Wu holds forth on policing, vaccine passports, and Walsh documentary

Fields questions in first appearance as mayor on GBH radio show 

FOR MICHELLE WU, when it comes to making room amid her bold plans for the often more prosaic daily grind of city government, it’s time to make the donuts. When it comes to her first installment on GBH radio’s “Ask the Mayor,” Wu decided to buy some and bring them. 

So with an offering from nearby Twin Donuts, Boston’s newly-elected mayor arrived at the station’s Brighton studios for an hour of caller questions and friendly banter with hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. 

Wu said she hopes for a thorough, but speedy, search in the new year for a new police commissioner. She hinted at support for a vaccine mandate in restaurants and other venues, but made no firm declaration, and she parried questions about her predecessor, Marty Walsh, with a few laughs and a confession that she hasn’t seen even “one minute” of the the four-and-a-half hour documentary of city government under his reign. 

It may have been Wu’s first appearance on the regular monthly feature on Braude and Eagan’s show, but she seemed completely at ease with the session after 14 months on the campaign trail in which she fielded questions on every aspect of municipal government and more. 

Wu, who served eight years on the City Council before her election earlier this month, sounded far more energized than intimidated by her new role, one week after being sworn in. 

“I’m so humbled, so excited, and some days I just can’t believe it – the work that we get to do,” she said. “And all of the issues that we’ve been talking about for a decade now and then 14 months on the campaign trail, we get the chance to actually just roll up our sleeves and do it.” 

Wu said the process of hiring a permanent police commissioner would likely begin in earnest in the new year, with a search committee appointed that will first conduct listening sessions with the community before beginning to identify and interview potential candidates. 

“I very much want to have public engagement lead this process,” she said. “What should we be looking for to begin with? What values and parameters and qualifications and skill sets should really drive the search?” Wu said wants to see a “comprehensive but quick search” over a period of several months. 

Wu had been critical of the police department’s release of only limited information concerning former officer Patrick Rose, the one-time head of the city’s largest police union, who remained on the force for two decades after an internal affairs report concluded he likely had sexually abused a minor. She said she hopes to see more information on the case released once the city’s new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency is fully operating. 

But “it can’t just be on a case by case basis when something rises to the level of media attention,” she said. There needs to be “a cultural shift of being open to the public.” 

She wouldn’t put a firm timeline on it, but said her administration will be “moving shortly” to pursue her goal of reestablishing some form of rent control in Boston. Any such system would require state approval, and Gov. Charlie Baker is decidedly cool to the idea. 

Wu said the topic came up in a meeting she had last week with Baker and that he shared with her, as he has publicly, his negative reaction to what Wu called the “old-style of rent control” that was banned through a statewide ballot question in 1994. “It doesn’t have to look like how it’s looked in the past,” said Wu, adding that the approach today looks very different in the places across the country that have implemented some version of rent regulation. 

Braude joked that the donuts she came bearing could be viewed as a bribe, and asked what she was looking for in return. 

“Gentle, nice questions,” Wu said. 

Her hosts generally obliged, but Braude pressed Wu on her position during the campaign that Boston should adopt the policy New York City has in place that requires proof of vaccination to go to restaurants, concerts, or other public venues, rather than leaving such a burden on individual establishments. 

“Are you going to do this, and if you are, when are you going to do it?” Braude asked. 

Wu hinted at the idea of imposing a so-called vaccine passport, but danced around any firm answer. “We’re following the data very closely and thinking about every tool that the city of Boston has,” Wu said. “I still very much think that we should be taking all possible action to protect our community members, to protect customers, and those who might be wanting to attend these events.”  Wu said “the way to head off a shutdown is for everyone to get vaccinated.”

Wu said she plans to continue riding the Orange Line to City Hall, and she encouraged riders who spot on her the T to share what’s on their mind or buttonhole her with questions.

While elected officials often look for the path of least resistance or friction in answering a question, Wu responded to one with an answer that made clear her intention not to pursue business as usual when it comes to development issues. The question, from a listener identified only as “Blue-Collar Boston,” said construction workers in Boston had steady income and support under Marty Walsh and asked whether they would “have similar support from Mayor Michelle Wu.”

“There’s a whole lot of work that we need to do in Boston, and so absolutely,” Wu said, who suggested there would be plenty of construction going on and extolled the contribution construction workers have made to the city’s vibrant economy. “I want us to make sure we are building in a way that is actually sustainable, though,” she said. “The way that our city has been headed, the surest way to slow down development and construction in some ways was to keep doing what we had been doing, which is to kind of turn the other way when it comes to the impacts of climate change and not to truly connect affordability and transportation access with all the decisions that we were making.” 

While evincing the requisite degree of humility politicians often share when asked about the opportunity to serve in powerful positions, Wu displayed some well-earned bravado when Eagan asked how the 36-year-old mayor responds to those who might say, “you’re just too young and too female to handle this big city.” 

“I welcome it, cuz I’m sittin’ in the seat now,” Wu said with a tongue-in-cheek edge. She went on to speak more seriously about the barriers coming down across Boston in different sectors with women and others who have historically been marginalized assuming leadership roles. 

Asked if she’s spoken to Walsh, Wu, who reportedly didn’t invite the former mayor to her swearing in, said they were together last weekend packing boxes at a Mattapan food pantry. 

“Did you ask him who he voted for?” asked Braude.

“I did not,” said Wu. 

“We know who his mother voted for,” said Braude, referring to Mary Walsh’s public support for Wu’s opponent, Annissa Essaibi George. 

When the conversation turned to the frustrations people can experience with business licensing and other everyday functions of city government, Braude asked Wu if she had seen “City Hall,” the lengthy look at Boston city government under Walsh by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. 

“I am sorry to say I have not yet even watched one minute,” said Wu. She added that she’s had 10 years to experience city government bureaucracy up close. “And I hear we’re not even in it,” she added of her apparent absence from the four-and-a-half hour film. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Wu said she has a busy Thanksgiving planned, with “six or eight turkey events,” including stops at the Pine Street Inn and St. Francis House. She said she’ll also spend time with her in-laws and with her mother.  

“Hopefully get a little breath in between to just chill out on the couch and watch some Netflix,” she said. “Maybe I’ll watch ‘City Hall.’”