Boston's five major mayoral hopefuls faced off in their first televised debate Wednesday night in a bid for votes as the upcoming preliminary election narrows the field down to two.
Mayor Kim Janey; City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George, Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu; and John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, all participated in the hourlong debate, which was hosted by NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston and NECN in partnership with the Dorchester Reporter and the Bay State Banner. A second debate is scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m.
Wednesday night's debate kicked off with candidates grading the city of Boston on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Janey, who stepped in as acting mayor after former Mayor Marty Walsh left to join President Joe Biden's cabinet, gave the highest grade at A-, following by a B from Barros. The next highest grade, a C+, came from Wu, then a C from Essaibi-George. Campbell issued the lowest grade, a D, to the city.
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Toward the end of the debate, moderator and NBC10 Boston Evening News Anchor Shannon Mulaire peppered the five candidates with a series of questions during a lightning round, asking them everything from who is vaccinated to who has bought from one of Boston's pot shops.
The candidates addressed several other issues facing Bostonians, including policing, climate change, education, the opioid crisis and the rising cost of living during the hourlong debate.
Here's everything you need to know, broken down by subject:
The candidates said they would still require masks in schools for all students and staff this year even if the FDA gives full approval for a vaccine for children under the age of 12.
Beyond COVID, one issue facing Boston schools is a shortage of school bus drivers. The pandemic meant a year of remote learning when drivers weren't needed, and many got new, better-paying jobs.
Parents of children in the Boston Public School system worried about whether the bus would show up to bring their children to class Thursday morning as the district deals with a driver shortage.
Mayor Kim Janey promised that the bus drivers would be there to pick up school children when schools open in Boston on Thursday during the first televised debate with Boston's five mayoral candidates Wednesday night.
"When it comes to the bus drivers, I'm really encouraged that our bus drivers and [the bus company], and the school department have reached an agreement," she said. "We are expecting and welcoming all of our bus drivers back to welcome our children tomorrow."
But her challengers, including John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, were skeptical.
"I've got a lot of parents that have called me, and they're not so confident," Barros said. "I just remember talking to two bus drivers before getting here and they're not so confident. They've called this the worst of any school year that they've been a part of in terms of the chaos and information that's been sent, and what they've been given in terms of routes. They don't know what's going on."
Some of Boston's mayoral candidates politicized the issue during the debate.
"I was one of those parents that actually got a recorded voicemail, leaving me a message saying there was going to be a shortage of bus drivers with little information as to who to call where to get information how to figure out if your family would be affected. That's just absolutely unacceptable," candidate Andrea Campbell said. "We did know there's been a bus shortage — there's a national bus shortage right now. We should have been proactive in planning for this."
City Councilor Michelle Wu, in her second round of being a mother of a Boston Public School child, spoke to the disparities between the facilities, programming and resources among the schools within the district and called for a vision, rather than band aid fixes.
"I just want to emphasize that, as parents, we know every single little logistical detail has a huge impact on the day to day stress levels and experience and feeling of connection and trust for our families with the school district," Wu said, "but we need to center that the issues we're talking about now are very much because we have been missing a long term vision and a plan for a long time in BPS."
The candidates stressed the importance of climate action amid a busy storm season in the region, from Hurricane Fred, Henri and the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which devastated parts of the northeast, killed dozens of people in New York and in the tri-state area.
"Climate justice is racial and economic justice. It is the urgent threat that is at our doorsteps and going to be the lens through which we see the world for the next 100 years," Wu said. "The horrific images that we saw in New York with the storms of subways flooded, families who lost their lives, poor working class immigrant families who couldn't afford the mitigation — Boston needs to be prepared right now for that."
Barros pointed to plans in Boston that show that the city needs between $4 billion and $20 billion of investment imminently. He said that it starts with preparing Boston's most vulnerable entry points from the ocean, the four point channel.
"We know if the four point channel was the flood today and Dorchester Bay was to flood, we would have a river run in between our city by by South Boston and all that public housing by by South End, Chinatown," Barros said. "I mean, so many of our neighborhoods, would have problems. The flash flooding that we saw in New York and New Jersey would be what would happen here -- poor immigrant families living in basement apartments, who lost their lives."
Barros promised to work with the federal government and utilize the Biden Administration's infrastructure bill.
"It's a really important tool - a once in a lifetime tool - and I'll make sure that Boston gets it," Barros said.
Throughout the debate, Essaibi George touted her background as the only candidate on the stage who has worked as a teacher for over a decade. She recalled witnessing firsthand the impacts of climate change manifesting as asthma among children while teaching and coaching in East Boston.
"Day after day at softball practice, we'd be looking at the tail end of an airplane, and then we ask ourselves, 'Why is asthma such a big problem for the kids in East Boston?' We have work to do today and we need to make sure that our city's residents are at the table for that conversation," Essaibi George said.
Barros put Janey on the hot seat early on in the debate by asserting that she didn't have a plan when it comes to police reform.
"I'd love her to point to a plan. She doesn't have a plan. Check her website out," Barros said. "We've asked for a plan. In fact, she had said she was gonna put out a plan, and never got one out in her own timeline."
Janey argued that her plan, which she said she released at the headquarters of the police department, has homicides down by 32% and fatal shootings down by 50% from 2020 to 2021.
Barros credited the Walsh administration with those improvements.
More Boston Mayoral Debate Coverage
"I experience gun violence where I live on my street on a regular basis. I've lost count how many times someone has been shot in front of my house," Janey said. "This issue is real. I live with the trauma, as do too many residents across our city."
" I am the only the candidate on this stage, on this panel this evening who is committing to investing in public safety for our city," Essaibi George said.
"We need a wholesale new approach to the structures of our police department and the culture of how we interact with our residents to build trust across our communities," Wu said.
"I want to transform our response to public safety. I don’t want to just reduce incidents of violence in the City of Boston, I want to eradicate them," Campbell said.
The candidates spoke about how they will keep Black families in Boston, and also support those who were displaced and want to come back as people are being priced out of the city.
“This is an emergency situation right now in Boston. I’m the only candidate in this field willing to fight for every tool, including rent stabilization, to address the immediate impact, the immediate emergency of displacement in our communities," Wu said. "That is what we need as we're addressing this housing crisis."
Campbell committed to investing up to $1 million in her first six months as mayor, "and I'd love to get there in the first 100 days," she said, to establish a down payment assistance fund in the city.
"When we think about, and we just saw in the results of the latest census survey, the departure of too many of our Black families, it's about the cost of housing in the city. We need greater affordability, we also need to create more opportunity for workforce development for create the creative economy, for our schools," Campbell said.
Janey said that during her time as mayor of Boston, she invested $50 million in rental relief, quadrupled down payment assistance from $10,000 to $40,000 and helped 3,400 households; 70% of which were people of color, 37% were Black and 26% Latino. She also pointed to the city's eviction moratorium.
"When at the federal level, the courts struck it down, I made sure that I stood up for the residents of Boston to keep people in their homes, and we're doing more to invest to make sure that people can live out the American dream," Janey said. "We've got more work to do."
"Families leave the city because they don't have access to the things that they need. Our education system, our transit system, our economic system, our workforce system," Essaibi George said. "It is all an important part of that, and it starts with creating ownership opportunities within the housing market across our City Councilor camp."
The Opioid Crisis
Used drug needles can be seen scattered throughout the area known as "Methadone Mile," a notorious stretch along Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard where people regularly use illegal drugs in broad daylight.
"We didn't have needles in our parks, we didn't have needles on the street, we definitely didn't have bodies on the ground, and you didn't know if the person's dead or alive," Essaibi George said. "That is the state of affairs in the city of Boston right now, which everyone should be absolutely concerned about."
People who live in that part of Boston's South End have been calling for action from officials.
"This is a complex issue, but it needs leadership and it needs action," Barros said. "We need more elected and better elected officials in office and to it. That's why, as mayor, I will make sure that we have a multidisciplinary 24-hour team on the streets right now with personalized services for the people who need help."
Janey, who noted that the opioid crisis has been just that — a crisis — for the last decade, said that more work is being done to treat addiction, citing the 1,600 individuals were referred into treatment over the past year. But she called for a regional approach to address the issue.
"This isn't about an intersection in our city. This is about individuals who are in need of support and services," Janey said. "This is a challenge we need to make sure that there is a regional approach, it can't continue to fall all on Boston. We have to decentralize, we have to make sure that all of our city departments, as well as partnering with the DA 's office, which we are doing to ensure that those who would prey against vulnerable people in our city are held accountable."
All of the candidates were also given a chance to offer closing statements at the end of the debate: