Wu wins in a romp
Historic victory gives Boston its first woman mayor, first leader of color
MICHELLE WU, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who promised Boston residents bold change and an inclusive city government, rode a progressive wave to a resounding victory in the race for mayor on Tuesday. The 36-year-old Roslindale resident shattered twin barriers of gender and race to become the first woman and first person of color elected mayor in the city’s history.
With 95 percent of the vote reported, Wu had 63 percent of the vote to 37 percent for fellow city councilor Annissa Essaibi George.
“We are ready to meet this moment, we are ready to become a Boston for everyone,” Wu told supporters gathered at the Cyclorama arts center in the South End. “We’re the city of revolution, civil rights, marriage equality. Boston has always been that city that punches above its weight.”
A few minutes earlier and half a mile away, Essaibi George conceded the race before supporters at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. “I want to offer Michelle Wu a great big congratulations,” she said. Essaibi George saluted her pathbreaking win to become the city’s first woman mayor, first mayor of color, and first Asian American leader. “I know this is no small feat. I want her to show this city how mothers get it done.”
Wu’s victory follows a string of recent elections that have remade the city’s political terrain, long dominated by white males, by catapulting progressive women of color into major offices. Her election follows Ayanna Pressley’s 2018 upset of a 20-year congressional incumbent and Rachael Rollins’s victory the same year in the race for the open Suffolk County district attorney’s post.
“This is a singular moment in the history of the city,” said Lawrence DiCara, a former city councilor who ran for mayor in the 1983 race that saw the first Black candidate, Mel King, win a spot in a mayoral final election. The city has been shedding its more insular ways for several decades, and the election of Wu, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, not only breaks a barrier on race and gender but also shows “it makes no difference whether you grew up in the city,” said DiCara. “A big, big change.”
At 36, Wu is also the youngest Boston mayor at least since the 1909 city charter change established a strong-mayor form of government. Kevin White was 38 when he was elected in 1967. The Harvard Law School graduate will be the “most cerebral” mayor since White, said DiCara.
She’ll have little time to prepare for the challenge of governing, with a swearing-in scheduled for November 16, rather than the usual start of a new mayoral term in January. That’s because Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who took over in March when Marty Walsh left to become US labor secretary, only holds the seat until the election results for a new mayor are certified.
Wu’s historic election followed the September preliminary contest in which all five major candidates were people of color and four were women.
She ran on an ambitious – and often aspirational – platform calling for the city to climb out from the pandemic by tackling everything from deep economic and racial inequality to the existential threat of climate change.
In her victory speech, Wu addressed those two strains running through her campaign. “We don’t have to choose between generational change and keeping the street lights on,” she said. “Between tackling big problems with bold solutions and filling our potholes. To make change at scale and at street level. We need, we deserve both. All of this is possible.”
Wu called for a city-level Green New Deal, and vowed to accelerate by a decade the 2050 target set by Walsh for Boston to be carbon neutral when it comes to climate-harming emissions. She said she would make good on the long-standing city goal of universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. She promised dramatic change in the city’s abysmal record of contracting with minority businesses, and said she’ll look for meaningful reforms in police contracts as they are up for renewal.
Essaibi George was clear the favorite among law enforcement donors to the two candidates. Meanwhile, a super PAC led by former police commissioner William Gross, which spent $1.8 million on Essaibi George’s behalf, hammered Wu over her views on public safety and said that she wants to “defund the police,” a charge she denied.
Both candidates have children in the Boston Public Schools and vowed to make school improvement a priority, but the steep challenges facing the troubled school system often seemed eclipsed by other issues in the campaign.
Wu’s call for fare-free MBTA service and a return to rent control, which was banned 25 years ago in a statewide ballot question, drew sharp criticism from Essaibi George, who called free T service a pipe dream and rent regulation a failed policy. Both would require the support of the Legislature and governor.
Essaibi George, 47, a former high school teacher, is also the daughter of immigrants – her father was from Tunisia and her mother is Polish. She appealed to more moderate voters and said she would lead the city with a more grounded view of what’s possible and what’s within the mayor’s power. But Wu seemed more in tune with voter sentiment that welcomed a leader calling on the city to think outside the box to create a better future.
“I’m not running for mayor to say what we can’t do,” Wu said in the second of three televised debates with Essaibi George. “I’m fighting for what we need and deserve.”
Lots of details of a Wu administration remain to be determined. How she’ll manage development will be a key issue to watch. She has called for the abolition of the Boston Planning and Development Agency and replacing it with a new structure that separates development and planning functions. She’ll now face the task of trying to make that happen while not grinding development to a halt – akin to fixing the airplane while flying it.
Wu grew up in suburban Chicago, where her immigrant parents had settled. She got her undergraduate degree at Harvard and later a degree from its law school. When her mother developed serious mental illness, Wu moved her to Boston and became guardian for her youngest sister. She worked as a law student intern in City Hall under Mayor Tom Menino before jumping into the political mix.
In 2013, she won an at-large seat on the City Council, and has been a steady climb ever since, with a run for the city’s top job long thought to be part of her planning. In 2016, she became the first woman of color to serve as City Council president, and she was the top vote-getter in the last two council elections, in 2017 and 2019.
Wu was the first candidate to enter the mayor’s race, kicking off her run 13 months ago, in September 2020, when it was widely assumed that then-Mayor Marty Walsh would be seeking a third term this fall. Walsh, with whom Wu had an increasingly strained relationship, short-circuited her planned campaign announcement by breaking the news himself after she extended him a courtesy heads-up call about her run.
In March, Walsh left office to become labor secretary under President Biden, setting in motion a scramble for the open seat. Five major candidates wound up vying in the September preliminary, from which the top two finishers won spots on the final election ballot.
No one was able to catch Wu, who led in polling from the start and finished first in the September preliminary, with 33 percent of the vote, on the strength of her early start in the race and a citywide field organization cultivated through four city council campaign cycles. Essaibi George placed second, 11 percentage points behind.
Wu led Essaibi George by 30 or more points in three different polls released in the last three weeks of the campaign.
“I’m a mom, a daughter of immigrants, and I’ve lived my whole life knowing what it’s like to feel unseen and unheard, even when you most need help,” she said in her campaign announcement 13 months ago. She often referred during the campaign to her mother’s mental illness and to the challenges navigating the city’s complicated school assignment system for her two young sons, saying that she’s seen what happens when city government works well – and when it doesn’t.
Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston political strategist, said Wu was unfairly criticized for calling for “bold change” on various fronts while not always filling in all the details.
“It’s similar to when Ayanna was running – people said, ‘I want more specifics,’” Rivera said of Pressley’s congressional run three years ago. “You’re running for office, you’re not actually doing the deliberation of governance,” said Rivera, who supported Wu but did not work on her campaign.
“What Michelle has done is given people a vision and a message and an action plan,” said Rivera. “Now pay attention to the issue of governance. When negotiations open up for the new police contract, that’s going to be a big deal. Whether she chooses to retain the superintendent or go in a new direction” with the schools will be another thing to watch.Mario Cuomo famously declared that candidates campaign in poetry and govern in prose.
By that reckoning, Wu ran a campaign of soaring poetry. Now comes the prose of governing.