Long Led by Men, Boston Sees Women in Close Bid for Mayor
(Bloomberg) -- Boston’s race for mayor is too close to call, but whoever wins, the field of candidates itself has already made history: The city is all but certain to elect a female mayor for the first time.
Bostonians vote Tuesday in a non-partisan preliminary election to select two finalists for the November ballot among a field of five top candidates -- all of them people of color and four of them female.
In a city that always has been led by White men, the diverse group represents generational change that goes beyond demographics, said associate professor Katherine Levine Einstein of Boston University, an expert on urban politics. “Depending on who wins, I think there’s a real ideological reframing.”
The apparent front-runner, City Councilor Michelle Wu, backs rent control, free public transport and a city-level Green New Deal, so “a lot of what she’s saying is considerably more to the left than what we’ve seen from a leading mayoral candidate” in Boston, said Levine Einstein.
Polling suggests the Harvard-educated Wu, who is Taiwanese-American and a close ally of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, will win one of the two run-off spots, closely trailed by three other candidates in what looks like a virtual tie. As of Friday, all four women had raised from $1.3 million to $1.6 million.
Also running is former Boston Chief of Economic Development John Barros, who has raised $644,000. In the latest Suffolk University poll, he garnered 3% compared with about 30% for Wu and around 20% for each of the others.
While Wu is leading in polls, each of her rivals has their own advantages.
Janey has incumbency. Though not elected mayor -- the former city Council President assumed the role when former Mayor Marty Walsh became U.S. Secretary of Labor -- she broke barriers in March as the first woman and first Black mayor. Not since 1949 has a mayoral incumbent lost in Boston, which has had a mayor since 1822.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who also is Black and went from a childhood of poverty and foster care to Princeton University and law school, won the Boston Globe’s endorsement. She was the first candidate to put out a plan for the long-festering problem of high drug use and homelessness in the city area known as Mass-Cass.
Another councilor, longtime schoolteacher Annissa Essaibi George, has polled well among voters who identify as moderate or conservative and among older White residents, who tend to vote in greater numbers than other groups. (Essaibi George identifies as a person of color, citing her Tunisian father.)
Some of Boston’s most powerful business leaders, including retired advertising executive Jack Connors and retired insurance executive David D’Alessandro, threw their support behind Wu long before the polls showed her commanding lead, Globe columnist Shirley Leung told Bloomberg Baystate Business.
Turnout is expected to be especially important given that such off-cycle elections typically draw low voter interest.
It has been more than a century since Boston last saw such a dramatic, demographic-driven political milestone. In 1914, as the city shifted from Yankee Protestant to Irish Catholic domination, it elected the now-legendary Mayor James Michael Curley, said former Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty, who told Curley’s story in “The Rascal King.”
Today’s field of candidates reflects both the city’s majority non-white population and an ideological shift in a place where mayors long tended to focus on the job’s pragmatics: The late Thomas Menino, who led the city from 1993 to 2013, was known as the “pothole mayor.”
“This is a different time, these are different candidates,” Beatty said. “They’re talking about environmental justice, talking about climate change, talking about doing something about the wealth gap. This isn’t potholes.”
Lydia Edwards, a city councilor who backs Wu, pointed to a pandemic-era zeitgeist of widespread longing for bold change, a sense of urgency on big issues like climate among residents who have found that “the status quo failed us so miserably.”
In two debates this week, the candidates agreed on many issues, including vaccination, school masking and the need for more affordable housing and better public schools. Janey faced some criticism on her administration’s performance, but the tone remained generally calm. One long-time former mayoral political adviser, Edward Jesser, observed happily that the race has “no jerks” from either end of the ideological spectrum
On climate change, Wu warned that it’s “the urgent threat at our doorstep, and it’s going to be the lens we see the world through for the next 100 years.”
Outside City Hall, where voters were casting early ballots this week, several said they supported Wu and that her positions on climate change and housing added to her appeal.
“We’re looking for candidates who can speak to everyone and can help us feel safe,” said Brooke Wayne, 27, a speech pathologist.
Marty Gollogly, 37, said housing was his No. 1 issue. “It’s totally unaffordable,” he said. “You have to get rid of the not-in-my-backyard-ers.”
Whoever wins, they’ll likely have plenty of time to wrestle with such issues. “Once you’re in, you’re in,” said Suffolk University professor Robert Allison, author of “A Short History of Boston.”
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