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Michelle Wu has big plans for Boston. She'll need help to get things done

Michelle Wu will be sworn in Tuesday as Mayor of Boston.  (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)
Michelle Wu will be sworn in Tuesday as Mayor of Boston. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

Michelle Wu, who will be sworn in Tuesday as mayor of Boston, made a series of bold promises during the race.

She campaigned on an ambitious progressive agenda, promising universal pre-K education, affordable child care, free public transportation and a Green New Deal.

Now comes the hard part: Running the city and turning her campaign promises into reality.

That’s especially challenging because she is being sworn in just two weeks after election day — instead of the usual two months — because of the departure of former Mayor Marty Walsh and the timing of the mayoral election.

So starting Tuesday, she will have to run the day-to-day operations of the city while continuing to assemble her team, a challenge akin to building an airplane while taking off.

“There is a short time for a transition,” said John Barros, who served the city’s chief of economic development under former Mayor Marty Walsh and ran unsuccessfully for mayor this year.

“I think they’re going to have to use the 18-hour day while they try to keep things running — while addressing some of the campaign promises,” Barros said.

One thing that should help Wu is that she already knows her way around City Hall. She worked for former Mayor Tom Menino and has been a city councilor for the past eight years.

Wu has already made history and won national attention with her sweeping election victory two weeks ago — becoming the first woman, the first Asian American and the first person of color to lead the city as an elected mayor. (Acting Mayor Kim Janey, a Black woman, also shattered gender and color barriers when she took the baton from Walsh on an interim basis.)

Wu promised to deliver “generational change” while also keeping the street lights on.

“We need, we deserve both. All of this is possible,” Wu said, as she celebrated her historic election victory.

Wu’s message appealed to Bostonians like Bob Terrell, a long-time activist in Roxbury. Terrell applauded Wu’s promise to tackle big issues — from housing affordability to climate change.

“I was very impressed with her,” Terrell said. “I think Boston is at a historic turning point. I think it’s time for a large-scale vision.”

But Michael Curry, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said that some of her campaign promises could face stiff resistance. Those include plans to shift funds from the police department budget to social services.

“You’re going to get the backlash of the very powerful, mobilized police union and their allies,” said Curry, describing a challenge that he says “every new mayor inherits.

“So, that’s the problem. It’s politics. It’s money,” he said.

Politics and money could both get in the way of delivering another big campaign promise: free public transit.

In this case, Wu’s challenge is that the state, not City Hall, funds the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. And so far, legislative leaders on Beacon Hill have been cool to Wu’s push for free public transportation, including Gov. Charlie Baker, who doesn’t appear to like the idea at all.

“Somebody’s going to have to come up with a lot of money from somebody,” Baker said on WCVB recently. The governor added that if Boston wants to pay for a free T, then the idea is “worth discussing.”

But Baker said it would be unfair to ask Massachusetts residents who live outside the city and don’t use the MBTA to pay the tab.

“It does not make any sense to me, ” Baker said.

Wu will also face opposition to her promise to bring back rent control, a move that would need state approval. Massachusetts outlawed the policy in a referendum in 1994.

But Mitchell Weiss, who served as chief of staff to former Mayor Tom Menino and is serving on Wu’s transition team, said it’s understandable that Wu will need state or federal help to make some big changes.

“If we listed out things that Boston needs to fix that were only limited to the things that the Boston mayor is in charge of, well, we might as well just all stop work and go home,” said Weiss.

Weiss pointed out that among Wu’s campaign promises was a pledge to work with the state and other partners to get things done.

“The point is that the mayor of Boston is someone who can rally people, bring people together, and go after problems that are even bigger than the state has allowed the city to be in charge of,” Weiss said.

Katherine Lusk, who also worked for Menino and now heads the Initiative on Cities at Boston University, believes Wu would do well to “take a page from Mayor Menino’s playbook.”

Lusk said that means rallying key players from outside the city — labor unions, universities and the business community — who helped Menino make progress on a number of big issues, including improving schools and moving the needle on pay equity for women

“Some people would call it ‘collaborative government’ — enlisting outside partners and allies to solve big, intractable problems,” Lusk said.

Wu had a chance to learn the value of that kind of collaboration to get big things done while working for Menino.

It’s a skill she’ll need in her new job as mayor as she seeks to make good on her ambitious campaign goals.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.


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