Boston City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George each announced Tuesday that they had finished in the top two in Boston's preliminary mayoral election, setting the stage for a final in which the winner — for the first time ever— will be a woman and a person of color.
"I'm overjoyed that we are confident we've made the top two and are moving on to the final election," Wu, an at-large city councilor whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, told a raucous crowd of supporters at Distraction Brewing in Roslindale.
"My parents came to this country not speaking English, nothing in their pockets, and they never could have imagined that one day their daughter would get to seek the office of mayor of Boston," she added.
Essaibi George, who is also an at-large councilor, took the stage at Dorchester’s Venezia restaurant dancing to Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud.” She told Wu she looked forward to their upcoming campaign and thanked her fellow candidates.
“Good governance is about being on the ground, listening [to] and learning from those of us in our communities across the city,” Essaibi George said. “I’ve said it before: you will not find me on a soapbox. You will find me in your neighborhood, doing the work.”
Essaibi George's father emigrated from Tunisia, and her mother was born to Polish parents at a displaced persons’ camp in Germany.
Both candidates spoke before the city of Boston announced its official vote tallies. As of midnight, only 1% of the results were available. The city election department said tabulating early-voting ballots was responsible for the delay.
At a gathering at the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Dorchester, Councilor Andrea Campbell acknowledged defeat.
“I know this is not the result we wanted or hoped for,” she said. “But I believe fiercely that we are victorious tonight, and I’ll tell you why. We kept this campaign about the issues that matter most to Bostonians.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey conceded in an emailed statement, congratulating Wu and Essaibi George and adding: “I am ... committed to ensuring a smooth transition for the next Mayor so that SHE will be able to hit the ground running.”
The fifth major candidate in the race — John Barros, who previously served as Boston's chief of economic development — thanked his staff late Tuesday night, writing on Twitter that “[t]his work will continue with all of you.” Barros consistently polled behind the four leading women going into Tuesday's election.
Dating back to John Phillips, who served as Boston’s first mayor in 1822 and 1823, every mayor of the city has been a white man.
Voters will choose between the two finalists on Nov. 2, and the winner will be inaugurated later that month.
Wu and Essaibi George last faced each other in the 2019 at-large City Council race, in which Boston voters could select up to four candidates. In that contest, Wu topped the ticket with 21% of the vote. Essaibi George finished second with 17%.
Wu's success Tuesday was not a surprise. She was first candidate to officially enter the race, back in September 2020, and pre-election polling consistently showed her in first place by a substantial margin.
Essaibi George’s path into November’s final election was more fraught. Early in the race, many political observers saw Janey — who, as then-city council president, automatically took over when Mayor Marty Walsh joined the Biden administration as labor secretary — as a shoo-in for one of the two top spots.
History may have informed the early assumption that Janey would cruise into the final. In 1993, when then-Mayor Ray Flynn became the Clinton Administration’s ambassador to the Vatican, City Councilor Tom Menino stepped into the acting mayor’s role. He was elected outright a few weeks later, and went on to run Boston for two decades.
But while Janey was celebrated early on for becoming the first Black woman to run Boston at length, she soon discovered that her incumbency, which lasted far longer than Menino’s, presented perils as well as possibilities.
It fell to Janey, for example, to respond to the scandal surrounding then-Police Commissioner Dennis White, who’d been abruptly appointed by Walsh near the end of his tenure. Within days, the Boston Globe reported that White had previously been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife. At the time, some advocates suggested that White, who is Black, was being subjected to a racial double standard. But after a lengthy review, Janey fired White in June.
In August, Janey was asked by a reporter about New York City’s plan to require proof of COVID vaccination for some indoor venues. In rejecting the idea — which Janey said could disproportionately impact Bostonians of color — she compared it to Donald Trump’s false claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, an analogy that many found problematic.
Janey's relations with her former colleagues also worsened after her ascension, with several councilors accusing her of a lack of responsiveness and collaboration. In June, the council passed a rules change that gave it the right to remove the council president at any time — including Janey, who retained that title after becoming acting mayor. The move was widely interpreted as the political equivalent of a brushback pitch, since removing Janey as council president would have removed her as acting mayor, too.
Pre-election polling showed Essaibi George and Janey in a three-way fight for second place with Councilor Andrea Campbell. Like Wu, Campbell entered the race in September 2020, when Walsh still seemed likely to seek re-election.
Campbell — who, like Janey, is a Black woman — emerged during the campaign as the acting mayor's most vocal critic. When Janey compared vaccine passports to birtherism, for example, Campbell called that response a “failure of leadership” that “put people’s health at risk.”
Dianne Wilkerson, the former state senator who led an effort to unite the Black electorate around one Black candidate, said it was too early to conclude that Janey and Campbell failed to advance because they split the Black vote.
“Today’s outcome clearly was not what we’d hoped to see,” Wilkerson said. “But I caution people about jumping to conclusions... To really understand what happened is going to take a deeper conversation.”
In addition to her bracing critiques of Janey, Campbell also ran as an enthusiastic proponent of police reform. She was the only candidate to make shifting funding from the Boston Police Department to social services a top priority, and she sparred on social media with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association about former BPPA head Patrick Rose, who’s been charged with multiple accounts of child sexual abuse.
Essaibi George, in contrast, is widely seen as the favored candidate of law enforcement. She was endorsed by former Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, Dennis White’s predecessor, and backed by a Gross-led super PAC whose funders include two other Boston police unions.
In addition, Essaibi George campaigned as someone who would extend Walsh’s legacy rather than challenging it. That point was driven home by a public endorsement from Walsh’s mother, Mary, who Essaibi George drove to early voting along with her own mother.
Wu, who topped the ticket, campaigned from the outset as a proponent of big, systemic change. Shortly before launching her campaign, she released a Green New Deal and Just Recovery plan linking issues such as climate change, public health, and Boston’s massive racial-wealth gap. She’s also advocating for the implementation of rent control in Boston, a step that would require action by the Massachusetts Legislature, and has proposed abolishing the Boston Planning and Development Authority.
Despite an unprecedented field in which all the top candidates were people of color, Tuesday’s preliminary election seems unlikely to reach 30% turnout based on early returns. In the 2013 preliminary election, which saw Walsh and former city councilor John Connolly advance to the final, 31% of voters cast ballots. But in 2017, just 14% of registered Boston voters showed up to send Walsh and former Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson into that year’s final.
The fact that no Black candidate will advance to the final is likely to elicit much discussion and debate between now and November. But at Janey's election-night gathering, Armani White — an organizer with Right to the City Vote, which backed Janey — had already arrived at a bleak interpretation.
“I think it suggests that the city is not ready to see a Black person lead it,” he said. “What I'm seeing right now [suggests] Boston is not ready or willing to follow Black leadership.”
GBH News' Tori Bedford, Esteban Bustillos, Matt Baskin and Saraya Wintersmith contributed reporting.