Politics

4 key policy differences that could drive the race between Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George

The head-to-head campaign to be Boston's next mayor is just getting under way. Here's a look at the disagreements that could drive the debate over the next seven weeks.

City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu. File

Battle lines are quickly forming in Boston’s general mayoral election — and there could be more than a few.

The results of the preliminary election Tuesday pit the race’s progressive standard bearer, Michelle Wu, against arguably the most moderate candidate in the race, Annissa Essaibi George. And before the night had ended, the two Democratic city councilors were already working to frame the ideological distinctions that could drive the debate over the next two months.

In her victory speech, Wu said the race was a “choice about whether City Hall tackles our biggest challenges with bold solutions or we nibble around the edges of the status quo.” Meanwhile, Essaibi George took aim at some of Wu’s signatures ideas, such as eliminating MBTA fares and reimplementing rent control, while arguing that she would focus on more tangible reforms, like improving schools and public safety.

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“This is the moment in Boston that our campaign and our coalition has been calling for for a long time,” Wu responded Wednesday.

But how are their proposals specifically different?

Here’s a look at the key areas where the final two mayoral candidates disagree:

Police reform

Throughout the race, Essaibi George set herself apart as the sole major candidate opposed to trimming the Boston Police Department’s budget in order to fund efforts to address root causes of crime, like poverty and mental illness.

And she has called for hiring around 300 additional police officers and increasing the diversity of the increasingly white, 2,000-member force, which she says has been a “national leader on community policing” but understaffed.

Wu, on the other hand, has pledged to leverage the city’s ongoing contract negotiations with Boston police unions to implement “structural change.”

According to her public safety plan, rather than hiring more members, Wu wants to “automate or civilianize” some office work currently done by sworn officers in order to save costs and to free up those officers for police work.

Her plan also calls for rules tying specific violations to transparent disciplinary actions and increased authority in the contract for the police commissioner to fire officers for serious offenses, without interference from outside arbitrators.

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With roughly a quarter of Boston police officers earning over $200,000 a year due to ballooning overtime costs, Wu also aims to cut down on that pay, which she says should be reserved for “genuinely unpredictable aspects of public safety work.”

Her plan calls for eliminating a requirement that policers officers get a minimum of four hours of overtime pay for any court visit, regardless of length. It also looks to crack down on overtime abuse with caps on the maximum amount of overtime an officer can earn.

Finally, Wu has long called for the creation of a separate response team of mental health clinicians, social workers, and other service providers to respond to nonviolent 911 calls related to homelessness, substance use, or mental health
crises (the city recently began piloting such an initiative).

Essaibi George, who was endorsed by former Boston police commissioner William Gross, is supportive of some reforms, too. She has also touted her early work to increase the number of clinicians who help Boston police with mental health calls.

Her plan calls for increased police training about racial bias, de-escalation, and responding to mental health crises. She also is proposing more transparent promotion guidelines and an early warning system for “problem officers.”

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To varying degrees, both candidates want to shift cops away from transportation-related work.

Due to racial profiling concerns, Wu has called for a team of “trained, unarmed civilian personnel” for routine traffic stops, like broken tail lights. Essaibi George doesn’t go that far, but her plan says that permit enforcement, blocked driveways, and parking complaints should instead be handled by the Boston Transportation Department.

Housing and development

Wu’s singular outspokenness in favor of reimplementing rent control, which has been banned in Massachusetts since 1994, increasingly faced criticism from her rivals in the waning weeks of the preliminary election — and immediately after.

“The mayor of Boston cannot mandate rent control,” Essaibi George said during her election night speech Tuesday, noting that any policy limiting how much landlords can increase rents would require a law change from the State House.

Essaibi George, whose husband is a developer and landlord, has opposed rent control, arguing instead that the city needs “solutions that get to the root of the problem,” such as better paths to homeownership, more affordable housing, and measures to close the racial wealth gap.

“While rent control appears to help existing tenants in the short term; in the long term, it decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and pushes people farther and farther away from our neighborhoods,” she told WBUR in June.

Wu has acknowledged that rent control wouldn’t address the region’s housing shortage or the long-term need to build more affordable units, but says it’s needed to ensure “families are not pushed out of the city” in the short run in the years it takes for that additional housing to be built.

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“Rent stabilization is not a generator of affordable housing, and over the long run, it has the opposite impact,” she told Boston.com this summer. “But it’s very important that, if we want to be a city where all income levels are represented, where we are not displacing families of color at an accelerating rate out of Boston, we need to take steps for immediate relief.”

While it would still need state approval, Wu says she would push for the change in coordination with Boston’s state delegation and neighboring mayors.

Wu has also called for abolishing the Boston Planning and Development Agency and replacing it with a new department that she says would be more transparent and focused on more comprehensive master planning.

Essaibi George’s housing plan would leave the BPDA intact, but create a separate planning office similarly focused on “forward-thinking development.” Her campaign also stresses that the office would be more proactive in seeking community input in projects, such as sending text alerts for public meetings.

However, the two candidates are more opposed when it comes to Boston’s recently imposed eviction moratorium. Wu had expressed support during a June forum for such a ban at the city level once the federal moratorium expired. Essaibi George said in June that she would oppose such a ban and criticized the move as a “a Band-Aid over a bullet hole,” arguing that city officials should distribute federal COVID-19 relief funds faster in order to help renters.

Back to school

The issue of how students get into Boston’s three elite exam schools proved to be a tumultuous one over the past 18 months.

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Amid concerns that students from lower-income communities of color were unable to compete with families with money to pay for things like private tutors, the Boston School Committee overhauled the admissions process this spring to take into account indicators of students’ disadvantaged backgrounds, in addition to grades and entrance exam scores.

Essaibi George, who supported keeping the exam-based process, blasted the reforms as “unclear” and “untested.” Wu supported the change, which she said would lead to “greater equity.

Both candidates have called for an exam that better reflects the city’s school curriculum, as well as improving the quality of schools across Boston.

However, they differed on how to better ensure the three schools were representative of students of all backgrounds. Wu has suggested using more “targeted criteria to account for different resource levels in a more granular way, such as census tract data.” Essaibi George’s plan calls for an exam prep voucher system to provide low-income students acccess to free tutoring.

They also diverge on how to reform the body responsible for those changes.

Essaibi George’s education plan calls keeping a fully appointed School Committee, but expanding the group to nine members and giving the City Council a say (currently, the mayor has appointment power for all seven seats). Under her plan, the mayoral appointees would be designated to represent specific groups, including families, teachers, and special education advocates.

Wu supports moving to a hybrid committee in which a majority of members are elected by voters (up until the 1990s, all School Committee members were elected). In a questionnaire last spring, Wu said the approach provides “democratic accountability,” while the additional appointed members “ensure representation of Boston’s diversity and expertise, and mayoral accountability.”

Climate and transportation

Both candidates agree about the pressing nature of climate change and the need to encourage more sustainable forms of transportation.

Where they differ is on the scale of action.

Wu has proposed an ambitious Green New Deal for Boston that calls for wielding a number of city-level tools to confront climate change, from budgets to zoning and land-use policies to contracting to taxation. She has also called for achieving carbon neutrality by 2040, a decade earlier than current plans.

Self-described as the “climate candidate” during the preliminary race, Wu has also championed calls to eliminate fares on the MBTA, beginning with fare-free pilots on bus routes that predominantly serve low-income riders.

Essaibi George has also expressed support for eliminating fares on select bus routes in underserved communities, but she has questioned the practicality of Wu’s calls for more expansive fare elimination (Wu says it would require funding from state and federal government).

Essaibi George has also criticized the climate change discussion for being driven by “wealthy white suburbanites.” During a forum this spring, she was the only mayoral candidate to not give climate change a 10 on a 1-to-10 scale of priority (she gave it an 8). Essaibi George argues that the issue, while “critical,” will take a backseat to everyday concerns, unless residents are engaged about its impacts.

“If we’re also worried about the quality of our schools, if we’re also worried about public safety and violence in our neighborhoods, if we’re also worried about whether or not we have a job tomorrow, if we can put food on the table for our family, climate is not going to be a priority,” Essaibi George recently told Boston.com.

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