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Michelle Wu elected as Boston's first woman mayor in historic victory

michelle wu.jpg
Jesse Costa
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WBUR
Newly elected mayor of Boston Michelle Wu embraces her sons Cass and Blaise on stage at the Cyclorama.

Michelle Wu, the 36-year-old daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, made history Tuesday night, defeating fellow city councilor Annissa Essaibi George to become the first woman and the first Asian American elected mayor of Boston. For nearly 200 years, Boston has elected only white men to the top office.

“On this day, Boston elected your mom, because from every quarter of this city, Boston has spoken,” Wu said. “We are ready to be a Boston for everyone.”

Essaibi George conceded the race just after 10:20 p.m. Tuesday night, congratulating Wu on her victory and noting the history she’s made.

“I know this is no small feat. You know it’s no small feat,” Essaibi George. “I want her to show the city how mothers get it done.”

It marks the seventh-straight election where Wu garnered more votes than Essaibi George citywide, including six at-large city council races where they faced off since 2013, including two preliminary city council contests to narrow the field. Wu also ran well ahead of Essaibi George in September’s preliminary election for the mayor’s job.

Wu was raised in Chicago, where she often served as the unofficial interpreter for her Chinese-speaking parents as a child. She says she never imagined one day running for mayor.

Growing up in a Taiwanese family, Wu said she was discouraged from being confrontational or talking about herself in public. And she believed that she didn’t have the traits normally associated with politicians.

“I was none of those things,” Wu told WBUR. “Not tall, male, angry, loud.”

In 2003, Wu moved east to attend Harvard as an undergraduate. After she graduated, her mother suffered a mental health crisis, and Wu returned to Chicago to help take care of her and her two younger sisters. She opened a small teahouse, but struggled to make it work. So, she headed back to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law School, this time bringing her family with her. She also served as legal guardian to her younger sister, Victoria.

At Harvard, she studied contract law with Elizabeth Warren, and later worked on Warren’s first campaign for U.S. Senate, becoming a political protégé of the state’s senior senator.

Wu said her own experience, including struggling with her mother’s mental health crisis, her sisters’ schools and her own effort to start a small business propelled her into politics. She said those experiences “burst the bubble on trying to stay away from politics and government.”

“It just mattered so much, and so many other people in similar situations were struggling with that,” Wu said.

With a successful campaign for mayor behind her, Wu now has just two weeks to assemble a team and take over leadership at City Hall. She will be sworn in as mayor of Boston on Nov. 16.

“There is a short time for transition here,” said John Barros, who served as the director of economic development for former Mayor Marty Walsh, and who ran unsuccessfully for mayor this year. “[The challenge] is to keep things running while addressing some of the campaign promises.”

Barros said it will help Wu that she has served as a city councilor since 2014 and already knows her way around City Hall. But he said that she and her team will be under a lot of pressure in the coming weeks.

“Time is of the essence and they’re going to have to [work] some 18-hour days to move quickly and make sure Boston does not miss a beat,” Barros said.

Leslie Reid, chief executive officer of the Madison Park Development Corp., is hopeful that Wu can make good on her promise to advance “racially equitable opportunities for asset and wealth-building in the city of Boston.”

But for Reid, a key challenge facing the new mayor is timing: “How quickly is [Wu] going to be able to assemble a team to respond to some of the new opportunities in front of us?”

Wu now faces the challenge of transforming an aspirational campaign into a workable plan to govern the city. It’s a challenge that “every mayor inherits,” according to Michael Curry, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and the past president of the Boston branch of the NAACP.

Some of Wu’s plans, including making the T free and re-instituting a form of rent control, would require action by the state. Other plans, such as reallocating money from the Boston Police Department to other programs could face resistance from powerful political constituencies.

“[She will] get the backlash of the very powerful, mobilized police unions and their allies,” Curry said. “So that’s the challenge: it’s politics, it’s money that get in the way of bold, big ideas.”

Essaibi George, 47, a former Boston public school teacher, focused her campaign on improving the city’s schools, public safety and a promise to resolve the crisis of homelessness and addiction playing out at the South End intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, also known as “Mass. and Cass.” She promised to be a mayor “who does the work.”

“It’s not sexy; it’s not glamorous,” Essaibi George said in a debate last month on NBC Boston. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re filling pot holes, repairing our sidewalks, building playgrounds, picking up the trash and turning on the lights.”

Essaibi George’s back-to-basics approach to being mayor appealed to Nick Shumacher of Dorchester, who said Wu promised more than she can realistically delver.

“George’s positions were a little bit more concrete, or grounded,” Shumacher said. “They seemed a little bit more realistic to me, especially because she lives right here [in Dorchester].”

Among the most important issues for Shumacher was “Mass. and Cass.” He said it seemed George had a “much clearer plan” for the area.

Teddy Ahern of Dorcheser, said he voted for Essaibi George because she grew up in Boston, unlike Wu, who was raised in Chicago.

“I don’t want a person from Chicago coming into my city and saying, ‘Oh, I’ll use this as a stepping stone,’ ” Ahern said. “She’s promising things she can’t deliver.”

But voters overwhelmingly opted for Wu’s more ambitious agenda, despite Essaibi George’s claims that it is unworkable and costly. Wu offered voters a progressive wish list that includes universal pre-K, affordable child care, free public transportation and local version of the Green New Deal, which includes more trees and electric school buses to improve the environment, but also initiatives to attack poverty and close the racial wealth gap.

“I voted for Michelle because she understands that affordable housing is housing ownership,” said Laurel Radwin, who cast her vote for Wu on Tuesday. “The only way to decrease the racial wealth gap is through homeownership.”

Radwin said she also supports Wu’s call to make the T free in Boston.

Bob Terrell, an activist in Roxbury, said he voted for Wu because he believes that her progressive vision is right for a city facing “a historic turning point, both politically and demographically.”

“As a city councilor, she was really on top of all the issues, and gave us assistance and support every time we needed it,” he said.

Terrell said Wu understands how Boston residents are being displaced by soaring rents and gentrification. And he was particularly impressed with her grasp of “climate change and a lot of environmental justice issues, which we in this neighborhood have raised for a couple of decades now.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

Michelle Wu smiles as she speaks to supporters after winning the election to be Mayor of Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Michelle Wu smiles as she speaks to supporters after winning the election to be Mayor of Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)