By Saumya Rastogi
Boston University News Service
BOSTON – Mayoral candidates Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George locked horns in their final televised debate on Monday night, hosted by The Boston Globe, WBUR, the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston and WCVB.
While the two candidates agreed on the issues Boston is facing, they offered voters divergent paths to progress.
Public Health Crisis at Mass. and Cass
During the debate, both candidates appeared opposed to each other’s ideas on the best way to address the large homeless encampment at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, with the topic of Boston Harbor’s Long Island making an appearance.
Essaibi George promised to drive the legal battle to reconstruct a bridge to a rehabilitation campus on Long Island, while Wu brought up initiating a ferry shuttle service as a route around the bridge while exploring the use of vacant buildings to house people in the meantime.
Advocates acknowledge that the former bridge’s demolition and relocation of the island shelter’s residents led to the worsening situation at Mass. and Cass.
Wu said that she does not recommend directing the city’s energy and resources on building back a bridge, a project which could last beyond the scope of a four-year mayoral term.
Essaibi George struck back, claiming Wu was “stuck in conversations,” and unable to “truly understand” the extent of the problem.
She added that she was not going to walk away from the battle with Quincy in the ongoing legal fight with the neighboring municipality over Boston’s right to reconstruct the bridge.
Asked if it was probable to complete the project in her four-year term, Essaibi George proposed that the city’s “incredible resources” and “incredible minds” could make it work.
“We can do a bridge hackathon and get this done,” she said.
Neither candidate approved Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins’ plan to involuntarily send some people at Mass. and Cass to the South Bay Correctional Center. But, Wu extended support for his idea of a special court to redirect individual cases away from criminal consequences.
When asked about how the candidates would generate money for their climate resiliency proposals, Wu said she would change the financing system for stormwater infrastructure and collect funds from development projects. Essaibi George grappled with explaining a financial strategy.
The two women reemphasized their views on the city’s downtown waterfront development plan. Acting Mayor Kim Janey had tried to withdraw from the plans in August after the county court ruled that Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration broke state law when it accepted the project back in 2018.
However, Baker has indicated he won’t accept the withdrawal and that Boston needed to submit an alternate plan if it was going to stray from the one seven years in the making.
Wu said she supports Janey’s move to create a new plan under a new process, forming the 42-acre plot beside the Seaport. Essaibi George said she advocates tweaking the project, but that tossing away years of effort with various interest groups was bad public practice.
Janey, who endorsed Wu in September, mentioned climate change as a significant reason for rejecting the plan.
On the topic of reducing traffic in the first year of service as mayor, Wu replied that she would deliver more dedicated bus and bike lanes. Essaibi George said she would extend the city’s fare-free bus pilot — a program spearheaded by Wu and Janey — and decrease public transit costs for students and seniors.
Essaibi George pointed out that Wu has not laid out a funding approach for her signature free public transit plan, asking her who would fund it.
She said the plan would cost $2.3 billion and that its weight would be put on the backs of the city’s residents.
Moderator Tiziana Dearing of WBUR’s “Radio Boston” then weighed in, noting the MBTA’s budget for fiscal year 2019 was $2.3 billion, about 30% of which came from fare charges, amounting to about $700 million.
Wu replied by naming federal legislation filed by two of her endorsers, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Ed Markey, who said that it would create billions of dollars for transit companies across the nation if succeeded.
The two candidates’ differences when it comes to rent control may have been the biggest flashpoint in the housing debate. Essaibi George said rent control has been experimented with and failed in the city. She slammed the proposition and said that it would harm the livelihoods of small landlords.
Alternatively, she responded that her administration would concentrate on funding homeownership opportunities, especially for first-time homebuyers.
Wu told moderators that she would try to collaborate with state and federal lawmakers to bring rent control to existence.
Later, Essaibi George confronted the question of whether her husband’s real estate business in the city would be a conflict of interest if she were elected. She replied by saying that she had filed a request with the ethics committee and submitted her recommendation because she knows she will be held to a very high standard as the city’s mayor.
“My husband will do no new business before the city. I will hire an ombudsperson to guide any of his projects through.”
Wu later pressed her on releasing her family’s tax returns, to which Essaibi George replied that she released her returns, but would not release the details of her husband’s business.
Education and Childcare
With Congress unlikely to fund a comprehensive childcare program fully, as progressives in the state’s delegation had expected, the candidates were questioned as to how their government would try to help the families of young children in Boston.
Wu offered that she would work with lawmakers to form a “sliding scale” fee structure for parents of younger kids, especially those kids doing pre-K through Boston Public Schools.
Essaibi George said that they have to fix the compensation program as it links to subsidized child care and support, particularly affecting those women running small businesses. She would be using the funding Boston gets from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Early voting for this year’s mayoral election began on Oct. 23 and Election Day is on Nov. 2.