City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu faced off in their first one-on-one mayoral debate Wednesday night — and the event was not short in contrasts.
From police reform to housing to trade fairs and Cass to leadership style, the two election candidates made sharp distinctions. And with opinion polls suggesting she has to deal with the ground, it was often Essaibi George on the attack.
“I think there is a very clear distinction,” she said after emphasizing her record of being “engaged” and “present” in society.
“It’s so important to think boldly, and I do that every single day,” Essaibi George said. “I also do the work every single day.”
Wu objected that both candidates — both of whom are Democratic major city councilors — have been present in the community, but that the current approach has not addressed worsening problems such as housing and homelessness.
“We are in a moment where we are waiting and sitting back and hoping other levels of government or slow pleasant talks will not interrupt it anymore,” Wu said.
A clash over housing and displacement
On the housing issue, both candidates agreed on how important it was to address Boston affordability crisis – with slightly different emphases.
Essaibi George called for greater investment in first aid and public housing for low-income families. Wu, on the other hand, focused on tenants, arguing that the city “should play a much more proactive role in managing resources and keeping people in their communities”, as well as simplifying the processes of building cheaper housing.
That made Essaibi George aim at Wu candid support for rent control, after WBZ host Jon Keller, who moderated the debate, noted that landlords who own only one property accounts for 68 percent of residential rental properties in Boston.
“I would very clearly say that Councilor Wu – Michelle – does not believe in the power of the small landlord,” said Essaibi George, arguing that rent control would “create further disinvestment in our city” that would push residents out.
“Rent control is not the answer,” she said. “That’s not the solution to the challenge here in the city.”
Wu responded that “we can not be afraid and listen to scary tactics” and stressed that residents already fear displacement due to rising rents. Wu made it clear that she would pursue a multi-pronged approach to creating cheaper housing, but that rent control was needed in the short term to limit displacement.
Implementing such a policy would depend on state lawmakers approving legislation that would repeal — or at least grant Boston an exemption from — the voter-approved ban on rent control throughout Massachusetts. Wu – who, unlike Essaibi George, has been publicly approved by over 20 state legislators – said she would work with State House partners on the issue.
“It’s not enough just to reject politics because it’s too complicated or we’re afraid of what the unintended consequences might be,” she said. “Let’s have that conversation. Let’s make sure everything’s on the table. ”
Essaibi George argues that she is in fact the leader of police reform
The two candidates also clashed on the issue of policing.
Essaibi George, who has called adds 300 officers to Boston Police Department and spoke out against so-called efforts to defeat the police, has gained a reputation as the more police-political candidate in the race.
But she also said Wednesday that she would fully implement recommendations made a year ago by a task force of police chairman in city order and pointed to her work to increase the number of social workers helping police respond to mental health calls from two to 19.
“That’s the job I’d led as a member of Boston City Council,” she said, adding later that “Michelle has not led to the necessary reforms.”
Wu responded that she was “grateful” for Essaibi George’s leadership on the subject, but that “going from two to 19 clinicians” did not address the broader need for police reform in a city of hundreds of thousands of residents.
“We must be fearless in achieving the change that our residents deserve,” Wu said, adding that the city should “lean in” on a pilot program launched by Acting Mayor Kim Janey to get EMTs and psychiatric employees to respond – without police – to 911 calls involving mental health issues.
Essaibi George argued that the pilot was a “product of my work in the Boston City Council.” She also criticized Wu for her vote against the city budget last summer, which she said would have resulted in the loss of 43 EMTs and paramedics (Essaibi George has also has been approved by the local EMS union).
Wu shot back that Essaibi George’s comments “were simply not true”; other city councilors had said at the time that the budget proposal was never in doubt.
“We do not need false choices that set our residents against each other or underestimate what is possible for this city,” Wu said Wednesday night.
How urgent is it in the fair and Cass?
Both candidates also stressed the urgency of dealing with the crisis of homelessness, addiction and violence around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, but differed on the details.
Asked about recent proposals to commit homeless individuals in a repurposed South Bay jail or former Shattuck Hospital in Franklin Park, Wu said she was “open to conversations about both.” However, she stressed that her focus is on revising all empty city-owned buildings within her first 100 sayings as mayor to see if they could be retrofitted into supportive housing.
Essaibi George said the city should “explore” using the South Bay Detention Center as long as it was a “public health inspectorate.” She also said “we need Shattuck” as well as rebuilding the bridge to Long Island, which used to host recovery services, until the bridge was torn down for safety reasons in 2014, which many see as a worsening factor in the deteriorating conditions at the fair and Cass.
“We can not wait until the first 100 days of any mayoral administration are over,” Essaibi George said. “This is work that needs to happen today.”
Wu pushed back the rebuilding of the Long Island Bridge – an effort currently captured by legal challenges from the city of Quincy – can take up to 10 years. Wu said it would be “much more” quick to rehabilitate residential buildings or enable ferry service to Long Island, which Essaibi George has opposed.
Wu added that there has been “incredible frustration” among community members over the current approach. Essaibi George replied that the efforts under way by former Mayor Marty Walsh had “stalled” under Janey, to which Wu replied, “we should not point fingers, but make sure to continue building [and] draw on all the resources we have. ”
Later asked to assess Walsh’s record, Essaibi George said the fellow in Dorchester was a “good mayor”, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wu praised Walsh, now the U.S. Secretary of Labor, as a “strong leader of our city.”
But she again stressed her dissatisfaction with the current course.
“Over the last decade, Boston has experienced tremendous pressure on our residents – our housing crisis, the pandemic, the jobs, the transportation system, our schools,” Wu said. “I want to make sure we don’t just keep taking baby steps toward where we are going.”
The two candidates will meet again in less than a week for their second debate next Tuesday, October 19 at. 19.00 on NBC Boston.
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