BOSTON — The mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George was amping up her supporters, who had gathered in an Italian restaurant on the South Boston waterfront, a little punchy after a long day of getting out the vote.
As she built toward the climax of her speech, a pledge to be “the teacher, the mother and the mayor” the city needs, her accent unfurled like a banner. Those in the crowd were in high spirits, so they chanted it together a second time, then a third.
“I will be the teachah!” they shouted, to raucous celebration. “The mothah!” (Cheers.) “And the mayah!” (sustained cheers) “to get it done!”
In that catch phrase, which she also featured in two television advertisements, Ms. Essaibi George makes several things clear: that though she identifies as Arab American, she was born and bred in the heart of Irish American Boston. That amid an influx of affluent professionals, she would stand up for Boston’s working class — not just police officers and firefighters, but electricians and construction workers. That her neighborhood, Dorchester, is stamped on her DNA.
Boston is a city that cherishes its accent — one that ignores R’s in some places, inserts them in others, and prolongs the A sound as if it were opening its mouth for a dentist.
In the second half of the 20th century, linguists say, as New Yorkers began to look down on that region’s R-less accent, Bostonians continued to revel in theirs. They were not embarrassed by it; it conveyed toughness and good humor and authenticity. Candidates with pronounced accents have won the last 10 mayoral elections.
But this campaign comes at a moment of change, as growing populations — young professionals, Latinos, Asians — redraw Boston’s electoral map. Ms. Essaibi George’s opponent, Michelle Wu, who moved to the area to attend Harvard, speaks to the concerns of many of those new Bostonians. Slowly but steadily, like polar ice caps, the core of working-class Boston is diminishing.
When Ms. Essaibi George speaks, dropping references to her parish (St. Margaret’s), her favorite teacher (Sister Helen) and her football grudges (the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo), she effortlessly evokes that Boston.
“I will say we’ve had a little bit of fun with the accent,” she said in an interview. If you watch the first television ad to feature the phrase, she said, “you can see that I’m doing all I can to not crack up laughing.”
Asked whether it conveys a political advantage, she gives a verbal shrug.
“I don’t think about it at all,” she said. “It is how I think. It’s how I talk.”
The two candidates, both Democrats and at-large city councilors, differ most notably on issues of policing and development: Ms. Wu, who placed first in the preliminary election, has pushed for deeper cuts to the police budget, while Ms. Essaibi George argues for adding hundreds more officers to the force. Ms. Wu supports rent stabilization and the dissolution of the city’s main planning agency, which she says favors politically connected developers, while Ms. Essaibi George, who is married to a developer, warns that such measures could bring building “to almost a grinding halt,” cutting into the city budget and working-class jobs.
But it is Ms. Essaibi George’s accent-flexing that has sparked the most spirited discussions. A local filmmaker who recently celebrated a birthday received a card saying, “You’re my SISTAH, you’re a PRODUCAH, and now you’re OLDAH.”
Many of Ms. Wu’s supporters roll their eyes at this, saying Ms. Essaibi George has dialed up her Dorchesterese for the occasion. Anyway, they say, the solidarity conveyed by the Boston accent — really a white, working-class Boston accent — is one that excludes much of the city. Recent census data found that only 43 percent of Boston’s population was born in Massachusetts.
“It’s a message of belonging,” said Mimi Turchinetz, a community activist who supports Ms. Wu. “That unless you’re from the neighborhood, you don’t have deep roots and can’t represent this city. It’s a statement of belonging, versus the other. That’s the quiet suggestion.”
Ms. Wu, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, was raised in a suburb of Chicago; her speech does not carry a strong regional flavor.
Last week, asked by Boston Public Radio whether Ms. Wu’s lack of Boston roots should be a factor in the race, Ms. Essaibi George said it was “relevant to me” and “relevant to a lot of voters,” prompting such a backlash on social media that she spent much of the next day trying to explain. The perpetual contrast of old Boston and new Boston, she said, is “such a silly, silly debate.”
“This is not about being born and raised here,” she said. “So many Bostonians are not born and raised in the city. Both my parents immigrated to this country, never mind the city. And for me, it is what makes this city special.”
Accents have long been weaponized in Massachusetts politics, usually identifying their owner as the more authentic champion of the working class. James Michael Curley, who served four terms as Boston’s mayor, beginning in 1914, once derided his opponent as having a “Harvard accent with a South Boston face.”
Senator Ed Markey leveraged his accent last year, when during a debate with then-Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, he turned to Mr. Kennedy and said, “Tell your father right now that you don’t want money to go into a Super PAC that runs negative ads.” The jab was clear: Mr. Markey, a truck driver’s son, was drawing a contrast with the scion of a political dynasty.
Almost instantaneously, “Tell ya fatha” became a meme, for sale on T-shirts on Mr. Markey’s campaign websites. It was so popular that Robert DeLeo, then the speaker of the Massachusetts House, posed with a “Tell ya fatha” T-shirt without realizing what it meant, and then privately apologized to Mr. Kennedy, Politico reported.
It is an accent that can cut both ways, said Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker, a speech therapist who has spent 20 years helping Massachusetts residents modify their accents.
Often, clients seek out her firm, the Whittaker Group, because they fear that in professional settings they’re seen as “working-class, or not so smart.” Sometimes they’re just tired of being asked to say “park the car in Harvard Yard” all the time, which makes them feel “like a circus act.”
But there is also something positive about the accent — something intangible, an emotional attachment. “It’s hard for me to answer because I’m not from here, but I think it’s, ‘I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back, we’ve got this bond no one can break,’” Ms. Feinstein-Whittaker said. “It’s like a family thing. It’s solidarity.”
Ms. Essaibi George’s history makes her both an insider and an outsider to this tradition. Her father, Ezzeddine, grew up in a Tunisian village and fell in love with her mother, a Polish immigrant, when they were studying in Paris. He followed her back to the Savin Hill section of Dorchester, which was then overwhelmingly white and Irish Catholic.
As an Arab and a Muslim, he never felt fully accepted, Ms. Essaibi George said, and scoffed at the idea his daughter could win office, telling her “an Arab girl, with an Arab name, will win nothing in this country.” That she has managed it — winning an at-large City Council seat three times — represents “my inner 15-year-old self” trying to prove him wrong, she said.
“I’m very proud of the neighborhood I grew up in,” she said, even though “I was sometimes seen as a little bit of a different kid, because I didn’t come from a traditional white Irish Catholic family.”
This combination of attributes — a booster of traditional Boston who also represents change — helped her place second in last month’s crowded preliminary.
“We need someone who has been in our shoes,” said Michael Buckman, 38, a janitor who fears the rising cost of living will force him out of South Boston, where his family has lived for nine generations since immigrating from Ireland.
“It stems all the way back into the roots of Boston,” he said. “It was a working city. It’s gone the direction of skyscrapers and hospitals and universities. I understand cities evolve. If anything, Boston has evolved a little too much.”
As for Ms. Essaibi George’s accent, it is an advantage, said Douglas Vinitsky, 45, a sheet-metal worker who was waiting to meet her at a campaign stop.
Though he “wasn’t raised uppity,” he said, his mother tried for years to train him to pronounce his Rs, warning that he would be seen as uneducated. Mr. Vinitsky disagreed so strongly that he leaned deeper into his accent just to make a point. And it has never cost him.
“Nobody else in the world cared how I spoke,” he said. “It didn’t even matter in Boston.”