What will Boston’s new Wuniverse bring?
Michelle Wu won big -- and set expectations high
IN HER VICTORY speech after cruising to a landslide win in the Boston mayor’s race, Michelle Wu spoke of the urgency of “bold” change to “meet the moment” the city is facing, a theme she sounded throughout her campaign. But she also talked about the importance of basic city services, saying her administration can pay attention to both.
Wu seems poised to chart a very different course than the last several Boston mayors, with plowing the streets after snow storms likely to be accompanied by a zest for big policy ideas perhaps not seen since Kevin White’s days in City Hall. That promise was a big part of her election success, said Yawu Miller, senior editor of the Bay State Banner.
“I think people really responded to her ideas,” Miller said. For much of the last century, Miller said, Boston elections often turned on ethnicity and which neighborhood a candidate was from, with those tribal loyalties often the coin of the electoral realm. “Ethnicity mattered way more than ideas,” he said. “And I think that equation has kind of flipped on its head.”
The Chicago-born mayor-elect, who lived in the North End and South End before settling in Roslindale, where she lives with her husband and two young sons, managed to float above the contours of the turf battles that once animated Boston political races. And though she made history – and national headlines – as the first woman and first person of color to be elected mayor, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants didn’t lean heavily into her identity during the race.
“It’s a different city than it was even 10 years ago or even eight years ago when Marty Walsh ran,” said Miller. “The electorate is more racially heterogeneous, so race doesn’t matter as much. She came with bold ideas and I think that the electorate is way more in tune with voting for things like mitigating climate change, because we have a younger electorate, making the MBTA free.”
Dumcius said Wu moved smoothly during campaign appearances between smaller-bore city service issues and her big-picture vision. At one event at a Mattapan church, he recalled, she was told she had limited time to answer a particular question. “Okay, I’m going to do some nitty-gritty and some big,” Wu said. “I think that kind of summed up where she was trying to steer the campaign,” said Dumcius.
At a Charlestown house party, he said, Wu offered up a very “granular” answer to a question about bottlenecks in the city’s permitting process. “The building inspectors are overworked and understaffed,” he said she told the gathering. “So they are responding to the people who are bugging them the most about permits. And she said, ‘you know, if we hire a dozen or so administrative assistants for these building inspectors, that could quadruple their productivity.’”
Meanwhile, Dumcius said, while Wu’s talk about sweeping policy changes like fare-free MBTA service has been derided as “pie-in-the-sky” thinking, Joe Aiello, who chaired the T’s oversight board for six years, endorsed her campaign. Dumcius said he asked Aiello how a guy charged with worrying about the agency’s shaky finances could get behind a candidate promoting that idea. “He said, ‘you know, she’s already changed the conversation on fare-free MBTA with just pushing it,’” said Dumcius. What’s more, said Dumcius, Wu is a very strategic thinker. The gist of Aiello’s view, he said, was “if a fare-free MBTA is a trip to Jupiter, Michelle Wu knows how to build a space program to get there.”That could, however, be a very long journey. There are bound to be moments when some of her big ideas collide with the messy reality of how things get done and the pace at which change happens, if at all. “I think activists are at some point going to be disappointed,” said Dumcius, calling that “part and parcel” of what happens when a candidate shifts from campaigning to governing.
“She’s promised a lot,” said Miller, “and she has a lot to deliver on.”