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Can Michelle Wu Unite Boston and Spark a Municipal Revolution?

The upstart mayoral candidate became the front-runner on Covid competence and Warren-esque wonkery. Now she has to seal the deal.

Boston Mayoral candidate Michelle Wu walks outside during the campaign.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

For those looking to insurgent electoral movements to freshen our political possibilities, this week’s preliminary mayoral results in Boston offer reason for good cheer. Two current city council members—Michelle Wu and Anissa Essaibi George, both women of color—snagged the top spots in the preliminary mayoral election and will now face off in what will likely amount to a straightforward left versus moderate general election this November. Should Wu, the nominal front-runner, maintain her lead over the next several weeks, she’s poised to be one of the country’s most progressive mayors of a city of Beantown’s size—and a key test for the politics of left-of-center wonkery at the city level.

Wu has been a member of the Boston City Council since 2014, during which time she has built a devoted following. Her politics are more akin to those of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (who indeed endorsed Wu in January) than they are to Vermont’s Bernie Sanders’; Wu typically places a heavy emphasis on left-of-center policy ideas instead of stoking class war. Beyond these tidy comparisons, Wu has an impressive track record as a public servant: As Jonathan Cohn recently outlined for The Boston Globe, her tenure in office has included notable wins on paid leave, sustainable energy initiatives, and curbing Airbnb’s encroachment into housing stock. She’s also a vocal supporter of rent control, a Green New Deal, and fare-free public transit.

When Wu first threw her hat into the ring as a mayoral candidate back in September 2020, it was widely presumed she’d be running a long-shot campaign from the left against either then-Mayor Marty Walsh or some anointed successor closely aligned with him. But when President Joe Biden unexpectedly tapped Walsh to be his secretary of labor, the contours of the race morphed quickly. Kim Janey, the new acting mayor, emerged as the top contender, and several new candidates, sensing an opportunity, jumped into the race.

But if observers thought that Janey being handed the mayorship months before the election—thereby allowing her to run as an incumbent—might have been a stroke of political luck, it sure didn’t turn out that way. By the time votes were tallied in an election dominated by the politics of the pandemic, Janey trailed in fourth place. Janey’s timidity on the issue of municipal vaccine mandates alienated constituents—and a widely publicized gaffe in which she embarrassingly equated vaccine passports with slave papers didn’t help. Wu proved to be far defter at tailoring her program around Covid-19, emphasizing public jobs programs and public transit as central to addressing inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus. With a larger and more disjointed field than expected and Janey’s subsequent implosion, it was Wu who claimed that stroke of political luck.

At first blush, it may not seem like what Wu offered—a policy-heavy campaign spearheaded by a Harvard-educated transplant from Chicago—necessarily screamed “viable.” But the way the other contenders in the field placed such an emphasis on targeting Janey, in an attempt to take down the heir apparent, allowed Wu to play above the fray and scoop up around one-third of the vote for first place on election night. In addition, Wu got a leg-up from the support she received from the so-called “Markeyverse”: a coalition of mostly young volunteers forged just months ago after organizing in support of incumbent Senator Ed Markey against primary opponent Joe Kennedy III. (The Sunrise Movement, the climate justice organization that rallied around Markey in light of his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal, has also endorsed Wu.)

Furthermore, as a longtime at-large member of the city council, Wu crucially doesn’t represent a specific district but the whole city. The election returns indicate that this appears to have been important to her victory: Wu cleared 10 percent of the vote in all but two precincts, whereas George, her moderate opponent, failed to hit that threshold in 96. While Wu’s support remains highest among young, highly educated, and self-professed progressive voters, her relatively broad and citywide appeal is likely due to the ties she’s developed with constituents across typical electoral boundaries.

For Wu, winning the one-on-one general election will require her to further expand her vote share while keeping George’s down. It’s a maneuver that’s within her striking distance, but as progressives have learned all too often, it can be a rare hurdle to clear outside of a few distinct districts.

It’s not a stretch to say that the near-term prospects for progressive policies both in and outside of Boston could hang in the balance. The core component of Wu’s mayoral platform is arguably her municipal-minded spin on the Green New Deal, which she outlined in a 46-page policy document highly reminiscent of the constant “plans” that Warren dropped throughout her 2020 presidential primary campaign. Wu’s plan includes targeting net-zero municipal emissions by 2024, developing floodwater infrastructure, increasing urban tree cover, and improving public transit that’s free for riders. The policy also includes an urban climate corps job program modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that used conservation-related projects to build political support.

Wu obviously won’t be able to install a national Green New Deal from her Bay State redoubt, but she might have a golden opportunity to build support for robust leftward climate plans among a broad array of constituents. This would be a rare feat for anyone occupying an executive office.

But Boston offers an intriguing blueprint for others to follow. After all, so-called “New Boston” is full of hypereducated urban professionals, students, and downwardly mobile grads whom Wu already has largely in her corner. But “old Boston” is full of lower-income and working-class people who have largely been a less reliable voting base for insurgent progressives. Here, the citywide profile that’s already paid dividends for Wu on election night offers the teasing possibility that these two voter coalitions might find a reason to unite, offering her the opportunity to build new and durable constituencies for plans that might improve the lives and livelihoods of allas similar-minded insurgents in other states and municipalities look on and take notes.