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Candidates for mayor begin to define themselves in forum

Boston mayoral candidates on Zoom.

Barros, Campbell, Essaibi-George, Santiago, Wu

Five mayoral candidates discussed issues today in a forum sponsored by the Wards 4 and 5 Democratic committees, moderated by WGBH's Callie Crossley. Acting Mayor Kim Janey bowed out at the last minute to take part in a City Hall press conference with DA Rachael Rollins about the Chauvin verdict.

Some of the topics:

What makes them uniquely qualified

Barros pointed to his "executive management skills" both from his time at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which built affordable housing, parks and the largest land trust in the country, and from his time as Marty Walsh's chief of economic development, where he said he focused on "smart growth," including investing in affordable housing and job training.

Campbell cited her "robust professional background" as a lawyer and city councilor, but said what really sets her apart is her "lived experience," of being the twin of a brother who died while in custody for reasons the family has still never gotten an answer on. "Every single issue I work on," stems from the need to break the "generational cycles" of poverty, trauma and criminalization that could make something like that happen.

Essaibi George pointed to her 13 years as a teacher at East Boston High School, where her diverse student body taught her about all the pressing issues in the city related to everything from poverty to diversity.

Santiago said his unique attribute is his dedication to public service, currently as a state reprsentative, an ER doctor at Boston Medical Center and a captain in the Army Reserve.

Wu noted her eight years on the council - and time before that in the Menino administration - and her leadership on issues where she wasn't going to take no for an answer, from fighting Airbnb over short-term rentals in Boston, to working to get paid parental leave and pay equity for Boston workers.

Chauvin verdict

All agreed the verdict was good, but that it wasn't justice but a first step. Barros said that as he watched the verdict being read, "I didn't realize I was holding my breath. ... I quickly remembered that George Floyd can't exhale."

Police reform

Campbell said, "I have been leading the way when it comes to police reform," citing her subpoenaing BPD just to get data on officers stopping people in the street - which she said showed that one year, 70% of such stops were of Black people, who make up just a quarter of the city population. She pointed to the Patrick Rose case as another example of why police need more oversight.

In perhaps the only example of the night of one of the candidates taking on the other candidates, Campbell said she would bring "integrity and keeping your word" to the issue - she said she voted against last year's city budget because it didn't go far enough in redirecting BPD overtime money to addressing what she said were the root causes of violence, such as trauma, mental-health problems and poverty. As mayor, she said she would move 10% of the BPD budget, about $50 million, for programs to address these issues.

Essaibi George said she would push for "critical reforms" including "implicit bias traning" and hiring offices who better reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the city.

Santiago said that he is proud of his work on the recent state police-reform bill, which includes limitations on the "qualified immunity" police officers had against suits when they do something wrong. He called for "a community crisi diversion program" that would take on the issues that police now respond to but shouldn't.

Wu said BPD is rife with problems, from BPD not trying to rid itself of Patrick Rose to, more recently, an officer being caught on video bragging about hitting demonstrators with his car. "We need deep, deep changes" in BPD, she said, everything from getting taxi-licensing out of BPD to reallocating BPD funds to efforts to fight mental-health and substance-abuse problems.

Barros said BPD needs "clear articulation" of limitations on the use of force and how officer infractions are treated. Barros called for creation of "a new public agency" to deal with mental-health and similar calls that do not necessarily need a police presence, staffed by people trainined in descalation. "If they need police, they can call police," he said. Also he would divert money from BPD to the new department and anti-violence groups.

Essaibi George called for greater city investment in community programs and clinicians, because the chances are by the time somebody comes to the attention of the police, it's too late. But she said she opposed taking money from the BPD budget to pay for these other programs. If anything, she said, "we do not have enough police officers on the street.

Eliminate the BPDA?

Only Wu called for outright elimination of the BPDA and replacement by a new city planning department. Planning and zoning in Boston is "irretrievably broken," she said, pointing to the explosion of growth in the Seaport, the "most climate vulnerable area" in the city, one that is served by just a single bus line, which has led to such bad traffic some developers seriously considered a $100-milllion gondola. And then there's the whole zoning-approval process, where near identical projects get approved or rejected seemingly on a whim under a zoning code last amended in a major way in the 1960s. "It's a political, opaque, expensive, complex process," she said.

Campbell said keep BPDA, but create a "civic engagement team" and hire more planners to ensure a more equitable process.

Barros said he would "absolutely not" replace the agency but instead "double the amount of staff and resources we spend on planning." Currently, he said, "planning plays second fiddle to development. He added that in his time at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, he was able to work with BPDA tools - including eminent domain and the abilty to effectively rezone large areas to help create affordable housing.

Essaibi George said that she would create an independent office of planning in addition to keeping the BPDA.

Santiago said the BPDA needs reform, not dismantling, but agreed with Wu that the city zoning code needs serious updating.

Affordable housing

Santiago said he would take advantage of the city's excellent bond rating to issue bonds for affordable housing.

Wu also called for city bonds to invest in new, climate-resilient affordable housing and said she would favor rent stabliziation - or even rent control, if the legislature would allow it.

Essaibi George called for "better paths to home ownership."

Campbell said she spearheaded passage of the Community Preservation Act, which adds a surcharge to city property taxes for a fund that is used in part for affordable housing.

Barros that he would try to increase affordable housing production - and said it's time for the BPDA to start using the average median income of the neighborhoods projects would be built in, rather than the current practice of using the Boston-area median income, which includes numerous rich suburbs, leading to "affordable" housing that isn't really affordable for many Boston residents.

Transparency in government

All the candidates agreed: Transparency is good.

Restaurants that have closed that they particularly miss

Essaibi George: Home.stead in Fields Corner.

Wu: 7-Star Street Bistro, Redd's in Rozzie and Diane's Bakery, all in Roslindale, all of which closed before Covid-19.
Santiago: Stella in the South End.

Campbell: Stella, Home.stead.

Barros: Bella Luna in Jamaica Plain.

Elected school committee

Essaibi George is against it, says the last thing the school committee needs is more politics. But she called for appointments to be made through joint action of the mayor and the city council, rather than just by the mayor.

Santiago said he would support a hybrid committee, with both elected and appointed members. He said he's not ready to commit to a specific form, but that parents, families and advocates need to have their voices heard in school decisions.

Campbell: "100% appointed has to go," but like Santiago, she's yet to settle on a specifc model. She said she would give the student member a vote.

Barros said he agrees with Essaibi George that the committee doesn't need more politics. He said he's willing to have a "full conversation" on the issue, but said at this point, he's against having any members be elected.

Wu, who has two sons in BPS and who was her sister's legal guardian when she was going through BPS, called for a committee that has a majority of elected members but with some seats still reserved to ensure representation of various ethnic groups, people with particular educational expertise and that all neighborhoods have a say.

Charter schools

Wu opposes more charter schools in Boston. BPS schools have to take anyone yet are physically falling apart; the city cannot stand to lose more money to charters.

Essabi George praised existing charter schools as educational laboratories that come up with ideas BPS should look at, but said she opposes more charter schools, because they have drained financial resources from BPS.

Jon Santiago did not specifically rule out more charter schools, but said he would concentrate on ensuring BPS provides "the world-class education" that all students need.

Campbell said it's a moot point now after voters rejected removing the cap on charter schools and said she would work to improve BPS.

Barros did not specifically rule out more charters, but said the current state school-funding system doesn't work, that BPS has to be "fully funded" and that he would concentrate on making Madison Park a leader in vocational education, something he says should be doable in a city with such a concentration of industry and educational leaders as Boston.

City council and BPD surveillance and military purchases

Crossley asked if the city council should be required to approve any BPD purchases of surveillance or military-grade equipment. Santiago said no, the others said yes.

Permanently delete the BPD gang database

Barros, Santiago and Essaibi George said no, Wu said yes, Campbell said she's still studying the issue.

Safe consumption sites

Crossley asked about the possibility of the city setting up sites where needle addicts could shoot up under medical supervision as a way of reducing overdoses.

Essaibi George said no, the others said yes. However, Wu said the location would be key to her approval. Santiago said he would support such a facility except in the South End and Roxbury, which he said already bear the brunt of opioid addiciton. Barros said yes only if it's part of a comprehensive plan to get the addicts into treatment.

Rent control

Only Wu unqualifiedly said yes. Campbell says she likes the idea, but that she would need to first talk to small landlords, in particular in the neighborhoods in her current district, first. Barros, Essaibi George and Santiago opposed the idea.

Letting resident aliens vote in local elections

Barros, Campbell, and Wu said yes, Essaibi George and Santiago said no.

Letting 16- and 17-year-olds vote in location elections

Essaibi George said no, the others said yes.

Entire forum:

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Comments

Next politicians will be advocating for weight watchers at Phillips candy house.

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But I have the sneaking suspicion that it'll wind up being someone who won't rock the boat too much.

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Anyone who's been paying attention this past year and seen the outcomes of interactions between cops and the people they are supposed to "protect and serve" should be able to see that the answer to police reform is NOT putting MORE police on the streets. Also, if you think the current police budget levels are inviolable and that money shouldn't be used to explore other non-violent solutions, you're not serious about police reform.

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I've been in the Wu camp for a while, but I'm not sure if I will stay there, as she seems to be saying that the building of new housing in Boston is what is making housing unaffordable. That's simply not true. Do we need to ensure that much of the new housing that is built is designated as affordable through the affordable housing programs? Yes, of course. But we also simply need more market rate housing in general. The housing crisis is largely a supply issue. New market rate buildings tend to be expensive, yes, but not building enough new housing has meant that prices of existing housing stock have and will continue to rise. I fear that she is trying to appeal to existing home owners whose self interest IS for their property values to rise and who oppose new development because of parking, traffic, and other concerns, while also trying to say that she's in favor of limited new affordable housing.

Because of this, I'm leaning towards Santiago at the moment, but I'm also watching to see how Janey does in office. In the end, it may indeed be her race to lose!

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We need no housing built to make it more affordable.

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Santiago's suggestion to use the city's credit card to borrow money to subsidize housing, is simply insane.

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Man, Essaibi-George has a lot of really tone deaf answers to these questions. She sounds like Charlie Baker.

Sign me up for Michelle Wu.

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Seriously. I watched Essaibi-George's interview with Jon Keller on CBS this past weekend and was not impressed at all. A lot of long-winded non-answers and platitudes in response to very simple questions.

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Definitely not a homeowner?

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What's up with this 16 and 17 year olds voting thing? We still don't even have proper civics education, no reason to add more voters that are even more suspectible to outside influence from their parents and/or guardians. There are plenty of politically active 16 and 17 year olds who have ways to have their voices heard and make a difference, and plenty who don't give a crap and would vote their parents candidate. What bad does waiting 2 more years give?

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Janey already able to use the position of mayor to be above it all. It will be interesting to see Wu-ophiles turn on Janey the way Bernie Bros hated (or still hate) Biden, while the underated Janey (like Biden) gains the support of the majority.

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I know which one can be written off right off the bat!

Hopefully nowhere. With Marty's first election I sensed machine politics at work. Dutiful voters marching to voter for whomever their "political betters" told them to vote for. That includes the political machinery (and perhaps machinations) of police and firefighter unions.

Perhaps machine politics is a dying form of political organization. Hope so. It rarely provided the best leadership, instead of leading to the leadership of LCD.

This mayoral election might be a very different election. One not dependent on what were the traditional lines of organizing, but one more dependent on policies, philosophies and the people that candidates bring with them into the appointed political offices.

It was an accident that Wu's children ended up in the exact school every Rozzie parent wants to be.

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