Boston Elects Michelle Wu, First Woman of Color, as Its Mayor
(Bloomberg) -- In a historic milestone, Bostonians on Tuesday elected a mayor who is a woman and a person of color: Michelle Wu, a 36-year-old city councilor who backs rent control, free public transport and a city-level “Green New Deal.”
Wu’s City Council colleague and fellow Democrat, Annissa Essaibi George, conceded on Tuesday night. With 31% of precincts reporting, Wu led by about 13 percentage points, according to the Associated Press. That preliminary margin was less than the 30-point lead Wu held in recent polls.
Slated to take office on Nov. 16, Wu is the first woman to win the Boston mayoralty since it was created in 1822. She takes over from acting mayor Kim Janey, who assumed the role in March after then-mayor Marty Walsh became U.S. Secretary of Labor. Janey became the first woman of color in the post, but Wu is the first to be elected to it.
The Harvard-educated Wu, who is Taiwanese-American and grew up in Chicago, is a close ally of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Her policy proposals represent a local-level shift toward big-picture progressive ideas now on the rise in the national Democratic Party, said Boston College associate professor of political science David Hopkins.
Wu emphasizes the audacity of her policies. She told reporters on the eve of Election Day, “We are standing on the brink of history, where Boston has the chance to choose between nibbling around the edges of the status quo or taking the big, bold actions that we have needed for a long time.”
When asked about her plans for her first steps as mayor, however, she struck a pragmatic chord, saying she would begin by building a team. ”The new administration will be starting in the midst of the shift to winter,” she added, “preparing for cold weather, thinking about the situation at Mass. and Cass” – a homeless encampment – “and how to take immediate action and ensure that people are not in the streets as winter comes.”
It will also focus on the pandemic response in schools and on closing vaccination gaps, she said.
Also on Wu’s list of first tasks: a national search for a police commissioner and assembling a team to examine how to reform the permitting process for building.
Wu’s rival, Essaibi George, accused her of putting forward “pie in the sky” proposals beyond the mayor’s power to realize — including rent control, which would have to be approved at the state level and is sure to face strong resistance.
Wu maintains that she will find ways to realize her proposals, including her call for free public transit, beginning with bus service.
“I’m going to be pushing right away from Day 1 to expand the free bus pilot that we already have in the city of Boston,” she said in a debate last month.
In recent polls asking which issues Boston voters care about, affordable housing repeatedly placed at the top. Wu argued in a debate that “everything should be on the table,” including plans to build more housing and use city-owned property for more units.
Essaibi George countered that rent control would deter investment and keep rents high. “It’s an exercise that we have tried,” she said, “and it has failed here in the city of Boston and has failed in so many other places.”
Also of high importance to Boston voters, according to multiple polls, is improving the city’s under-performing public schools. Wu has emphasized she’s the mother of young schoolchildren and will prioritize education issues.
Still, the contest largely lacked sparks until its final days, when ads in support of Essaibi George became decidedly more negative against Wu. One television spot, which Wu unsuccessfully tried to block, alleged Wu had a cozy relationship with a Boston developer. Wu has called the attacks false and disappointing, and emphasized that her own campaign remained positive.
In polls, Wu took a commanding lead early in the race and never lost it. Her popularity involves a contradiction, UMass Boston associate professor of political science Erin O’Brien told Bloomberg Radio. Polling found “the average Bostonian wants incremental change,” she said. “Obviously, Michelle Wu is offering progressive change, radical change, big structural change.”
But, O’Brien said, “voters don’t have to be ideologically consistent,” and polls have found strong popularity for each of Wu’s individual policies.
Wu won the vast majority of endorsements from prominent Bostonians, including many business leaders, despite her support for rent control and deep reform of how permits for developments are approved.
Endorsements often involve calculations of who’s likely to win, Hopkins said. “Business people are often kind of pragmatic about thinking ‘Well, who is going to be the mayor for the next four years? Who are we going to have to be dealing with?”
At 36, Wu is so young that Hopkins predicts she may break another Boston tradition, that successful candidates tend to become “mayor for life.” For Wu, the job could become a stepping stone to more national prominence, he said. “That’s more of an option for her than it has been for many of her predecessors.”
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