Michelle Wu, Boston’s First Asian American Mayor Breaks Barriers in Politics
At 8 p.m. EST on Tuesday November 2nd, the city of Boston anxiously awaited the results of a historic election that would define the city’s direction for the next four years. Two candidates, Michelle Wu, former council member, and it’s first Asian American Council President, along with Annissa Essaibi George, a fellow city council member and Boston native, were on the ticket for Mayor. A position which had been held exclusively by white men since the city's first mayor was elected in 1822.
The city broke this trend in March 2021 when then mayor, Marty Walsh, resigned after being confirmed as the Secretary of Labor in President Biden's Cabinet. City council president, Kim Janey, was then promoted to acting mayor of the city in a historic move making her the first woman, and person of color, to have the position in the city.
Janey, along with several other candidates, however, were unable to secure enough votes in the preliminary election on September 21 to be a candidate in the general election. This narrowed the race to Wu and Essaibi George as the two candidates that were going to square off for the mayoral seat.
The two candidates, both democrats, but running unaffiliated with any political party, shared similar concerns on the same issues, but often differed on how to address them. Wu, a clear progressive, while Essaibi George, more moderate, described herself as a candidate that would take a more “pragmatic” approach. Both candidates shared concern for issues such as housing, infrastructure, and public safety, but often disagreed on how to address it.
In their final debate, both candidates shared their plans on how they would address many pressing issues in the city, one in particular being an ongoing humanitarian crisis around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, also known as Mass and Cass. Wu mentioned that she would perform an audit on properties to see which can be repurposed as housing. Essaibi George agreed, mentioning opening up a former detention center run by the county sheriff, while also using a local hospital to provide more accommodation.
The two differed in opinion when Essaibi George emphasized rebuilding a bridge that was closed down in 2014, cutting off access to houselessness and addiction services for many. Wu said that rebuilding the bridge would cost too much money and take too long to address the current issue. Emphasizing a need for expediency in the matter.
When asked about quality of life issues, Essaibi George pressed Wu on her “Bold Vision” with the Green New Deal plan for the city, stating:
“We need to fill potholes, we need to repair sidewalks, we need to make sure the trash gets picked up and the lights get turned on every single evening. It’s not fancy, but it’s important.”
Wu pushed back by stating that her proposed Green New Deal has a big vision approach on everyday affairs, from infrastructure to public transportation.
However, both candidates were most divided on the topic of policing. The Boston police facing some major scandals in recent months, and following the months of protest in the summer of 2020, the topic of how to go about reforming the department was a big concern.
Essaibi George wanted to forge partnerships and had pushed against reallocating money from the department budget. She also called for adding 200-300 new officers to a force of over 2000. Her campaign has, however, called for a police contract that “lays out a clear disciplinary process” enabling the commissioner to fire officers for bad behavior.
She has received the endorsement of former Boston police commissioner William G. Gross, the first Black officer to oversee the department and the public face of a super PAC supporting her candidacy. But refused to receive endorsement from the local patrolman's union stating, “because we aren’t in a good spot in which I feel they’re fully embracing the work that I’d like to see them do.”
On the other hand, Wu believes in performing a complete overhaul of the contracts with the Police Department, which had expired, and pushed for reinvesting in more community resources, a move that is likely to cause friction with her administration and the department.
In a WBUR forum, Wu expressed her views while pushing back against her opponent stating: “There is a clear choice in this race, about the willingness and the boldness that each of us is presenting for truly tackling police reform”
Wu also has a history of voting for measures that restricted police power as a city counselor. In the summer of 2020 as social justice protests occurred all over the U.S. in response to George Floyd’s murder at the hand of a police office, several measures were proposed that Wu supported with the exception of a proposal to reduce police overtime spending by $12 million in his operating budget. Wu voted against it stating, “It’s not enough to just put a specific number. We need to ensure accountability and that our resources are allocated in the right way, but that has to come with clear plans and with a commitment to execute those plans.”
In the months leading up to the General election, Wu was ahead of Essiabi George by about a 30 point margin, according to several polls taken in the Boston area. On the night of November 2nd, Associated Press made the call that declared Wu the winner of the mayoral election.
Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, was born and raised in Chicago. She attended Harvard for her undergraduate degree in 2003, returning to Chicago afterwards to take care of her mother who had developed late onset Schizophrenia. While in Chicago, Wu opened up a small tea shop to try and make ends meet.
Wu eventually would return to Boston to attend Harvard Law School, where she studied contract law with Elizabeth Warren. Warren, who endorsed Wu for mayor, recalled, “a bright student who sat in the front row, and who later worked on her first campaign for the Senate.”
Wu graduated in 2012 and made her leap into politics that same year, winning an open city council seat in 2013, joining Ayanna Pressley, and eventually becoming the first Asian American city council president.
Wu ran on a progressive platform that focused on rent stabilization measures, implementing rent control, removing fares for public transportation, improving city infrastructure, and overhauling contracts with the police department.
Wu’s win made headlines, both within Boston and across the country. It not only broke the historically long streak of electing white men as mayor, but also represented a progressive shift in one of America’s oldest cities. Wu’s win shows that the city's demographic along with its politics is starting to change.
The win also is a victory for the Asian community, and women. In her victory speech Wu stated:
“One of my sons asked me the other night if boys can be elected mayor of Boston. They have been, and they will again some day, but not tonight. On this day, Boston elected your mom because from every corner of our city, Boston has spoken.”
She then followed up by mentioning her goals for the next four years:
“We are ready to meet this moment. We are ready to become a Boston for everyone. We are ready to become a Boston that doesn’t push people out, but welcomes all who call our city home. We’re ready to be a Boston where all can afford to stay and to thrive. And, yes, Boston is ready to become a Green New Deal city.”
Since her victory on Tuesday, Wu has hit the ground running as the reality of becoming mayor-elect settles in, meeting with Acting Mayor Kim Janey and the city council the very next day, learning the ins and outs of being in the position. Wu began to lay out plans for the future of the city, as well as how she plans to push forward with her agenda, beginning with building out her team which she says, “should reflect Boston’s diversity...all of Boston’s expertise and move with urgency on the issues that our families are facing.”
Wu also shares her historic win with another Asian American, Aftab Pureval, who was elected to be the next mayor of Cincinnati the same day. The election of Asian Americans as mayors of some of America’s largest cities signals a shift in politics. A demographic which historically has had some of the lowest turnout levels nationally, last year in 2020, was higher than it has ever been. And as more Asian Americans are becoming eligible to vote, and hold office, we are beginning to change the faces of what this country's leadership can look like.
Editors: Adele L., Rachel C., Raniyah B., Sarah H.