When she was elected mayor of Boston in November, Michelle Wu changed the image of the city’s chief executive – until then the sole preserve of white men, many of whom were of Irish descent.
The Chicago-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who is now in office faces a number of challenges, including making good on key campaign promises like creating a toll-free public transit system and bringing down the city’s skyrocketing housing costs.
Wu, 37, and a mother of two, has also dealt with early-morning protests outside her home and racist taunts online.
“You can’t take things personally in jobs like this,” Wu said in an interview with The Associated Press. “At the same time, it seems like we’ve seen, especially in recent years, a normalization of behavior that is toxic and harmful and personally abusive to many, many people.”
“Women in particular and women of color often have the most racist and gendered versions of that intensity,” she added.
The loud morning gatherings outside her home prompted Wu to push through a new city ordinance that limits the hours that protesters in residential neighborhoods can gather by the window between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m
She has also dismissed online chats that attempted to raise doubts about her mental health. Wu has been open about her mother’s struggles with mental illness.
“What’s been most amazing about some of the rumors or these whisper campaigns is that I think they actually have the opposite effect,” Wu said. “If I needed psychological support, I would be the first to say it.”
She has also faced flak from city unions over pandemic mandates and more recently has been trying to thread a needle on whether and how restaurants in the city’s narrow streets of the North End can continue to offer sidewalk dining.
The post is still a dream job for Wu — a former Democratic councilman and political wonk in the form of mentor Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“In many ways, it feels familiar and exciting and stimulating to be able to roll up your sleeves and just work on issues I’ve been talking about,” Wu said. “The energy that there is in Boston right now to get things done is felt all over 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 office of acting mayor for much of 2021 after former Mayor Marty Walsh resigned to become President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Labor.
Unlike the typical Boston mayor, Wu wasn’t born and raised in the city. She first came from Chicago to attend Harvard University in neighboring Cambridge.
She would eventually move her two younger sisters and mother to Boston while she attended Harvard Law School.
“Boston has given me everything I value in my life — the ability to care for my family, connecting my mom to the health care that saved her life in a way, the schools where I’m raising my sisters and now my own two boys,” Wu said. “It’s a city of every imaginable opportunity, but it’s also a city that really needs to break down barriers so that this can be felt in every single part of our neighborhood.”
One of Wu’s biggest challenges is housing.
Boston is facing an erosion driven by rapid gentrification as sleek new apartment buildings emerge in neighborhoods that have traditionally relied on three-story timber buildings to house a working-class and middle class
“We’re working to throw everything we have at housing right now,” said Wu, who has pledged to revive rent controls, which Massachusetts voters outlawed in 1994.
Confined by neighboring communities and the Atlantic Ocean, Boston doesn’t have much open space for new housing. One of the last – a former industrial landscape renamed the Seaport District – has been filled with boxy, glass-enclosed high-rises.
Wu has three other lots in mind: a former racetrack in the East Boston area; a reconfiguration of Interstate 90 that could open up land mostly owned by Harvard; and an industrial area near the South Boston borough that had been searched 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 paid down on that promise with three free bus routes, primarily serving black drivers and lower-income neighborhoods. The city is picking up the tab for the next two years — $8 million in federal pandemic aid.
“Bus travel is the most cost-effective and equitable place to start because that’s where we see some of the biggest gaps in driver experience,” Wu said, noting that black drivers spend 64 more hours a year on buses in Boston compared to white riders.
Extending the fare-free service to other bus routes and the subway system would likely require action from state legislatures, the governor and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which oversees the public transit system. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker turned the idea on its head.
Wu said she hopes 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 views Boston while she’s at it.
“I promised myself early on that I would be proud of who I am in politics long after I got out of politics,” Wu said. “At first I was afraid that this role would mean that I would have to change my family’s life in different ways. But politics doesn’t have to be the way we see it now. Politics is what we make of it.”
“I hope that by embracing who I am — a mother of two young children, someone who didn’t grow up in the city, raised by parents who didn’t grow up in this country — I define the definition of what.” expanded leadership looks like,” she said.