene F. Rivers III, director of the Ella J. Baker House, wrote in the Boston Herald: “The very fact of such a bold proposal is of enormous political significance. Never before in the history of this great city has a politician of any color advanced such a radical proposal. It is for this reason alone that every politically sentient Black voter must consider Essaibi George’s candidacy.”
Yes, there are serious questions about Essaibi George. Given her backing from police and firefighters, could she stand up to their unions? When I asked her about that last June, she described her relationship with unions as a “partnership” that gives her an ability to “change the culture and fix the parts that are broken.” Words are not enough; she would have a lot to prove. Questions about her developer husband and how cozy she might be with the real estate community also persist. Given such issues, it would be hard for her to lead the way on change.
But in another way, it could be harder for Wu. She’s promising so much of it on every front — from housing affordability and education equity to climate justice, and what sounds like a revolution when it comes to planning and development. Like her mentor, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wu has many plans. And as Essaibi George noted during their last debate, Wu has also had a lot of “conversations.” It’s not impossible to go from talking to doing, but it won’t be easy on such a grand scale. Sometimes it’s better to under promise and exceed expectations.
From that perspective, an Essaibi George victory — as unlikely as it is — would not be the end of the world, nor the end of change. It might be the start of possible change. Or, as one very smart and successful politician once called it — change you can believe in.