When she was elected mayor of Boston in November, Michelle Wu transformed the image of the city’s chief executive — up until then the sole domain of white men, many of Irish descent.
Now in office, the Chicago-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants is facing a raft of challenges, including making good on key campaign promises like creating a fare-free public transit system and blunting the city’s skyrocketing housing costs.
Wu, 37 and the mother of two, has also grappled with early morning protests outside her home and racist online taunts.
“You can’t take things personally in jobs like this,” Wu said in an interview with The Associated Press. “At the same time, it does seem like in the last few years especially we’ve seen a normalizing of behavior that is toxic and harmful and personally abusive to many, many people.”
“Women and women of color in particular often have the most racialized and gender-based versions of that intensity,” she added.
The noisy morning gatherings outside her home prompted Wu to push through a new city ordinance limiting the hours during which protesters can gather in residential neighborhoods to the window between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.
She’s also dismissed online chatter which tried to raise doubts about her mental health. Wu has been open about her mother’s struggles with mental illness.
“What has been most staggering about some of the rumors or these whisper campaigns is that in fact, I think it has the opposite impact,” Wu said. “If I needed mental health support, I would be the first to say that.”
She’s also run into flak from city unions on pandemic mandates and, more recently, tried to thread a needle on whether and how to allow restaurants to continue offering sidewalk dining along the narrow streets of the city’s North End.
The post is still a dream job for Wu — a former Democratic city councilor and policy wonk in the mold of mentor Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“In many ways, it feels familiar and exhilarating and energizing to be able to roll up my sleeves and just work on issues that I had been talking about,” Wu said. “The energy right now in Boston to get things done is felt everywhere across the city.”
While Wu is the first woman of color to be elected mayor, she wasn’t the first to hold the seat. Former City Council President Kim Janey, who is Black, held the post of acting mayor for much of 2021 after former Mayor Marty Walsh resigned to become President Joe Biden’s labor secretary.
Unlike the typical Boston mayor, Wu wasn’t born and raised in the city. She first arrived from Chicago to attend Harvard University in neighboring Cambridge.
She would eventually relocate her two younger sisters and mother to Boston as she attended Harvard Law School.
“Boston has given me everything that I cherish in my life — the ability to take care of my family, to connect my mom to health care in a way that saved her life, the schools that I was able to raise my sisters in and now my own two boys,” Wu said. “It’s a city of every possible opportunity that you can think of, but it’s also a city that really needs to take down barriers, still, for that to be felt across every single part of our neighborhoods.”
One of biggest challenges facing Wu is housing.
Boston is facing a hollowing-out, driven by rapid gentrification as sleek new apartment buildings rise in neighborhoods that traditionally relied on three-story wooden homes to house a working and middle class
“We are working to throw everything we have at housing right now,” said Wu, who has pledged to revive rent control, outlawed by Massachusetts voters in 1994.
Hemmed in by neighboring communities and the Atlantic Ocean, Boston doesn’t have many large open spaces for new housing. One of the last — a former industrial landscape rebranded as the Seaport District — has been filled with boxy glass-enclosed high rises.
Wu is eyeing three other parcels: a former horse track in the city’s East Boston neighborhood; a reconfiguration of Interstate 90 that could unlock land largely owned by Harvard; and an industrial area near the city’s South Boston neighborhood that had been eyed for a stadium during the city’s aborted bid for the 2024 Olympics.
During the campaign, Wu also promised a free public transit system.
The city has put a down payment on that pledge with three free bus lines serving primarily riders of color and lower income neighborhoods. The city is picking up the tab — $8 million in federal pandemic relief funds — for the next two years.
“Bus service is the most cost efficient and the most equitable place to start, because that is where we see some of the largest gaps in rider experience,” Wu said, noting that Black riders spend 64 more hours per year sitting on buses in Boston compared to white riders.
Expanding the fare-free push to other bus lines and the subway system would likely require action by state lawmakers, the governor and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which oversees the public transit system. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has panned the idea.
Wu said she’s hoping to change what it means to be mayor of the nearly 400-year-old city — and maybe change the way the rest of the country sees Boston while she’s at it.
“I made a promise to myself early on that I would be proud of who I was in politics long after I got out of politics,” Wu said. “I was anxious at first that being in this role would mean having to change my family’s life in different ways. But politics doesn’t have to be how we see it now. Politics is what we make of it.”
“I hope that, in leaning into who I am — a mom with two young kids, someone who didn’t grow up in the city, raised by parents who didn’t grow up in this country — that I expand the definition of what leadership looks like,” she said.
Image credits: AP/Michael Dwyer