Editorial: About birthplaces as campaign fodder in the mayor's race

Should the particulars of one’s place of birth be factored into whether a candidate is qualified to be the mayor of Boston?

The correct answer is “No, of course not.” But might it be one factor that voters add to their calculus in a hotly contested run-off between two accomplished candidates? Maybe.

The question bubbled up last week during a GBH radio interview featuring mayoral candidate Annissa Esssaibi George, who was asked to outline distinctions between her and Michelle Wu, her competition in the Nov. 2 final. Essaibi George, born in Dorchester to immigrant parents from Poland and Tunisia, was pressed by Jim Braude to explain why she brings up her Boston roots, among other things, to contrast herself with Wu, who was born in Chicago.

“Well, I think it’s relevant to me, and I think it’s relevant to a lot of voters — whether or not they’re born and raised in this city — because I’ve seen this city for many, many years,” Essaibi George explained.

The excerpt— plucked from a longer response— drew immediate rebukes on social media, much of it emanating from those already aligned with Wu. The tone of the condemnation was: “How dare you even suggest this.”

Whether you’re a supporter of Essaibi George or not, the pile-on was over the top and out of proportion to the alleged offense. Annissa Essaibi George differs from Michelle Wu in ways that are far more significant than where the two women were born and raised. And well-informed voters shouldn’t let their decisions hinge on the particulars of a birth certificate.

But cannot a legitimate case be made that the “lived experience” that makes up at least part of a candidate’s narrative includes their formative years as a child, teen, and young adult? Is that portion of Annissa Essaibi’s story off-limits for exploration and scrutiny? Would it have been for Kim Janey or Andrea Campbell or John Barros?

Should Michelle Wu’s compelling story of moving and settling here— shared by some of the 45 percent of Bostonians not born here— not be factored in for those who find that relatable?

Asked to amplify her position by the Reporter, Essaibi George answered this way: “We’ve got two choices for who’s going to lead this city. My experience is from birth in this city. Daughter of immigrants who are not born in this city, who are not of this city. That’s a distinction between me and Councillor Wu. And that’s a distinction on some of the platforms in which I’ve worked on, some of the ways in which I’ve engaged with our city’s residents and in the ways that I will lead this city as mayor.”

The knee-jerk interpretation that this amounts to blunt force “nativism” is overwrought. Essaibi George’s upbringing as a graduate of Boston’s school system where she would go on to serve as a teacher, her early exposure and activism in civic life in Columbia-Savin Hill, her entrée into politics as a young adult volunteering for her neighbor Martin Walsh— these are all formative experiences that are fair play to highlight in a run-off election even though for some voters, they matter little or not at all.

Telling one’s authentic story —no matter the origins— is part of any campaign. The abuse hurled at this candidate last week — including from some who compared her to anti-busing bigots of a bygone era or ridiculed her accent— reflects poorly on those who flung such mud.

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