Annissa Essaibi George's journey -- the mother, the teacher and the would-be-mayor of Boston
On a recent rainy afternoon, traffic in Dorchester was moving slowly and Annissa Essaibi George was out of breath — and running late.
“Oh my god, the rain, the school busses,” she said, apologizing for being late, as she stepped into the Stitch House, the knitting and sewing shop she opened in 2007.
Bright colored yarn and wool cover the walls and fill the store’s shelves. The shop also offers classes in knitting, sewing and crochet — hobbies that Essaibi George loves.
“It is very meditative for me,” she said. “Sometimes I find myself just sitting here in the Stitch House. it’s a beautiful place. It’s a colorful place.”
It’s also right down the street from her home in Dorchester.
With just a week and a half to go before Boston’s Mayoral election, polls show City Councilor Michelle Wu is the front runner. But Essaibi George is still campaigning hard and not giving up.
Essaibi George, 47, is the daughter of a Polish mother — who was born in a refugee camp in Europe after World War II and grew up in Boston; and a father from Tunisia. They met in Paris, fell in love, and raised a family in Boston.
“My dad came as an Arab, as a Muslim with a very thick Arab accent,” Essaibi Gorge said. “He had some significant difficulties assimilating to American culture, moving into a very white neighborhood, during a time where Arabs weren’t welcome.”
Barbara Essaibi, Annissa’s mother, said that when her husband-to-be, Ezzeddine, first arrived in Boston he spoke almost no English. And her Polish-Catholic parents initially opposed their marriage.
“They just thought I’d marry someone else, someone local [or] Polish,” Essaibi recalled. “They said, ‘He might have three wives somewhere in Tunisia. He might have children.’ [But] they really grew to love him so much. And he was the love of my life, and I think he was crazy about me, too.”
Ezzedine Essaibi died in 2010. Annissa is the oldest of four children and was drawn to politics at an early age. Barbara Essaibi said that when her daughter was a high school junior, she helped lead a protest against proposed school budget cuts, demanding that Mayor Ray Flynn reverse them.
“She said, ‘Mayor Flynn, I’m a junior and we’ll remember this when we’re voting.'” recalled Essaibi. “You know, like, ‘you’ll be out of office.’ I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ There were like 5,000 people that showed up.”
It was early evidence of Essaibi George’s passion for politics — even if her father had his doubts.
“My father [said], ‘an Arab girl with an Arab name will win nothing in this city,'” said Essaibi George, who identifies as a woman of color. “It is why I’ve retained my maiden name. I’m proud to be Annissa Essaibi.”
After graduate school, Essaibi George spent 13 years teaching at East Boston High School, and has made fixing the city’s Public Schools a campaign priority.
She lost her first run for City Council in 2013 — the year her rival, Michelle Wu, was first elected. Two years later, Essaibi George ran again for an at-large seat, won and has been on the council ever since.
Her record includes advocacy for the homeless and leading the push to pair licensed social workers with first responders. She also secured funding to put a full-time social worker and a nurse in every school.
She’s a friend and neighbor of former Mayor Marty Walsh and would continue many of his policies at City Hall.
She is often identified as “the moderate” in the race for mayor, but she’s not comfortable with the label.
“I’m comfortable when people describe me as someone willing to do the work,” she said. “I’ve got a reputation of being present, of being responsive to each one of our city’s residents. I hope that when we think about labels, I hope that mine is ‘Mayor.’ That’s what I want people to call me soon.”
Essaibi George is married to real estate developer Douglas George, whose business has put the candidate in a tricky situation. A Boston Globe investigation alleged that George has routinely flouted city and state building laws, and that Essaibi George used her City Council position to help him. She denies that, and says she’ll continue to separate her work at City Hall from her husband’s.
On a recent evening with the bight of early autumn chill in the air, Mick Brunache was running drills with the Mattapan Patriots — a Pop Warner football team. Brunache, is a huge fan of Essaibi George.
He explained that when he was struggling to get money, equipment and fields for his team, she was there to help. Essaibi George connected him with people who donated money and sports equipment and who helped him get the necessary permits for the sports fields.
“My number one, favorite thing about Annissa is that she’s accessible,” Brunache said. “I think she’ll be a phenomenal mayor because at the end of the day, a city mayor is for the people, and she’s for the people.”
Essaibi George says as mayor, she’ll make room for all voices in the city — even as she leans into her own, which is distinctively Dorchester.
On the night of the city’s preliminary election, when she won one of the two slots to advance to the general election in November, she rallied with family and supporters — and made sure to stress her Boston accent, which has gained national notice.
“I’m going to be the ‘teachah,’ the ‘mothah’ and the mayah’ to get it done” she said to raucous cheers.
The moment helped her make her case that it matters that she’s from Boston — unlike her opponent, Michelle Wu, who grew up in Chicago.
Essaibi George opposes Wu on a number of issues — including her call for rent control, free public transportation. She dismisses Wu’s sweeping progressive vision as “pie in the sky.”
Instead, Essaibi George focuses on the more concrete demands of the job.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re filling pot holes, repairing our sidewalks, building playgrounds, picking up the trash and turning on the lights,” she said in this week’s debate on NBC Boston. “It’s not sexy. It’s not glamorous.”
According to recent polls, Wu is leading by a wide margin across the city, among every major demographic group — among men and women as well as among white, Latino, Asian and Black voters.
Essaibi George still has a lot of support in working class, mostly white neighborhoods, like South Boston and her native Dorchester. That once represented a key electoral base, in Boston.
But today, that support is not enough.
So Essaibi George still has more work to do to become mayor on Nov. 2.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated when the Stitch House opened. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 WBUR