Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu decided to run for mayor after seeing how the crises of inequality and injustice that some of the city’s residents experienced well before COVID-19 hit have only worsened.
“Now every challenge has been deepened and exacerbated by this pandemic,” Wu told The Appeal.
Wu, who has served in city government for more than seven years, has earned the endorsement of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of Wu’s first professors at Harvard Law School.
“Michelle’s ambitious plans will deliver the structural changes we need to make Boston a city of opportunity for all of our families,” Warren told The Appeal in an email. “I’m proud to endorse Michelle because I know with her in the Mayor’s office, Bostonians will have a champion with the courage and conviction to put working families first.”
The councilor’s plans for the city—including an ambitious proposal to make public transportation free and a Boston Green New Deal—along with her City Council work have not only won her the backing of Warren, but also the city’s Sunrise Movement group and the personal endorsement of national labor leader Sara Nelson, who called Wu’s leadership “infectious and full of momentum, while also patient and attentive through real love for people in every part of our community.”
“Boston is a city of tradition and historical significance, at the heart of which is revolutionary ideas and dreamers for a better world,” Nelson told The Appeal. “Michelle carries on that spirit in the way that she tackles challenges with the excitement of making change for the better by bringing the power of every voice to the table.”
Wu’s policy platform largely reimagines what kind of city Boston can be. By creating fare-free public transit and employment opportunities through a 1930s New Deal-style Urban Climate Corps, as well as addressing gentrification through rezoning the city and restricting Airbnb and predatory real estate companies, Wu’s agenda, if realized, would radically change life for Boston’s working-class residents.
“City government, especially in Boston, has the potential to transform what’s possible in policy, in democratic participation, in civic empowerment and in people’s day to day lives,” Wu said.
As one of 13 city councilors, Wu made a name for herself pushing for sweeping changes to how the city functions. If she became mayor, her plans would center the city’s working class, activists and advocates told The Appeal.
“Michelle has been the lead for policies like paid parental leave for city workers, for more tightly regulating short-term rentals, prioritizing local food procurement for city purchasing, and bulk-purchasing renewable energy,” Jonathan Cohn, a prominent Boston-based activist said. “She has used her platform to advocate for bold policies like fare-free public transit and a municipal Green New Deal.”
It’s these latter two policies—transportation and the environment—where Wu’s mayoralty would have the biggest effect. Boston’s mayor is an administrator, not a legislator, but has significant influence over guiding city government priorities particularly through veto power.
The councilor’s vision of a Boston where a cleaner environment drives the economy and transportation is provided to residents free of charge is ambitious, but shows the potential of having a progressive who’s done the work in charge at City Hall, said community organizer Lee Nave Jr. A resident of Allston-Brighton, Nave is a Wu supporter who finds her focus on food security particularly important, and her on-the-ground organizing even more so.
“Wu is not just a big thinker with big plans, she’s a down in the streets organizer who values community voice at all levels of decision making,” Nave said. “I’ve seen her for years conduct various roundtable discussions on neighborhood issues, take the feedback gathered, and implement a plan.”
The councilor’s vision for transportation and climate dovetail together nicely, said Chris Dempsey, director of the Transportation for Massachusetts advocacy coalition. Wu’s plans to expand transit access by adding accessibility infrastructure, use city authority over allocation of road space to speed up buses for the city’s residents, and make public transportation free of charge could transform the city, reducing pollution while improving quality of life and increasing ridership.
Dempsey said the plan would both lead to a cleaner city and expand opportunity for the city’s poorer communities.
“She understands that our failing transportation system has been a barrier to opportunity and access for marginalized communities, in addition to being the largest source of air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions of any sector of the economy,” Dempsey said.
Wu’s Boston Green New Deal would also tackle air pollution and emissions as the city looks to a post-COVID future. The policy platform, and one of the first city-level Green New Deals, runs 46 pages and urges Bostonians to envision a future where the city mitigates the effects of a changing climate in a way that would boost the local economy.
With an ambitious goal of a net-zero municipal footprint by 2024, the plan calls for a Green Workforce Development initiative to help reorient the city’s workers to a changing economy and for the city’s retirement board to divest from gun manufacturers and private prisons and move that cash to clean energy investments. The recovery plan also calls for the creation of an Urban Climate Corps that would simultaneously contribute to climate-related mitigation and close “employment inequities across neighborhoods and racial lines.” The plan includes a renter’s right to counsel, helping families keep their homes and saving the city money.
Andy Wells-Bean, campaign coordinator at Boston Climate Action Network, told The Appeal that Wu’s work on the council—”she was instrumental in helping get community choice electricity off the ground”—and her vision for the city’s green future makes her a strong candidate.
“It shows a level of commitment to climate justice that is really unparalleled,” Wells-Bean said.
Wu didn’t grow up talking about politics with her family, who emigrated from Taiwan in the early 1980s. Instead, her upbringing in Chicago, where she was born, focused on creating a stable life for oneself. It’s an idea that came into conflict with reality quickly, however, and that’s an experience the mayoral hopeful imagines many Americans can relate to lately.
“You see how connected all of us are to these systems that, in fact, make it impossible for anyone to be fully safe, healthy, and connected to opportunity,” Wu said.
For Wu, it all came crashing down in 2007, when she was 22. She had just graduated from Harvard when her mother suffered a mental health crisis, upending the family’s life. Wu returned to Chicago and became the caregiver for her mother and her two younger sisters. It felt like the best option to the first-generation American, whose role in the family while growing up involved navigating her parents “around invisible barriers that we all clearly knew existed.”
“And then when my mom began to struggle with mental illness, those barriers became very high,” Wu said.
She opened a tea shop to help make ends meet, but the bureaucracy of Chicago’s government was a continual hassle and frustration. Seeing others experience similar struggles across the city spurred Wu’s to return to Harvard for law school, taking her family with her. After sitting in Warren’s classroom and landing an internship in the mayor’s office, Wu’s path began to materialize.
From there it was a short jump from knocking doors for Warren’s first Senate campaign to running—and winning—a City Council seat in 2013.
The Boston mayoral race has been already marked by political upheaval. Because the office lacks term limits, incumbent Marty Walsh was expected to run for a third term but his appointment to labor secretary in the Biden administration, subject to Senate confirmation, has opened the field. Wu and Councilor Andrea Campbell had already entered the race in September, planning to face off against Walsh. Walsh’s imminent departure spurred Councilor Annissa Essaibi George and former hotel manager Dana Depelteau to join the race in late January.
But Boston has also been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest. Tensions that erupted in late May after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers spurred protests in Boston that were part of a nationwide uprising. The protests did little to solve the longtime tensions between the city’s marginalized populations and its notorious police department, which the mayor oversees.
Reporting from The Appeal in December revealed that, according to over 66 hours of body camera footage from the night of May 29, the police abused and terrorized demonstrators far beyond what had been previously documented. Despite the ensuing uproar, Walsh vetoed legislation from the council that would have restricted police use of force, a decision that Wu at the time called “an insult to the activism and organizing that defined 2020, and falls far short of the transformational leadership that Boston deserves.” The force’s top job has also seen tumult. Commissioner William Gross retired at the end of January; his replacement, Dennis White, lasted less than three days before he was placed on leave over allegations of domestic abuse. Superintendent-in-Chief Gregory Long is now acting commissioner.
In addition to wanting to divert 911 calls about unhoused people and mental health issues to public health professionals, Wu aims to address the racial divide in how Bostonians are treated by police; she is calling on city government to “take concrete steps to dismantle racism in law enforcement by demilitarizing the police, banning weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets and practices like no-knock warrants that endanger our residents of color.” It’s part of what the councilor told The Appeal is her intersectional approach to racial justice and the problems facing residents.
If Wu wins the Sept. 21 primary, and then the mayoral race on Nov. 2, she’ll become the city’s first elected woman and person of color to hold the top spot. (Kim Janey, City Council president, is poised to become the first woman in the office once she takes over for Walsh pending his confirmation.) Wu’s position as a prominent woman of color on the council gives her leadership and advocacy added weight, said environmental advocate Rickie Harvey, a steering team member for the Boston Clean Energy Coalition. Wu’s election as the first Asian American woman to serve on the council was “groundbreaking,” Harvey said, and an example of the changes that have occurred in the city’s politics over the last eight years.
“Today we almost take for granted her undeniable successes: She’s authored more than half of all the ordinances passed in her years on the council, was the top at-large vote-getter twice, and was the first woman of color to serve as council president,” Harvey told The Appeal. “Today it is easy to forget the mostly male, and mostly white, world of Boston politics that existed when Michelle entered it.”
Cohn, the Boston-based activist, told The Appeal that he hoped Wu would be the kind of leader who would take what he described as Boston’s long mayoral history of political stagnation and radically change it for the better as she did on the council. That requires walking away from the kind of politics practiced by Walsh—though Wu has made little secret of the fact that she plans on being a different leader than the departing incumbent.
“One of my biggest critiques of Marty Walsh’s tenure has been an inability to imagine how the city’s future could look anything other than incrementally different from its path,” said Cohn. “I think Michelle has been willing to seriously engage in the visioning and execution to provide an alternative.”
No matter who wins the election, Boston’s next mayor, like others around the country, will have to figure out what recovery from the COVID-19 crisis looks like.
“Boston is a city that has everything we need to solve these challenges,” Wu told The Appeal. “We have the resources. We have the activism, we have the ideas. We just need the urgent leadership that lifts up our communities.”