Politics

3 takeaways from the first Boston mayoral debate

With less than a week to go until the preliminary election, the five candidates sparred over the return to school, Mass. and Cass, and policing in the only TV debate of the race.

John Barros, Andrea Campbell, Kim Janey, Michelle Wu, and Annissa Essaibi George in the first debate of the Boston mayor's race Wednesday night. Mark Garfinkel / NBC10 Boston

After dozens of forums over the past several months, the historic 2021 race to be Boston’s next mayor had its first debate between the five candidates Wednesday night

And if anything, the event crystalized the impression — among pundits and perhaps candidates too — that next Tuesday’s preliminary election is shaping up to be a contest for the second-place spot to advance to the Nov. 2 finale.

With recent polls casting City Councilor Michelle Wu as the frontrunner, the debate Wednesday featured plenty of jabs traded between the four other candidates — most often directed at Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who became the first woman and first person of color to lead Boston after former mayor Marty Walsh decamped to Washington, D.C., in March.

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Janey used the debate Wednesday, which was televised on NBC Boston, to tout the slate of policies she’s put into action since taking office, but her position also made her the target for criticism on everything from the COVID-19 response to the city’s handling of Mass. and Cass to efforts to combat gun violence.

1. Janey’s confident about the return to school. Other candidates not so much.

Asked to grade the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the candidates’ answers appeared to hinge largely on whether they had served in the administration.

Wu gave the response a C+, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George gave it a C, and City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who has emerged as Janey’s most outspoken critic on the subject, graded it a D.

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John Barros, the city’s economic development chief under Walsh, gave the response a B, while Janey gave it an A-, citing figures that show 70 percent of Boston residents have gotten at least one shot. Campbell noted that some communities, like her neighborhood of Mattapan, have lagged behind citywide rates.

“We can change that by adopting some of these best practices,” she said, reiterating her call for vaccine passports, which Janey has opposed.

However, the candidates didn’t clash until the subject turned to the looming uncertainty over the beginning of the school year Thursday, which was only intensified this week after Janey and Boston Public Schools warned that a shortage of bus drivers could result in delays and canceled routes.

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Janey said Wednesday night that she was “encouraged” by an agreement reached between the bus drivers union and the school this week, and said she expects “all of our bus drivers back” on Thursday.

“I’m excited for a new school year, even though it will be difficult,” Janey said. “We will get through it.”

“I’ve got a lot of parents that have called me, and they’re not so confident,” Barros responded. “The acting mayor is pretty confident. I just remember talking to two bus drivers before getting here, and they’re not so confident. They’ve called this the worst of any school year that they’ve been a part of in terms of the chaos and information that’s been sent and what they’ve been given in terms of routes. They don’t know what’s going on.”

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Campbell called it “absolutely unacceptable” and said the city should have been more proactive amid the national bus driver shortage.

“In the middle of a pandemic, the last thing we want to do is add any additional stress or burden to our families,” she said.

Janey said she remains “encouraged” ahead of BPS’s first day Thursday.

“I know that there’s a lot of anxiety around the first day of school,” she said. “And we all know that COVID has made things worse — every single issue in our city. But our bus drivers care about our kids, our teachers care about our kids, and everyone has been working hard to make sure that the first day of school goes off smoothly for our children.”

2. Essaibi George pins Mass. and Cass conditions on Janey’s City Council decision

The five candidates are mostly aligned about the urgency of addressing the crises of homelessness, violence, and drug use around the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which they say have worsened in the years since the bridge to Long Island, which had recovery programs and shelters, was demolished.

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Essaibi George, however, blame some of the situation on Janey’s decision in early 2020 as City Council president to dissolve the body’s Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health & Recovery, which she had chaired.

“We were focused on repairing the continuum of care, bringing together officials at the city level, at the state level, and agencies, as well as community based organizations, to do that work,” Essaibi George said.

“Unfortunately, then-Council President Janey didn’t think that committee deserved to exist anymore,” Essaibi George continued. “Since then, things have fallen apart and have gotten to a breaking point.”

The dissolution came amid a larger reorganization of City Council committees. At the time, Janey told the Boston Herald that a new Committee on Public Health would handle addiction and mental health issues and the Committee on Housing & Community Development would deal with homelessness.

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Janey argued Wednesday that the reorganization proved timely.

“The committee that I formed was on public health, and six weeks later we were hit with a global pandemic,” Janey said. “We put all of the health committee work together in one committee, and fortunately we did that.”

Most of the candidates have called for decentralizing recovery services that are now clustered around Mass. and Cass, amid stalled efforts to rebuild Long Island Bridge.

Janey also pushed for a regional response to the opioid epidemic.

“This can’t just fall on Boston,” she said.

3. Janey knocks ’empty rhetoric’ on plans to combat violence

While Boston has been an exception to the recent national increase in street violence, candidates vowed to drive down crime further, while implementing police reforms.

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Campbell argued she had the most specific plan in the race.

“I don’t want to just reduce incidents of violence in the city of Boston,” she said. “I want to eradicate them. And how do we do that? By actually restructuring our police department in such a way that we send officers, particularly those in specialized units, back to the districts so that every neighborhood has adequate coverage and enough officers to actually walk the beat and do community policing.”

Campbell argued that the approach would save the city money and allow officials to redirect funds to address root causes of violence like mental health, poverty, and trauma.

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“No other candidate has such a comprehensive plan, and no one has exercised the political courage to take on this issue,” Campbell said.

Janey pushed back that her administration’s plan was reaping real-world results. Compared to the previous five-year average, the acting mayor said that in 2021 homicides were down by 32 percent, fatal shootings were down by 50 percent, and gun arrests were up by 26 percent.

“My plan has been working, but we’ve got to do more,” Janey said, pointing to her efforts to invest the city’s newly created police accountability office and a co-responder program for mental health-related 911 calls.

“It is not enough just to have empty rhetoric,” Janey said. “We have to reimagine how we do this work.”

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In response, Barros suggested that Janey was coasting off the work of the Walsh administration, noting that he was unaware of her anti-violence plan (Janey announced said plan in late May).

“We know, during the seven years of the Walsh administration, that crime was down and arrests were down,” Barros said. “It wasn’t a coincidence. It was because we helped to attract 140,000 new jobs for the city — good jobs. We helped to invest in the root causes of violence, making sure that we had supports for trauma. We helped to move people into affordable housing … That’s why the mayor is able to talk about those numbers.”

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Still, Janey said those reductions weren’t enough.

“This isn’t about data points,” she said. “We need to do more to make sure that we don’t see violence at all.”

Wu also argued that the city should be implementing reforms through the current contract negotiations with the police union, while Essaibi George distinguished herself as the only candidate opposed to cutting the police budget.

“I am committed to having a safe city, not defunding public safety in this city,” she said. “We can talk about real reallocation, we can talk about reinvestment; that’s just another word for defunding public safety in this city.”

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