Michelle Wu’s personal path to politics
Mayoral candidate saw the ways government matters at ground level
BOSTON CITY COUNCILOR Michelle Wu confirmed earlier this month what had been widely speculated for more than a year — she will run for mayor next year.
Wu has, in very short order, become a political force to be reckoned with in the city. She placed second in the at-large council race in her first run for office, in 2013, a feat she repeated two years later before going on to top the at-large ticket in the last two city elections.
The 35-year-old city councilor has become a leading voice for systemic change — whether it’s her call for a comprehensive restructuring of the city’s approach to planning and development or battling a recent MBTA fare hike by advancing the idea of free transit, an idea that only recently seemed fanciful but has begun to gain traction and spur important discussion of transit policy.
Wu is, by conventional standards, an unlikely figure to be challenging a sitting Boston mayor (though incumbent Mayor Marty Walsh has yet to declare his candidacy, he is widely expected to seek a third term next year). She is shy by temperament, and when she entered Harvard as an undergraduate in 2004, according to an Atlantic magazine profile last year, politics was so removed from Wu’s upbringing that she considered herself neither a Democrat nor a Republican.
“We never discussed politics at the dinner table, barely talked about current events,” Wu said of her childhood in suburban Chicago. “I realized later on that this was an intentional decision by my parents in a lot of ways.”
Wu is the daughter of immigrants who arrived in the US in the early 1980s from Taiwan, and they, too, were children of immigrants — their parents having fled civil war in mainland China. “And so in our family tree, politics was fear and famine and corruption, and so they very much wanted to shield all of us from that as kids,” said Wu, the eldest of four children. She said “there’s a moment in each of our lives” when whatever bubbles constructed by our parents as a shield against the outside world burst. For her, that happened as her mother descended into severe mental illness, a situation that left Wu, whose parents had divorced, then in her early 20s, raising her two younger sisters and caring for her mother.
Wu said she learned quickly “just how much government mattered and how much politics mattered on top of that.”
While the experience made clear the important role of public policy issues like health care and mental health services, Wu had already felt the strong pull of community service.
While lots of her classmates at Harvard spent their time cloistered in and around the Cambridge campus, Wu immediately began heading into Boston.
“I would come to Chinatown every single weekend as a student — take the Red Line over the Charles River — and teach classes to seniors in Chinatown who were seeking to become naturalized US citizens. And that was my home. That was my home away from home. That feeling of being surrounded by amazing people who had given up so much to come to this country for their families, and I’m getting to help them a little bit in navigating a very important part of their life.”
The summer before she started at Harvard Law School, Wu worked at a legal services clinic in Jamaica Plain, where she learned more about the barriers faced by those who are “unseen and unheard.” The large Hispanic client base at the clinic also motivated her to learn Spanish, and Wu cut versions of her mayoral campaign kickoff video in which she speaks to the camera in English, Mandarin (her first language growing up), and Spanish.
As for her run for mayor, Wu said, we are at “a truly once in a generation moment in our city and beyond as well, where in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and an economic crisis, our continuing climate crisis, a national reckoning on systemic racism, we are seeing that the issues community members were always lifting up are now life and death.”
Wu said her time in office has shown her “when you dig in and start to reimagine what’s possible for our city…we can get things done pretty quickly in Boston.”“What we need to just connect all the dots is leadership that has that sense of bold aspiration, urgent action, and community-based vision,” she said.
Asked if that vision has been missing under Walsh, Wu ticks off a list of things she has have worsened over the last seven years, from growing inequality to a development process geared toward those with “insider connections” and the many “missed opportunities for Boston to connect our resources with the scale and the urgency of our challenges.”