Boston City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu drew sharp distinctions between their campaigns as they faced off Wednesday in the first head-to-head televised debate of the final stretch of Boston's mayoral contest.
Whoever wins Nov. 2 will make history as the first woman and first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston.
On the issue of housing, Essaibi George criticized Wu's proposal to bring back rent control after voters backed a 1994 ballot question banning the policy statewide.
Essaibi George said Wu is making promises she cannot deliver on as mayor and that any change in rent control policy would be up to state lawmakers.
She also said rent control could harm smaller landlords who are key to providing housing.
"Rent control is not the answer. It is not the fix to the challenges here in the city," Essaibi George said, adding the city should focus on other strategies like helping potential homeowners with their initial down-payment.
"Rent control has failed," she added.
Wu said the housing situation is so dire the city needs bold answers, like rent control. Wu, who also backs down-payment assistance, said there are residents across the city afraid they can't afford to stay in the neighborhoods they helped build.
"It's not enough to sit back and wait while people get pushed out," she said during the debate on WBZ-TV. "We need rent stabilization."
The two also clashed on the best way to help respond to an area of the city near the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard with a tent city that's become the region's most visible symbol of the opioid epidemic.
Essaibi George said the city needs to look at a range of choices, from finding a place to help house the people there to rebuilding a bridge to Long Island that was demolished in 2015 after it was deemed unsafe. City officials want to open a substance use recovery center on the island.
"We have to act," she said. "It could be my child. It could be Michelle's child tonight in a tent set on fire."
Wu said she also believes the city needs to act quickly. She said in her first 100 days she would audit every city-owned building to see if there are housing opportunities for the people sleeping in tents.
"We need to move quickly to have a public health led approach," she said, adding the proposal to rebuild the bridge to Long Island, which has run into opposition from neighboring Quincy, is a multi-year project at best.
The two also sparred on other issues, such as education and policing.
Both candidates backed efforts to have mental health officials aid police responding to emergency calls that might include people with mental health issues.
Wu, whose mother struggles with mental health challenges, said she's "felt the terror of what could go wrong with an armed police officer" responding to a call. Essaibi George said as a member of the city council she helped push for the extra support for police.
Wu's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. Essaibi George describes herself as a first-generation Arab-Polish American. Throughout its long history, Boston has elected only white men to the top office.
The winning candidate will be sworn in Nov. 16, just two weeks after the election.
The city's acting mayor, Kim Janey, was sworn in March 24 as the Boston's first female and first Black mayor after former Mayor Marty Walsh stepped down to become U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Joe Biden.
Wu, 36, and Essaibi George, 47, defeated other mayoral hopefuls — including Janey — in a preliminary election last month meant to winnow the field to two. All are Democrats. Mayoral races in Boston do not include party primaries.
Wu, who has led the race in recent polls, has racked up a series of high-profile endorsements, including from Janey, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., a former member of the Boston City Council. Essaibi George has pulled in endorsements from a range of labor unions.
Essaibi George, a lifelong resident of the city who taught at East Boston High School, has also said Wu's Chicago roots are relevant to a lot of voters. Wu was born in Chicago and moved to Boston to attend Harvard University and Harvard Law School. Essaibi George has stressed her Boston roots.
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