What you need to know
A combination of big picture changes in Boston along with personal talent have propelled Michelle Wu to the mayor’s office.
Boston elected Michelle Wu on Tuesday, Nov. 2, as its first Asian-American mayor. She won in a landslide nearly 30 point margin over opponent Annissa Essaibi-George, her fellow legislator in the Boston City Council.
Wu makes history with many firsts as Boston’s mayor-elect: first Taiwanese-American, first Asian-American, and first female. She will be replacing Kim Janey, acting mayor since March 2021, after former mayor Marty Walsh’s departure to become Secretary of Labor. This is the first time Boston will not have a white man as its chief executive.
Running on a progressive and community-focused platform and eight years serving as city councilor at-large, Wu was favored to win in polls.
As chief executive of Boston, which maintains sister city relations with Taipei, Wu promises to make the city more inclusive: to make some public transportation free, to restore rent control, to reallocate resources away from the police, to implement a version of Boston’s own Green New Deal, to name a few.
Endorsed by the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren, mentor and former professor at Harvard Law School, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, former colleague at Boston City Council, Wu’s victory may seem all too natural. However, her political growth was never inevitable, if anything, it was never on the radar.
“I grew up as, in many ways, a very stereotypical Asian American girl – very quiet and respectful – never thinking about politics or elected office,” Wu said in an interview with TaiwaneseAmerican.org. Her parents moved from China to Taiwan in 1949, then to the U.S. in the 1980s as her father pursued graduate school. “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,” she told CommonWealth Magazine.
Her parent’s wishes would not turn out as they may have expected. Wu’s direct experience with politics and city government propelled her into public work. After graduating from Harvard College, a family crisis compelled her to move home to Chicago. At age 23, Wu became the caregiver to her mom, who began showing signs of late onset schizophrenia, and parent to her two younger siblings, and tried to start a tea business.
She encountered friction in her dealings with the city government – such as permitting as a small business, gaining legal guardianship over her siblings, enrolling them in school districts – that made her appreciate its importance as a facilitator or potential barrier to families like hers. When she moved back to Boston for Harvard Law School, she brought the entire family with her.
During law school, she worked at Boston City Hall. Elizabeth Warren became a professor and mentor to Wu, who would end up working full-time on Warren’s senate campaign three years later in 2012. Her many meetings at City Hall along with cutting her teeth on Warren’s Senate campaign led to her first run for city councilor in 2013.
As a city councilor, Wu was bold in her vision but never shied away from the drudge work of government either. While soft-spoken, Wu wasn’t afraid to use her voice. She pushed back on Airbnb and was outspoken in criticizing the former mayor when she disagreed. But Wu also drew legislators in to collaborate on issues such as climate change and parental leave.
Wu’s historic mayoral election rides a wave of demographic and ideological changes in Boston and national politics. Asian Americans, despite being the fastest growing demographic, have historically been underrepresented in city governments, and politics in general. Nevertheless, they are joining more diverse, young, and left-leaning voices in public office.
Sam Yoon was the first Asian American to run for mayor of Boston in 2009. Like Wu, he was Harvard-educated, community-oriented, and served on the City Council. His nation-wide support from Asian Americans, having achieved recognition as the first Asian American councillor, however, didn’t translate to a chance on the final ballot.
Another high-profile Asian American candidate that drew national attention was Andrew Yang, also the child of Taiwanese immigrants. Despite his unsuccessful candidacies for president and mayor of New York City, his visibility on a national platform shows that more is possible for Asian Americans.
In the twelve years since Yoon’s campaign, Boston has seen important shifts. Ayanna Pressley, now a prominent progressive member of the U.S. Congress, was the first black woman and woman of color to join Boston’s City Council in 2010. The City Council is the most diverse it has ever been today, with seats mostly held by women and people of color. This reflects Boston’s growing diversity, a majority-minority city in the past two census counts.
Wu is certainly the beneficiary of these changes. She in all likelihood will be the first of many representatives of a new Boston elected mayor. But her prodigious political talents and youth virtually guarantee that this will not be the last time we’ll be following her closely.
With Wu at its helm, Boston will be an example of how the legacies of historic cities weave with new shifts to reflect and include the diversity of its people.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.