BOSTON — With Boston's preliminary mayoral election just a month off, voters are on the verge of making a historic decision by narrowing the field of five major candidates — all of whom are people of color.
Since it first started electing mayors nearly 200 years ago, Boston has only tapped white men to lead the city — a streak certain to end this year, a reflection in part of the city's changing demographics.
With the departure of former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh earlier this year to become President Joe Biden's labor secretary, the city has already witnessed a political first — the elevation of Kim Janey as acting mayor, the first woman and Black person to hold the office.
But Janey, who as city council president stepped into the office, is facing stiff competition as she tries to win the post outright. Three fellow members of the Boston City Council — Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell and Anissa Essaibi George — are also vying to become mayor, as is John Barros, Walsh's former economic development chief. Each of the candidates identifies as a person of color.
It's a monumental shift. Boston has wrestled with racial strife throughout its history, including the turmoil over school busing in the 1970s and the case of Charles Stuart, believed to have shot and killed his pregnant wife in 1989 while trying to blame the killing on an unknown Black man, inflaming racial tensions before jumping to his death from the Tobin Bridge.
All the candidates are Democrats, though mayoral races in Boston do not include party primaries and a Republican has not been elected to lead the city since 1930. The top vote-getters in the Sept. 14 preliminary election will go head-to-head on Nov. 2.
Among the challenges facing the city are soaring housing costs, transportation woes, racial injustice and policing, schools and the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most pressing is the cost of housing, which is rapidly outpacing the financial means of many tenants and prospective homeowners. The candidates agree there is a housing crisis, but offer a variety of solutions.
Wu is pushing to revive a version of rent control, or rent stabilization, which was banned statewide by a 1994 ballot question. The move would essentially limit yearly residential rent increases.
"Here in Boston, rents are going up and homeownership is going down," Wu, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, said in a recent email. "The racial wealth gap has continued to widen, and families across our city are getting pushed out of their neighborhoods."
Other candidates have offered different approaches.
Janey has pushed to increase down payment assistance for income-eligible, first-time homebuyers, while Campbell said she'd quickly begin developing 100 city-owned lots.
Essaibi George said she'd also support assistance with down payments and closing costs while focusing on the construction of housing for working families. Barros has advocated neighborhood investment funds that would let local residents buy into new development.
"We have the tools to make affordable housing for all a reality in Boston," Barros, who is of Cape Verdean descent, said in a recent article in Commonwealth Magazine. "We won't get there by locking the status quo in place and pitting current renters against future residents."
Janey has tried to use her position to cement an image as mayor, but the attention can also backfire.
She was recently faulted for invoking slavery and lies about about Barack Obama's citizenship pushed by Donald Trump when discussing New York's effort to require people prove they've been vaccinated before entering indoor public settings.
"There's a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers whether we're talking about this from the standpoint of, you know, as a way to, after, during slavery, post slavery, as recent as, you know, what the immigrant population has to go through here," Janey said. "We heard Trump with the birth certificate nonsense."
Her rivals were quick to criticize Janey, with Campbell calling the comments "ridiculous."
"There is already too much misinformation directed at our residents about this pandemic, particularly for Black and brown residents," said Campbell, who is Black. "It is incumbent upon us as leaders not to give these conspiracies any oxygen."
Janey later walked back the comparisons. "I wish I had not used those analogies," she said.
Wu has said that as mayor, she would require proof of vaccination in crowded public spaces. Essaibi George has said she'd like to avoid a mandate. Campbell has announced a vaccine mandate for her campaign staff. And Janey has said all 18,000 city employees will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.
While Boston continues to struggle with its past, it has also grown more diverse. The latest U.S. Census statistics show residents who identify as white make up 44.6% of the population compared to Black residents (19.1%), Latino residents (18.7%) and residents of Asian descent (11.2 percent).
Essaibi George has also found herself under scrutiny after The Boston Globe reported her city council office tried to undermine a building project that would have blocked the view of a luxury condominium building owned by her husband.
In an interview with GBH News, Essaibi George, who describes herself as a first generation Arab-Polish American, said her husband's name never came up in the municipal hearings and she only became aware of his involvement after being quizzed by reporters.
"I immediately consulted with counsel and began to take those necessary steps with the ethics commission," she said, adding that her opposition to the building project had nothing to do with her husband, but reflected community opinion.