It’s a ‘Brawl in Beantown,’ as Progressive Allies Clash in the Boston Mayor’s Race

For years, they were “sisters in service,” taking on the old guard and boosting one another’s careers. A rare open mayoral seat changed that.

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BOSTON — Not so long ago, Boston’s leading progressives called themselves “sisters in service,” linking arms to take on this city’s overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male old guard.

For a time, they headlined one another’s fund-raisers. They marched together at the head of parades. They even shared a campaign headquarters, unthinkable in the sharp-elbowed history of this city’s politics.

But that time is over.

Over the last month, Boston’s mayoral election has become a fierce competition between four women of color, any of whom would represent a departure from this city’s norm.

With a preliminary election on Tuesday set to winnow the field to two, City Councilor Michelle Wu, a favorite of the city’s young left, appears poised to take one spot. The other is up for grabs, with sparks flying between the two Black front-runners, City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Kim Janey, the acting mayor.

The spectacle has elated some — a historic shift in the city’s leadership now seems almost inevitable — and discouraged others. Dennella Clark, a supporter of Ms. Janey’s, is upbeat about her candidate’s chances, but said the battery of attacks had been draining.

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From left, members of the Boston City Council, Lydia Edwards, Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi-George, Andrea Campbell, Ayanna Pressley and Kim Janey after a meeting in January 2018. Ms. Pressley is now in Congress, and Ms. Janey is the acting mayor.Credit… Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“It’s been worse than I expected,” said Ms. Clark, president of the Boston Arts Academy Foundation. “It’s different because it’s rivals in the Black community and it’s women. I just really didn’t expect the women to be going after each other.”

Alisa Drayton, who is supporting Ms. Campbell, said the close race was nerve-racking for many Black voters, who have waited decades for a chance to elect one of their own.

The city she grew up in, during the busing crisis of the 1970s, was so blighted by racism that she could not safely walk through some of its white enclaves, she said. The election of a Black woman, she said, could finally free Boston of that old stain.

“To see one of our own, born-and-raised Black women to go to that runoff, it’s important,” said Ms. Drayton, a financial services professional.

The race was upended in January, when President Biden selected Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, as labor secretary, and he — the lone candidate representing the city’s white, working-class, pro-union tradition — bowed out of the race.

That left the women. Two formidable progressives had already begun campaigns — Ms. Wu, 36, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has foregrounded policies on climate, transportation and housing; and Ms. Campbell, 39, a Princeton-educated lawyer who grew up in Roxbury, the historic center of Black Boston, and who has pledged to challenge the city’s police.

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Michelle Wu, a candidate, joined canvassers in Boston’s Copley Square in May.Credit…Philip Keith for The New York Times

Then Ms. Janey, 56, a longtime community activist and president of the City Council, was vaulted into a leading position as acting mayor, bathed in positive press coverage as the city’s first Black and female mayor. Another strong contender emerged in City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, the daughter of Tunisian and Polish immigrants, who has positioned herself as a moderate, promising more harmonious dealings with the police and developers.

A fifth candidate, John Barros, who is the son of Cape Verdean immigrants and served as Mr. Walsh’s economic development chief, has struggled to get traction.

From the outset, it promised to be a bruising race. The number of undecided voters was small, and the ideological differences between top candidates narrow, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

“If you’re a strategist, you can’t just convince the undecided, you have to knock down someone,” he said. “You’re going to have this elbowing that’s going to accelerate into a street fight.” As summer turns into fall, he said, “It’s going to be a brawl in Beantown.”

‘The umbrella is gone’

The glow of Ms. Janey’s swearing-in had barely faded when her City Council rivals began to jab her.

Ms. Campbell was particularly aggressive, delivering a battery of crisp news conferences in which she urged Ms. Janey to release legal documents in a police scandal, make deeper cuts to the police budget, and move faster to mandate vaccines for city employees.

Ms. Janey’s City Council colleagues quickly cooled to their new mayor, complaining that she was imperious and unresponsive in her new role; in June they voted 10-1 to give themselves the right to remove her as council president, a largely symbolic step that showed they could remove her as mayor.

As a relative newcomer to city politics, Ms. Janey may have been viewed as “skipping the line,” said Erin O’Brien, a professor at University of Massachusetts Boston.

“She’s been under the umbrella of the council, that sisterhood, and now the umbrella is gone,” she said.

Ms. Janey has been cautious in her new role, sidestepping hot-button issues that could hurt her in the general election, and remaining largely scripted in public appearances.

She was gaining ground this summer, outpacing her rivals in fund-raising, when she made a misstep: Asked about New York-style vaccine passports, she batted away the idea, comparing them to racist policies that required Black people to show their identification papers.

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Kim Janey was sworn in as the first female and first Black mayor of Boston by Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd at City Hall in March.Credit…Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Ms. Campbell zeroed in on the comment. She held a news conference the next morning, saying Ms. Janey’s remarks “put people’s health at risk, plain and simple,” then highlighted the remark in a fund-raising letter, then made an appearance on MSNBC.

Her energy and confidence impressed the editorial board of The Boston Globe, which endorsed her last week, praising her “restless impatience with the status quo and a willingness to charge headfirst into political risks.”

Ben Allen, a Janey supporter, complained this week that a “relentless stream of criticism from other progressives” had clouded Ms. Janey’s achievements as acting mayor, which includes the introduction of a mental health crisis response force and quadrupling the assistance provided to first-time home buyers.

“She’s not only doing a good job, she’s enacting a progressive agenda,” said Mr. Allen, 41, a mathematics professor.

Poll results released on Tuesday by Suffolk University showed that Ms. Janey remained in second place, but suggested her momentum was flagging, with 20 percent of likely voters, a 2-point drop since June. Ms. George and Ms. Campbell have both gained support, rising to 19 and 18 percent.

Ms. Wu, the only candidate not born in Boston, has built a commanding lead of 31 percent, cobbling together a coalition that underlines how swiftly this city has changed: She is dominating with Asian American voters, voters who have recently moved to Boston, highly educated voters, and voters who identify as left-leaning.

“She lights up the board demographically,” Mr. Paleologos said.

Boston is growing, according to recent census data, while its percentage of non-Hispanic white residents is declining, dipping from 47 percent in 2010 to less than 45 percent now. The city’s Black population is also declining, from about 22 percent in 2010 to 19 percent now. There is swift growth in its Asian and Hispanic communities.

Although Ms. Wu has benefited from a young, energized base — elements of the “Markeyverse,” which fueled the surprise re-election of Senator Ed Markey, reunited into a “Wuniverse” — she could encounter headwinds in the general election because of her positions on housing and development, like her support of rent control.

It is a departure, in itself, that so much of this race has centered on policy. Boston’s campaigns have long turned on ethic rivalries, first between Anglo-Protestants and Irish Catholics, then drawing in racial minorities as those populations increased.

Boston’s mayors relied so heavily on turnout from ethnic enclaves that they had no need to build a multiethnic coalition by presenting a bold vision, the way Fiorello LaGuardia did in New York, said the historian Jason Sokol, author of “All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics From Boston to Brooklyn.”

“They did not have to express any vision, nor did they end up governing with much vision,” he said.

The results of Tuesday’s preliminary election could guide the city into very different matchups for a November general election, including one that pits Ms. Wu against Ms. Essaibi George, who draws her core support from white neighborhoods.

Ms. Clark said she feared the battle between the two Black candidates could lead in that direction, closing a rare window of opportunity for the city, whose Black population is gradually waning with the rising cost of housing.

“I firmly believe, if Kim does not stay in there, we will not see a Black elected mayor in the city of Boston,” she said.

Wilnelia Rivera, a political consultant who supports Ms. Wu, but has also worked closely with Ms. Janey, said it had been difficult for many activists and campaign workers to make a choice.

“I lost some friends along the way because of it,” she said. But she added that even those bruises were a marker of something positive: that the center of power in Boston had moved.

“It is a triumph, and when I’m in calls now with colleagues in other parts of the country and talk about the Boston race, they’re flabbergasted,” she said. “The transformation that has happened here is very real, and it’s happening in real time.”

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