Michelle Wu
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu speaks on behalf of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, during the presidential campaign in Manchester, N.H. on January 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

The base of the Democratic Party is urban. Voters of both parties in the swingy suburbs may decide national elections, but voters in America’s cities are overwhelmingly Democratic, and they decide the direction of the Democratic Party.

In 2021, moderate Democrats have been defeating progressives in high-profile contests. In New York City’s mayoral primary this summer, former New York Police Department Captain Eric Adams, running on a tough-on-crime and tough-on-abusive-cops message, bested progressives like the civil rights activist and Bill de Blasio lieutenant Maya Wiley. In the special election to represent Ohio’s Eleventh Congressional District, which covers parts of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair Shontel Brown, favored by mainstream Democrats like House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, defeated Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign co-chair Nina Turner. In Louisiana’s Second Congressional District, connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Troy Carter won a special election with the help of the White House counselor and former Second District Congressman Cedric Richmond, topping a progressive darling backed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Boston, however, may break this trend with Tuesday’s nonpartisan preliminary mayoral election. The contest will narrow the general election field to two candidates. It pits progressive At-Large City Councilor Michelle Wu, Acting Mayor and City Council President Kim Janey, At-Large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, and Fourth District City Councilor Andrea Campbell. (A fifth candidate, John Barros, is polling in the low single digits.)

Three recent polls give Wu at least 30 percent of the vote in the five-candidate field. No survey gives any other candidate more than 20 percent. That makes the 36-year-old Harvard Law School graduate and Elizabeth Warren protégé poised not only to come in first on Tuesday but also to win the November general election—whether she faces off against a progressive like Janey or Campbell, or the race’s lone moderate, Essaibi George.

What is it about Boston that is giving Wu, an Asian American woman, the pole position? Sure, Boston’s racial composition has changed dramatically as its overall population has continued to increase. The city became majority-minority in 2000, and its share of white residents continues to decline, from 47 percent in 2010 to 44.6 percent in 2020. But that doesn’t explain Wu’s rise as much as it explains the entire transformation of Boston’s once lily-white political class. The 2019 municipal election created a majority-female and majority-nonwhite city council for the first time. The whole mayoral field is nonwhite, with the top four candidates all women from the council.

The particular demographic factor that’s buoying Wu is Boston’s high percentage of college graduates. About half of Boston’s adult population holds a four-year college degree. Their share of the electorate on Tuesday may be even higher. Rich Parr, research director for the MassINC Polling Group, told me that while estimating the contours of a preliminary election is tricky, his team weighted their recent poll to presume college graduates amounting to 52 percent of the turnout. And in that MassINC poll, Wu performs strongest among those highly educated voters.

With voters who have attained a bachelor’s degree, Wu leads her closest competitors, Janey and Campbell, by 18 points. But among those who have gone no further than high school, Wu’s lead is a slight three points over the lone moderate candidate, Essaibi George, a Boston University grad with a Polish mother and a Tunisian father. Essaibi George was an ally of Marty Walsh, the old-guard Irish American pol who left the mayoralty in March to become Joe Biden’s secretary of labor.

In New York City, only 38 percent of the population has a college diploma. After the New York City primary, Adams (who graduated from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) declared, with exuberance mixed with slight grammatical inelegance, “We don’t want fancy candidates. We want candidates that nails are not polished, they have calluses on their hands and are blue-collar people.”

But Boston voters may well want a fancy candidate. Wu, a Chicago native who first came to Massachusetts to attend Harvard, is the quintessential highly educated Boston transplant. All that’s missing is the WGBH tote bag. She would be the first Boston mayor who wasn’t born in Boston since the Maine native Malcolm Nichols was elected mayor in 1925.

The two African American women candidates, Campbell and Janey, have more compelling origin stories than Wu. Campbell’s father was an oft-imprisoned organized crime figure. When Campbell was just a baby, her mother died in a car crash on the way to visit her father in prison. In an echo of the famed Bulger clan, her brothers turned to crime (one died in prison) while she was a star student who graduated from Boston Latin School and then Princeton University.

In middle school, during the era of busing, Janey faced rocks and racist taunts. In high school, she became a teen mother but still managed to graduate. She eventually was accepted to Smith College, but her studies were interrupted to care for her ailing grandfather.

So if Wu wins both the preliminary and general elections, powered by college-educated voters, it won’t be because of her academic pedigree but because of her progressive pedigree with a field operation to match. She has won four citywide elections as an at-large city councilor, earning the most votes in the two most recent elections. (In Boston’s at-large councilor elections, the top four candidates all win seats.) Jon Keller, longtime Massachusetts political analyst for WBZ-TV, recalled for me that Wu “demonstrated how superior her field organization is back in May when she turned around her nomination papers overnight, while by comparison Kim Janey had to pay signature gatherers.”

Wu, who had Elizabeth Warren as a professor at Harvard Law and now has her endorsement, excites progressives by being an idea generator with an activist approach. For example, in July, Acting Mayor Janey, who took over the slot when Walsh left for Washington, launched a free-transit pilot program, ending fares on one bus route for three months. But that wasn’t enough to take the free-transit issue from Wu, who has been advocating for it citywide since 2018 and led a protest against fare hikes in 2019.

In another case of setting the pace, for much of the campaign Wu was the lone candidate championing rent control, which at present is banned statewide. In June, Janey expressed opposition to rent control, but in August shifted her stance to support “local control and local options.”

Progressive candidates can get tripped up by purity tests, but Wu hasn’t given her opponents much to work with. A recent Boston Globe column by Joan Vennochi questioned whether progressives should “trust” Wu because in 2014, she voted for Bill Linehan, an “old-school conservative pol,” for city council president. Scam Tarly, who talks Massachusetts politics on the We Need Some Milk podcast and supports Wu, said to me about the Vennochi charge, “If that is the only thing that you got, I don’t give a damn.”

At the same time, Wu does not refer to herself as a “socialist,” nor does anyone else running. (Boston Democratic Socialists of America is not endorsing any of the mayoral candidates.) Wu has been able to dominate the left flank without getting tangled up in squabbles over labels.

And on top of all that, Wu is good on the stump. “She is a very impressive one-on-one campaigner, personable, smart,” Keller said. “She’s the real deal.”

If moderates are going to notch another urban win, their hopes lie in Wu’s fellow at-large councilor Annissa Essaibi George. She is the only candidate who opposes diverting police department funds into social services, and instead calls for increasing the number of police officers. In July, she wrote an op-ed for the conservative Boston Herald newspaper calling for a bigger police department. She won the endorsement of Boston’s first African American police commissioner, William Gross, who is now featured in an ad for her. That could help her win crucial votes among the older, more moderate segments of the Black community.

She needs the help; of the top four women, polls show that she is the only one failing to get a double-digit percentage of the Black vote. She might get the votes to make it to the next round, but winning the general election would be tough without attracting more Black support.

She is also standing alone among the field in opposition to a recently changed admissions policy for the city’s elite “exam schools”—an issue that’s reverberating in blue strongholds like New York City and northern Virginia, where fights over selective high schools have descended into screaming matches at school board meetings. To increase admissions by African American and Latino students, the city’s school committee voted to replace a system that ranked all students by entrance exam results and grades with a plan that first separates students into “eight tiers of census tracts grouped together based on socioeconomic factors,” then admits the top students from each tier.

While the other candidates embraced the change as a positive step toward racial equity, Essaibi George called the process “hasty” and “not informed by families across the city.” This isn’t Boston’s 1970s busing crisis, but it’s a real fissure, nonetheless.

Keller, the analyst, believes that Essaibi George’s rivals have “sort of inexplicably allowed” her to have the moderate lane “all to herself.” He notes that polls show voters hold Boston cops “in remarkably high esteem,” fitting her pro–police expansion stance. And he thinks her position on exam schools has political benefit as a “huge, symbolic marker for not just white but Asian residents of the city and others who look to that as a way out of the mediocrity that afflicts too much of the rest of the system.”

It’s irresistible to compare Essaibi George to Eric Adams. She hails from working-class Dorchester, in the same Savin Hill neighborhood as Marty Walsh. (The former mayor hasn’t endorsed Essaibi George, but his mother has.) Her father was a security guard, and her mother was a secretary and telephone operator. Keller notes that in Essaibi George’s ads, “she’s dropping her Rs like nobody’s business.” A Wu–Essaibi George match, according to Keller, won’t be a “straight-up town-versus-gown [contest], although there is going to be an element of that,” further noting that Boston’s most recent mayors “were not Harvard men.”

Still, Essaibi George may be disadvantaged in a general election. Like Wu, Essaibi George is an at-large city councilor and has won citywide elections before. But in 2019, Wu was the top vote getter with 62 percent, while Essaibi George ran second with a bare majority of 51 percent, indicating that Wu’s progressive base may simply be bigger. Parr, the survey research expert, cautions that any Wu opponent may not be able to easily play the Boston native card because “many voters have come to Boston from elsewhere for school and stayed.” And Parr also raises the possibility that the endorsement from Gross, the police commissioner, could end up being problematic because the ad in which he stars is funded by a super PAC with “Republicans and Trump voters in it.”

Most concerning for Essaibi George and cutting into her working-class image are the accusations that she tried to influence the city’s zoning board to reject a development that blocked the views of her developer husband’s luxury condo building. As a recent Boston Globe investigation detailed, her husband is also accused of being a “slumlord” who has skirted the law and sought to evict low-income tenants, which is not a good look in any Democratic contest anywhere.

If Essaibi George can’t snag the second ticket to the November general election, it will be because she was eclipsed by Kim Janey or Andrea Campbell. Janey was once thought to have an inside track. She’s not just the acting mayor; she’s also the first woman mayor in the city’s nearly 400-year history, its first African American mayor, and its first person of color to sit in the big chair. However, incumbency has proved to be more disadvantage than advantage. Faced with a decision on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Janey was criticized for hesitating and comparing vaccine passports to enslaved people and immigrants “needing to show their papers.” She quickly expressed regret for making the analogy and soon after required city workers to either get vaccinated or get regular COVID-19 tests. However, she has resisted imposing a vaccine mandate for entering indoor spaces.

Last week’s mayoral debate took place before the school year began, and Janey was attacked for a school bus driver shortage that was expected to (and did) cause delays. Would any of the other candidates have handled these challenges any better, if they’d been thrown into the mayor’s seat five months before? Voters can’t know. Only Janey gets judged on this score.

But Adam Bass, who co-hosts the Massachusetts political podcast The Cod Cabin, told me that Janey has made her own mistakes: “Janey is committing the cardinal sin of politics, not showing up . . . She missed forums, including one focusing on Black businesses, which is a hallmark of her campaign.”

When Biden tapped Marty Walsh to be labor secretary, Janey was elevated to the acting mayor job. At that point, she wasn’t running for mayor, while Campbell had already announced her campaign. As both are African American, some Black leaders tried to lean on Campbell to exit the race in hopes of consolidating the Black vote around the incumbent. Campbell refused to oblige and has tried to exploit Janey’s vaccine and school bus missteps.

Campbell has also hit Janey from the left on police funding. Both women had at one point supported a 10 percent cut in the police budget, so when Janey’s mayoral budget included a cut of less than 5 percent (increasing the number of officers but cutting down on overtime), Campbell charged her with backtracking. (Wu supports redirecting some police funds but has not proposed a specific percentage.)

Janey has responded in kind by attacking Campbell from the left on schools. While Campbell can be characterized as the candidate furthest to the left on policing, she is arguably furthest to the right on education because of her past support for charter schools. Campbell was on the losing side of a 2016 ballot initiative that would have raised the cap limiting the number of charter schools. Under Massachusetts’s funding formula, it would have diverted more money away from traditional public schools. Campbell now has a super PAC partially funded by charter school proponents, though she has recently characterized her charter school support as something from “the past” and now wants “to improve Boston public schools so our families don’t have to go anywhere else.” Yet Janey’s campaign has implied that Campbell is in league with “dark-money, right-wing millionaires who want to privatize our public schools.”

Campbell’s insistence on staying in the race and confronting Janey has already paid dividends. She scored the endorsement of The Boston Globe (which has an editorial board supportive of charter schools, though that was not mentioned in the endorsement). That appears to have given her a bump. The Emerson College/7News poll was taken just before and after the September 2 endorsement, and Campbell gained three points while Essaibi George and Janey were stagnant. Janey, in contrast, has slipped. According to Boston Globe/Suffolk University polls, every woman in the race has gained support since June, except for Janey, who ticked down two points and fell into a statistical three-way tie for second place.

If the Campbell and Janey tussle ends up dragging them both down and out of the general election, surely there will be hand-wringing about Boston not having elected an African American mayor (as opposed to one landing in the job by default). But the Black vote is not monolithic, and neither are Black candidates; there is no shame for any community to divide their votes among ethnic or racial brethren. (It’s not like the Irish always rallied around one candidate.) Besides, a final, still historic contest between the Asian American Wu and Arab American Essaibi George would not mean that African American political power in Boston has been marginalized. The Black vote could well determine the outcome.

But regardless of the exact matchup, so long as Wu is on the November ballot, the Boston mayoral election will give progressives the best chance this year to elect a mayor in one of America’s major cities.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.