Here’s what happened at the first mayoral debate


Dana Murtada

Voters will determine who will be Boston’s next leader on Nov. 2.

Avery Bleichfeld, news staff

Voters in Boston will have the chance to elect who they want to serve as the city’s next mayor Nov. 2. Ahead of the general election, mayoral candidates and City Councilors At-Large Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu are facing off in a series of three debates that cover policy topics and the issues that matter most to Bostonians.

The second debate aired Oct. 19. Here’s a recap of the previous debate from Oct. 13:

The first of the three debates tackled seven major topics, ranging from public health and safety to how the city interacts with large nonprofit institutions within it.

Mass. and Cass: Boston’s opioid crisis

The first major policy topic the moderator addressed was the city’s fight against homelessness and the opioid epidemic, commonly referred to as the situation at Mass. and Cass, or the area near the intersection at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which is viewed as the epicenter of the issue.

The moderator, WBZ host Jon Keller, referenced two short-term plans currently in discussion. One was proposed by Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins to involuntarily commit the homeless in the Mass. and Cass. area to an empty facility on the South Bay Correctional Campus to receive treatment. The other would aim to help the homeless at the Shattuck Hospital Public Healthcare facilities in Franklin Park, where staff would aim to address short-term detox, long-term recovery and housing needs.

Wu said she was open to conversations about both proposals but as mayor would look first toward buildings owned by the city which could be used to address housing, what she said was the root cause of the issue.

During her first 100 days, Wu said she would put funding toward outreach and expand treatment with community health partners. She also committed to auditing all buildings and parcels owned by the city to identify locations that could provide housing in that same time.

Essaibi George put her support behind the plan to use space at Shattuck. She also said the efforts shouldn’t be limited to Boston but rather should look across Suffolk County. Essaibi George said that the city should work to rebuild the bridge to Long Island, an island in the Boston harbor which housed a number of social programs, including facilities to support people experiencing homelessness and treatment for individuals suffering from substance use disorders. The bridge was demolished in 2014 due to structural issues.

She emphasized haste in the matter, saying that, “we can’t wait until the first 100 days of any mayoral administration is through.” Wu pushed back, saying that efforts like rebuilding the bridge to Long Island could take a decade.

Since the debate, both candidates have voiced support for acting Mayor Kim Janey’s recent ban on tents and temporary shelters in Boston, which was coupled with the creation of a group to coordinate available beds in shelters.

Housing in Boston

To address the issue of housing in Boston, the moderator asked about how each candidate would protect small landlords, citing statistics that smaller landlords tended to seek fewer evictions during the pandemic and that they were more likely to seek rent deferment plans, which Keller said suggested small landlords are more likely to be part of the solution than the problem.

Essaibi George said Boston should be a home for everyone.

“Regardless of what their accent is, Boston should be a home for everyone who wants to be here,” Essaibi George said.

She proposed investing in the Boston Public Housing Authority, which manages affordable housing options owned by the city.

Essaibi George also challenged Wu on her proposals to reinstitute rent control. Throughout the run-up to the preliminary elections in September, Wu was one of only two candidates who supported rent control.

Wu also was the most vocal supporter of the policy, which would limit when and how much landlords can increase rent with the goal of keeping housing more affordable for tenants.

“We can’t be afraid and listen to scare tactics about what our residents need right now,” Wu said about rent control. “… Everything should be on the table when it comes to addressing our housing crisis, especially when it comes to addressing our crisis of displacement.”

She described a plan for housing that would pair rent control with other policies for a more comprehensive approach.

Changing the city’s policy on rent control, which was prohibited under a 1994 ballot question, is not under the mayor’s purview. It would require action at the State House to allow municipalities across the commonwealth to reinstate rent control policies, a fact that Essaibi George made sure to point out.

“The conversation about rent control has to happen at the State House,” she said.

The opportunity gap in Boston Public Schools

The moderator questioned the candidates about how they would address the opportunity gap in Boston Public Schools, or BPS. Essaibi George made sure to reference her 13 years of experience as a teacher in BPS.

Wu referenced her experience as a parent of two children in BPS as she described policies including offering universal pre-k for Boston students, starting a children’s cabinet to help connect families to services, working to rebuild BPS facilities and placing stronger emphasis on vocational education for BPS students.

Essaibi George said she would focus on priorities such as making sure more thought goes into how BPS funding is spent, fixing special education programs in the city and improving early literacy for Boston’s students.

Both stressed their experience as BPS parents in their ability to lead.

“Put a BPS mom in charge, and we’ll see some difference,” Wu said.

“I agree,” Essaibi George, a mother of four BPS students, said in response, “… and add a teacher to that resume and we’ve got a recipe for true success.”

The question was posed by District 4 City Councilor Andrea Campbell, a previous mayoral candidate who came in third in the preliminary election and often cited inequitable access to education as the reason she entered the race. Campbell has yet to endorse a candidate in the general election, saying if she chooses to endorse a candidate, her decision will be grounded in the issues, will reject the status quo and will seek to make people’s voices seen and heard.

Reform in the Boston Police Department

Leading into the next section, Keller cited poll results that 71% of Black voters and 61% of Latinx voters said reforming police is a major priority, but 65% of Black voters and 63% of Latino voters also said being tougher on crime was a major priority. Keller asked how the candidates would meet both of those needs.

Essaibi George said she wanted to see the city work toward what she calls “community policing,” where communities, community-based organizations and residents are in partnership with the police department to make sure the city is both safe and just. She also challenged her opponent, saying Wu is seeking to defund the police.

Wu never directly voiced support for defunding the police. Instead, she said that it’s a matter of spending the city’s budget properly.

“We need to ensure our resources are being spent in the right way to get our residents what they need,” Wu said. She also claimed she had been leading the charge on this issue in the City Council.

Essaibi George challenged that statement, referencing her own track record of working with then-Councilor Ayanna Pressley to up the number of social workers who accompany police when responding to calls involving people with mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, and domestic violence from two to four and then later working to bring that number up again to 19 clinicians.

Wu said the city should push harder to raise that number higher, making a plea to be bold in ideas to move the city forward, something she did several times throughout the debate.

Quality of life issues and community policing

Keller then pivoted to quality of life issues, such as kids playing and dirt biking at night.

Wu said steps should be taken to get to the root causes that lead to kids out at night causing disturbances such as keeping community centers open later to give them a place to hang out.

Essaibi George took the focus to the smaller concepts saying as mayor she’d focus on both big and small goals.

“We need to fill potholes, we need to repair sidewalks, we need to make sure the trash gets picked up and the lights get turned on every single evening, that we are fulfilling just the basic city services which lead to a high quality of life in this city, but that we are responding quickly to that work,” Essaibi George said. “It’s not fancy, but it’s important.”

Payments from tax-free nonprofit institutions

Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, or PILOT, is a program of larger, tax-free nonprofit institutions in Boston. Each institution is asked to make a voluntary payment of some portion of what they might otherwise pay in taxes, but results rarely measure up to expectations. In fiscal year 2020, nonprofits only met 79% of PILOT requests. The PILOT requests met by educational institutions, including Northeastern University, were lower, at 73%.

Essaibi George said the response from PILOT partners is “not good enough,” and said that if elected she would reconvene the PILOT task force to reassess property values, which is the key factor in determining the requested payment.

“I want our nonprofit partners, our institutions in this city, our meds and eds and cultural institutions to do that work [of engaging with the community], that’s why I’ve committed in that first 100 days to do that,” Essaibi George said.

Wu took the opportunity to acknowledge the challenges of students moving to off-campus housing and the challenges that poses to residents in surrounding neighborhoods.

As mayor, Wu said she would work to partner with universities and nonprofits to ensure they’re engaged with their communities.

Essaibi George said universities should be hiring and accepting Boston residents, referencing her own experience as a Boston resident who went on to study at Boston University.

Pandemic safety and COVID-19 vaccinations

At the end of the hour, Keller turned the conversation to a single quick question about COVID-19 and vaccination rates and how to get closer to the relative safety of herd immunity.

Wu said Boston must use community spaces and resources, such as community centers, public housing and public schools, especially as the nation prepares for a vaccine to be made available for children.

“Our Boston Public Schools must be that platform where we are reaching every single family, from all generations, using that bit of connection to the community everywhere we can find it,” Wu said.

Essaibi George agreed, stressing the importance of accessibility and education about the vaccine.

“We’ve got to make sure the information and education is shared widely, in culturally competent ways, using the languages that our city’s residents speak, and that we, as a city, are establishing pipelines of trust, communication, knowledge, information with our city’s people, with our city’s workforce, to share how important this is if we are to keep our economy going,” Essaibi George said.

When asked if they were OK with the suspension without pay of city workers last week who failed to meet the deadline to get a vaccine under acting Mayor Kim Janey’s mandate for city employees, both candidates spoke about the importance of vaccinating city employees and leading by example, though neither voiced their explicit support. Essaibi George took the opportunity to say she was grateful for city employees who have been working on the frontline throughout the pandemic.

To wrap up the debate, Kellerr asked the candidates if they thought former Mayor Martin J. Walsh was a good mayor and how their time in the city’s top executive offer would differ from his.

Essaibi George, a close ally of Walsh known for using Walsh-like talking points, said he was a good mayor, but noted her experience as a teacher, small-business owner and city councilor, made her different from the former Mayor.

“What I bring — that’s very different from Marty Walsh — to the table is my 13 years of experience in the classroom, my work building a business, my efforts as a member of the City Council, leading on issues like family homelessness,” Essaibi George said.

Wu also voiced her support for the former Mayor but drew a distinction in the scope of the policies she’d aim for in office.

“Over the last decade, Boston has seen tremendous pressures growing on our residents: the housing crisis, the pandemic, jobs, transportation system, our schools,” Wu said. “I will make sure that we’re not just continuing to take baby steps toward where we need to but lean into the power that city government has to bring everyone into the conversation and deliver on the scale of changes — the bold changes — that we need in this city for this generation, but for future generations as well.”

The second of three mayoral debates aired Oct. 19 on NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston and NECN in partnership with the Dorchester Reporter and the Bay State Banner.

The third debate will air Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. on WCVB and on WBUR. It will be available to stream at on,,, and

Early voting in Boston will run from Saturday through Oct. 29. The general election will be held Nov. 2.