The Washington Post

Boston’s quiet revolution


In a few minutes, 36-year-old Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu would take the stage at an outdoor victory party in her Roslindale neighborho­od to claim the top runoff spot in this fall’s election for mayor.

This is a city that has long been internatio­nal and proudly parochial, genteel and tough-as-nails, feminist in theory and male-dominated in its politics, liberal and — I’m being extremely polite — deeply divided by race. On a lovely Tuesday evening, as the votes in the nonpartisa­n contest slowly rolled in, it was witnessing a peaceful revolution.

Wu, the top finisher by a significan­t margin, is a Chicago-born lawyer and the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan. Coming in second and winning the right to be Wu’s challenger in November was Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, also the daughter of immigrants — a Tunisian father and a Polish mother.

Close behind Essaibi George were two Black women, Councilor Andrea Campbell and acting mayor Kim Janey.

You have no doubt already noticed that the top four are all women of color — this in a city that had never had a Black or female mayor until Janey assumed the job in an acting capacity after President Biden named former mayor Marty Walsh as his labor secretary.

The female council members, who had proudly dubbed themselves “sisters in service,” together amassed roughly 95 percent of the ballots. Most of the rest went to John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic developmen­t, who is Black.

The dispersion of the Black vote among three Black candidates — Campbell, Janey and Barros — almost certainly prevented one of them from making the runoff. Both Campbell and Janey, who nearly tied at just under 20 percent of the vote each, ran about three points behind Essaibi George.

Wu’s City Council colleague and supporter Lydia Edwards is another breakthrou­gh figure in a city that Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, one of the greatest NBA figures ever, once called “a flea market of racism.” Shortly before Wu addressed the crowd on Tuesday, she invoked the cinematic classic “Good Will Hunting” to sum up the new Boston.

It is, Edwards said, no longer “a Ben Affleck/matt Damon cliche. I feel I am part of Boston and accents from around the world are Boston.”

In truth, she notes, the city began changing demographi­cally and politicall­y long ago. State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a Democrat and a Wu supporter, said the transforma­tion goes beyond its growing population of color. Old White ethnic enclaves, neighborho­ods that were once overwhelmi­ngly Irish or Italian, are also breaking up.

And as in many other prosperous neweconomy cities, young, affluent newcomers have driven up the cost of housing. “Working-class people of many background­s have found themselves pushed out,” Edwards said.

These day-to-day problems will bring the race back down to earth over the next seven weeks. The choice between Wu and Essaibi George will, as the Boston Globe’s veteran columnist Adrian Walker wrote, be a test of how much change voters really want.

Wu, who ran about 11 points ahead of Essaibi George on Tuesday and led her by 20 points in one head-to-head poll, is the favorite. Endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-mass.), her former law professor, Wu is a proud progressiv­e who built ties all over the city and is the favorite of the city’s large cohort of under-40 voters.

Essaibi George is the candidate for old-school Boston, dubbed the race’s “moderate” (though she called labels “lazy”), trying to replicate the coalition that elected Walsh. (He has endorsed no one, but his mother appeared at the polls with Essaibi George.) She sent a message by holding her victory party at the venue favored by Walsh in past campaigns, and she spoke to a crowd dotted with union members. She secured her runoff spot by winning big in the traditiona­lly highturnou­t, White working-class and middle-class precincts in Dorchester, South Boston and West Roxbury.

Wu and Essaibi George, 47, signaled they saw their confrontat­ion in similar terms.

Wu said voters had to decide whether they wanted “bold solutions” or “we nibble around the edges of the status quo.”

Essaibi George, who has support of many police officers and firefighte­rs and has promised to put more cops on the street, dubbed herself “pragmatic,” took a shot at Wu’s “academic” ideas, and told reporters on Wednesday that many of Wu’s plans “unfortunat­ely are very unrealisti­c.”

“You will not find me on a soapbox,” Essaibi George told her supporters on election night.

Essaibi George will court more conservati­ve voters while trying not to look like a conservati­ve. Wu will try to unite progressiv­e voters, many of whom supported Campbell, and reach beyond her base by cultivatin­g an image of quiet, open-spirited competence.

This is what change usually looks like. The old rarely disappears entirely, all of a sudden. But four women in Boston have shown the world that the cradle of the American Revolution still has some rebellion in it.

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