Politics

Does growing up in Boston matter in the race to be the city’s mayor? Annissa Essaibi George says yes.

"I think it's relevant to a lot of voters."

Boston City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu chat at the end of a meeting Thursday. John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

In the race to be the city’s next mayor, does it matter that City Councilor Michelle Wu wasn’t “born and raised” in Boston?

Her general election rival, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, says yes.

During a GBH radio interview Thursday afternoon, Essaibi George was asked what separates herself from Wu. And while the two mayoral candidates share a number of policy differences, the Dorchester native began with several personal distinctions: her classroom experience as a teacher, her experience building a small business, and also the fact that she was “born and raised” in Boston.

Wu, on the other hand, grew up in Chicago, before moving to the Boston area to attend Harvard University from 2003 to 2007 (after a brief post-graduation return to Chicago, she moved back to Boston for law school in 2009).

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The implicit contrast was not missed by GBH host Jim Braude.

“Michelle Wu was born and raised in Chicago before she moved here,” Braude said. “Should that be a relevant consideration for voters come November 2?”

Essaibi George responded that “it’s relevant to me.”

“And I think it’s relevant to a lot of voters — whether or not they’re born and raised in this city — because I’ve seen this city for many, many years,” she said.

Essaibi George, 47, went on to list the range of local life experiences — from school to summer camp to student activism to teaching to running a business to coaching to community group involvement — that she said informs her work as a city councilor and would “certainly inform” her work if elected mayor.

“All of those things, all of those little experiences, have brought me to this moment,” Essaibi George said.

Essaibi George’s campaign said her comments were “solely about her own experiences” and not a knock on Wu’s upbringing.

And to be sure, both candidates are daughters of immigrants; Wu’s parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, while Essaibi George’s mother and father came to Boston from Poland and Tunisia, respectively.

Still, the contention that growing up in Boston was “relevant” in a city where 57 percent of residents were born outside Massachusetts elicited online criticism from Wu supporters accusing Essaibi George of the type of nativism that was once endemic to Boston’s politics.

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“Pushing rhetoric that someone born here, like me, somehow has more standing to run our city than them is ‘othering’ & wrong,” fellow City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who endorsed Wu earlier this week, tweeted in response Thursday.

Wu, 36, also responded on Twitter:

“Reminder: The Mayor of Boston needs to lead for ALL of us,” she wrote. “I’m ready to fight for every resident—whether you’ve been here since birth or chose to make Boston your home along the way.”

Essaibi George, who’s been on a listening tour this week with events in many of the city’s historically underserved neighborhoods, doesn’t disagree on the subject of inclusive leadership, according to her campaign. Rather, she argues that it’s the decades she’s spent in Boston’s neighborhoods that set her apart.

The back-and-forth comes as some pundits, somewhat derisively, describe the contest between Wu and Essaibi George as a race between New Boston and Old Boston. The more ideologically progressive Wu has pressed for “bold solutions” to challenges like affordable housing, while Essaibi George — who has the backing of police and firefighters unions — has cast herself as more “pragmatic.”

During the GBH interview, Essaibi George also argued that she has been more “present” in Boston’s communities than Wu as a city councilor (a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll earlier this month found that 11.6 percent of respondents had personally met Wu, compared to 6.8 percent who had met Essaibi George).

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“I’m very proud of that reputation of being present, of being engaged, of having those difficult conversations, of talking about not just the problems, but working every day to find the solution,” she said.

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