In the first televised debate between Boston's five major mayoral hopefuls, the candidates squared off over police reform, education and the coronavirus crisis, vying for votes less than a week before a preliminary election that will knock 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, 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.
Barros put Janey on the hot seat early on, criticizing the mayor's response to the bus driver shortage and later 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."
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Janey argued that her plan, which she said she released at the headquarters of the Boston 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. But Janey said the issue was personal.
"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."
Janey deployed a pilot program last month to change the way Boston responds to mental health crises by involving medical and mental health professionals as well as community members. She had announced the pilot program was under development in April, as part of a larger push for police reform in Boston to bring more accountability and transparency.
Campbell, too, cited her work over the past six years serving as the chair of Public Safety and Criminal Justice for the City Council, including helping to draft the legislation that created the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency under the Walsh administration.
"I've done that work and my plan builds upon that leadership, and it's the most comprehensive and specific plan out of any candidate in this race," Campbell said. "It says two things -- 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. And how do we do that? By actually restructuring our police department."
Campbell said she knew the police department needed reform long before the murder of George Floyd brought national attention to the subject and even before child molestation allegations were brought against former Boston police Officer Patrick Rose.
"We know that these issues are not new, activists and community members have been talking about them for years," Wu added. "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."
Essaibi George, too, pledged to uphold a promise of community policing, but unlike her counterparts, she emphasized that doing so doesn't mean defunding the police.
"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. "As mayor, I am committed to having a safe city -- not defunding public safety in this city. We can talk about real reallocation, we can talk about reinvestment, that's just another word for defunding public safety in this city."
The five candidates sparred over several other issues facing Bostonians, including COVID-19 response, the opioid crisis, climate change, education and the rising cost of living during the hourlong debate.
"We have gotten to the point where we are now seeing businesses beginning to wonder about what the next steps are as the delta variant ramps up, we are sitting on the verge of schools reopening, and a lot of uncertainty, as well," Wu said. "We need to do better about closing the gaps and addressing the issues that this pandemic has exacerbated, but were already present in our communities for a long time before."
On the issue of masks, the candidates said they would still require face coverings in schools for all students and staff this year, even if the FDA grants full approval for a vaccine for children under the age of 12.
While discussing the need to educate people on the importance of getting vaccinated, Essaibi George touted her position as the only candidate on stage who has worked as a teacher, spending 13 years in the classroom grading students.
"We've got to exist in reality. The masks aren't coming off this school year. I think it's important when we make decisions that we're basing it on the science," she said.
Beyond COVID, one issue facing Boston schools is a shortage of bus drivers. The pandemic meant a year of remote learning when drivers weren't needed, and many got new, better-paying jobs. Parents were worried about whether a bus would even show up to bring their children to their first day of school Thursday morning.
"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," 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."
Wu, in her second round of parenting a Boston Public School student, 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."
When asked why this issue wasn't hammered out months ago, Janey just promised that the bus drivers would be there to pick up school children when schools opened in Boston on Thursday.
"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."
The two top vote-getters in the Sept. 14 preliminary election will face off in the general election on Nov. 2. Those candidates will be invited to participate in another debate this October.