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Two women of color will compete to become Boston’s next mayor, marking historic shift

Boston City Council member Michelle Wu, a mayoral candidate, speaks to reporters outside City Hall on Sept. 15. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

Boston voters will choose between two women of color when they elect their next leader — a contest that has always been won by White men, until now — after Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George emerged victorious from a diverse slate of candidates in a preliminary election Tuesday.

The race is a milestone that reflects a shift in the city’s demographics and self-image. It also sets up a showdown between the progressive and moderate factions of the Democratic Party.

Wu, a Harvard-educated daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, is a longtime city council member. A proponent of rent control, free public transportation and a new Green Deal for the city, she counts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as a supporter and mentor.

Essaibi George, who identifies as Arab American, grew up in the diverse neighborhood of Dorchester, where she was raised by immigrant parents from Tunisia and Poland. Although her candidacy is pathbreaking, analysts say her base of support — particularly among older, moderate Democrats and White voters — represents more continuity.

“No matter what, Boston will be a different place come November,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political strategist. “The question is just how different.”

The mayoral race heated up after Mayor Marty Walsh (D) was nominated to serve as labor secretary by President Biden in January. The diversity of the field — the five leading candidates were all non-White — is the culmination of decades of changing demographics in Boston and years of effort by women and people of color to occupy more municipal offices.

Non-Hispanic White residents now make up fewer than 50 percent of Boston’s population, according to the 2020 Census, and the shares of Asian and Latino residents have continued to grow. As recently as 2000, White residents were still about half the city’s population, a figure that has dropped to less than 45 percent.

Marsh said the upcoming race between Wu and George in November is in some ways “new Boston versus old Boston.” Historically, the city’s voters have gravitated toward the more moderate candidate, she added. But “all the conventions are out the window” in the next phase of the election.

For some of Boston’s Black residents, the results of the preliminary election were disappointing. Two Black women, acting mayor Kim Janey and City Council member Andrea Campbell, each received nearly 20 percent of the votes, behind George’s 22 percent (Wu won 33 percent).

Janey is a former community organizer, and Campbell is a lawyer who won the endorsement of the Boston Globe and proposed reallocating 10 percent of the police budget.

“Boston is not a city yet that is prepared to move a Black candidate into City Hall permanently without a major struggle,” said Dianne Wilkerson, a former state senator who supported Janey. Having “two really good Black candidates in the race at the same time” ended up diluting the Black community’s influence, she said.

Imari Paris Jeffries is the executive director of King Boston, an organization that is building a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the center of the city. He said that in conversations with friends about the results, there was a “sense of sadness and definitely missed opportunity.” In a place like Boston — where memories of violent opposition to school desegregation are still fresh — having a Black mayoral candidate in the final contest “would have been monumental.”

Wu’s victory is a watershed for Boston’s growing Asian community and reflects the swelling numbers of young, highly educated people settling in the city. Wu, 36, made a jubilant speech to supporters outside a brewery late Tuesday night after claiming victory. “My parents came to this country not speaking English, nothing in their pockets,” she said. “They never could have imagined that one day their daughter would get to seek the office of mayor of Boston.”

Wu appeared to benefit from the support of younger and highly educated voters who liked her promise to tackle the rising cost of housing in the city through some form of rent control.

Her campaign was buoyed by the relationships forged during her long tenure on the City Council and her zest for retail politics.

“She is a young woman of color who pounds the pavement in a way that is a very traditional style of politics and politicking,” said Katharine Lusk, co-director of the Boston University Initiative on Cities. Wu is a reliable fixture at festivals, farmers markets and restaurant openings across Boston, Lusk said.

“She’s done so much in the community,” said Lucius Wilder, 56, who came with his 30-year-old daughter to cast his vote for Wu on Tuesday in Dorchester. “We think she’ll be the best at solving issues like affordable housing.”

Wu’s opponent is Essaibi George, 47, a former high school teacher and the owner of a shop selling yarn and fabrics. She recalled that when she expressed an interest in politics as a teenager, her father, Ezzedine, told her that “an Arab girl with an Arab name will win nothing in this country” — something that ultimately inspired her to prove him wrong.

On Wednesday, Essaibi George rejected the characterization of the upcoming race as a clash between progressive and moderate visions for the city, calling such labels “lazy.” During the campaign, she emphasized her plans to tackle homelessness and improve Boston’s public schools.

She has also called for the hiring of more police officers and won the endorsement of William Gross, the city’s former police chief, as well as the support of unions representing firefighters and nurses. She is an ally of Walsh, Boston’s popular former mayor — and even accompanied Walsh’s mother, whom she has known for years, to the ballot box.

On Wednesday morning, one of the fault lines in the upcoming race was already evident. As Wu greeted commuters in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, she spoke about the need to “tackle big, bold challenges” and not “just nibble around the edges of the status quo.” Essaibi George later countered Wu’s comment, telling reporters that many of Wu’s plans are “very unrealistic.” The two women — who serve together on the City Council — later shared a hug ahead of a meeting of the panel.

Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff in Boston contributed to this report.