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Boston mayoral race among most expensive in city history

Michelle Wu faced reporters after casting her ballot at a polling station in Roslindale on Election Day.Steven Senne/Associated Press

With a few receipts still to be counted, this year’s race for Boston mayor appears to be one of the priciest elections in city history, with campaign spending topping $8.8 million, according to new campaign finance data.

The final tally, which won’t be available for weeks, is likely to come close to, or even surpass, the $9.8 million spent in the city’s last open election for mayor, a hotly contested race in 2013.

In the final week alone of this year’s campaign, City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George spent more than $702,000, which is shy of the $936,500 tallied during the same period in 2013. Wu, who had been projected in numerous polls to win handily, outraised Essaibi George by more than 40 percent during that time.


The two candidates ultimately spent about $5.4 million this year through the end of October, with outside groups pouring in roughly another $3.4 million — much of it in the final weeks, on attack ads aimed at Wu. Wu drew about $303,000 more in donations than Essaibi George, though outside groups supporting Essaibi George spent hundreds of thousands more.

Despite the highly critical ads those groups aimed at her in the race’s closing days, Wu defeated Essaibi George last Tuesday, garnering 64 percent of the city’s vote. Wu tapped into a coalition of young, progressive, and diverse voters across several strongholds in the city.

Essaibi George, meanwhile, was backed strongly by the city’s public safety rank-and-file. About 300 self-identified Boston police employees — or roughly 1 in 10 of the department’s 3,000-odd officers and civilian staff — donated to her.

The breadth of that support underscores the sharp division between police and Wu, who will soon have to choose a new commissioner and negotiate a union contract. Wu received donations from only 14 people linked to the police force, data show.


The staggering amount of spending seen in this election — once an anomaly — is becoming typical, said Maurice Cunningham, a retired political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies campaign finance.

“They’re eye-popping figures to most Bostonians, but to these givers they’re an insignificant sum,” he said. “This is normal now.”

The latest October numbers do not capture donations or expenditures made in the days before Nov. 2′s Election Day. Under state law, campaigns have another few weeks to disclose those numbers in full.

Essaibi George’s campaign, which did release receipts for Nov. 1, added $58,119 to its coffers that day, suggesting the ultimate cost of the race will tick up slightly. The final tally may rival that of the 2013 race, when former mayor Martin J. Walsh narrowly beat out John Connolly, their campaigns spending $6 million in all, with another $3.8 million from outside groups.

Both Wu and Essaibi George have some cash remaining in their campaign coffers — though how those funds can be used is limited by state law. Campaigns can continue to pay down outstanding costs with their campaign funds or prepare for a future political run, so long as the money is not spent on personal costs incurred by the candidate.

The new figures give the clearest picture yet of the money behind a rare city election without an overwhelmingly favored incumbent. And in the four full weeks before Election Day, the campaigns raked in more cash than ever with a combined $1.78 million.


Essaibi George’s campaign continued to receive support from a steady base of developers and contractors — as well as from the candidate herself, who loaned $250,000 to her election effort Oct. 15. Wu, on the other hand, continued to see donations from a coalition that included lawyers, professors, and doctors.

Wu also benefited from a late surge in donations from outside Boston — and Massachusetts. Wu ultimately pulled 18 percent of her total haul from out of state.

A key facet of these last two open races for mayor has been unchecked spending from outside groups, which was made possible by a controversial 2010 US Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, that effectively erased campaign finance restrictions for them.

Since then, staggering sums have only become more necessary to be viable as a political candidate — though it isn’t everything, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University.

“You have to have enough to compete,” he said. “But if you have enough money to compete, you don’t need to match every other candidate. You can be outspent by a lot, provided you can do the basics.”

In this month’s election, outside groups poured millions into the race, particularly in its final weeks. The three largest super PACs supporting Wu or Essaibi George raised $3.6 million from Jan. 1 through the end of October.

The two most prominent super PACs supporting Essaibi George alone accounted for a vast majority of the year’s outside spending haul. Such groups are prohibited from coordinating directly with a campaign, but they can spend unlimited amounts of money in support of or opposition to a candidate’s own efforts.


Real Progress Boston, a super PAC helmed by former police commissioner William G. Gross, also drew more than a million dollars directly from Jim Davis, the chairman of New Balance. Davis’s contributions, in light of his prior donations to Donald Trump, had prompted Essaibi George to disavow him and the PAC’s spending on her behalf during the campaign.

Elizabeth Koh can be reached at Follow her @elizabethrkoh.