On November 2, an election night when Democrats suffered setbacks and pundits said voters were rejecting bold progressive ideas, mayoral candidate Michelle Wu won big in Boston as an ardent champion of economic, social, and racial justice and a municipal Green New Deal. Running with support from the Working Families Party, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Ayanna Pressley, the 36-year-old city council member secured 64 percent of the vote and a mandate to go big. We spoke after her swearing-in about how she won and what her victory means for progressive politics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
John Nichols: Your election drew national attention because of what it said about the changing character of politics in Boston. But you’ve reminded us that the change has been in the making for some time.
Michelle Wu: I am standing on the shoulders of so many. First and foremost, my immediate predecessor in the office, Mayor Kim Janey, who served as the first Black and first woman mayor for the city, stepping in at a time of tremendous challenge. We’ve also seen, in very recent elections, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and state legislators and city councilors who reflect not only the diversity of our communities but also the urgency of action as well.
When I first ran for the city council in 2013, everyone told me I had no chance for reasons that were entirely out of my control—that Boston didn’t elect basically any facet of my identity: women, Asian Americans, young people, people not born in the city.
It made perfect sense why the wisest political advisers would say that: At that time, out of a 13-member city council, there was only one woman serving. It was Ayanna Pressley. When she had been elected, in 2009, Ayanna was the first-ever woman of color to join the Boston City Council. In 2013, when I was elected, we doubled that number from one to two.
Since then, we’ve seen not only more candidates of color and progressive candidates, young people, women, women of color, raising their hands to run, but a shift in the entire political ecosystem. When I ran that first time, the questions were very much based on where I fit in in the traditional groupings and tribes of Boston. Where did I grow up? Where did my mom live? What school did I go to?
By the 2019 election cycle, when the city elected our first-ever majority women and majority people of color city council, the questions on the campaign trail had been very different: Voters were asking about what change we would bring, what we would do, and whose voices we would amplify.
So, it’s been a combination of showing that candidates who reflect our communities not only can win but can deliver the changes that our communities need.
JN: There’s been striking progress in recent years. You mentioned that people have stepped up and people are getting engaged. Is the city itself changing?
MW: You know, I think what’s happened is the energy on the ground is always ahead of what the conventional political wisdom says.
We are certainly here in this moment in Boston because of how many barriers Mel King and Chuck Turner and Bruce Bolling and Byron Rushing and Tito Jackson and so many others broke down over the last few decades.
In my time in City Hall, it has been less about shifting the odds of who can win and more about shifting the sense of what was possible. It had been possible all along. The numbers were there. The excitement was there. The voter base and the appetite for progressive policy was there. But we didn’t quite believe it was possible until we saw it in examples in different races in different corners of the city, and now more and more across the board.
JN: Your victory on November 2 was something of an outlier on a night that, for a lot of progressives around the country, was disappointing. How do you see your victory from the perspective of the broader signals that were sent in the 2021 off-year elections and all the instant analyses that suggested voters were rejecting progressive ideas?
MW: In Boston, from the very beginning of our campaign, my team and I decided we would run on big ideas and deep organizing, and focus more on building community anywhere we went rather than trying to corral the numbers for a specific day and leave it there.
In some ways, it’s much easier to run focused on Election Day, because you have a sense of what any room wants you to say and how to placate or appease this or that fear that things might change too quickly. But I had been on the ballot four times in Boston citywide, and for me, the goal each time was not to escape unscathed through the election cycle but to put big ideas on the table and earn a mandate through the campaign to deliver on it in office.
I think, across the country, we’re in a moment of undeniable urgency. The interlocking crises of the pandemic, climate change, and our day-to-day economic situation and racial injustices mean that if you’re truly meeting people where they are, you have to move at the speed of families rather than the speed of government.
So we ran a campaign that put our resources toward distributed [grassroots] organizing and multilingual outreach, and pretty shortly we started to see some amazing things happen that were very different from the usual mold in Boston politics.
JN: Is that the answer to the threat posed by politicians who simplify issues to such an extent that they stoke fears? To go deeper, to build long-term relationships through grassroots organizing?
MW: Absolutely it is. I think, at the end of the day, especially for municipal elections, we see relatively low voter turnout. So the goal is to expand who sees themselves reflected in government, who’s empowered to take the lead in politics.
We had neighborhood organizing teams across every neighborhood in our city, and we had launched a campaign almost 14 months before Election Day, but many of our volunteers and neighborhood leaders were first-time campaign volunteers.
I remember going around on Election Day and seeing how thorough and detailed and completely tailored to every single neighborhood our operation was. We put our faith and trust in our neighborhood teams so that it wasn’t our campaign staff telling them what to do. We were lightly supporting and checking in with everyone, but our teams were running independently and designing their own activities.
One day, I showed up and it was a little bit of a surprise because you’re used to coming to an intersection and everyone’s holding the same exact sort of wood sticks with signs on them. But one of our volunteers, Susan—who’s an engineer, was working on a campaign for the first time, and like me, is Taiwanese American—decided to use bamboo sticks. It was easier to grip, way lighter than holding the regular heavy stick signs, and it was beautiful to see.
Then, in the next week, I went to a different neighborhood, and everyone there had bamboo sticks as well. It was amazing to watch the type of innovation and thinking differently about what’s possible, and then seeing that have a ripple effect as you’re breaking down silos across each neighborhood and community as well.
Out of all the campaigns, we were the only one that was run by a woman of color and where our staff reflected our city and the languages that our city speaks.
I just feel so blessed to have had a glimpse of what’s possible when we truly meet people where they are and focus on building that trust and bringing as many people into the process as possible.
JN: When you won, you said Boston was “ready to become a Green New Deal city” and suggested that it could serve as a North Star for other cities. That’s a big goal, not merely to govern effectively but to show other cities how to do things.
MW: We have no other choice. Action at the city level is what will make national momentum possible on our most urgent issues, and this is the level of government where we are closest to people, where we can innovate and move quickly. Most importantly, this is the level of government where we uniquely are in the position to earn the trust of our communities. Even though the situation is different city by city and neighborhood by neighborhood, we are all interconnected in this closing window of time to act, and we’re all interconnected in being able to build on the [proof points] and progress that each city is making.
Our Green New Deal—our Boston Green New Deal—took 18 months to put together based on many, many local conversations, as well as learning from national leaders like Bill McKibben, some of the authors of the federal Green New Deal, and other cities that have been putting forward municipal steps.
We can each be a proof point for how big change can happen day by day. And we can create the momentum for state and federal government to really show that we can put forward big changes that deliver immediate impact and draw more people into government.
If there’s anything that we’ve learned from the pandemic, it is how interconnected we are to each other, and how we can do big things when we choose to in times of crisis.
JN: The Green New Deal is an issue political leaders are struggling with at the federal level, and even at the state level, as they try to figure out how to build momentum to enact legislation and make this leap. Are there ways that Boston can provide a model for other cities, and for state and federal officials?
MW: Climate change is the issue that will shape the next 100 years, and the decisions that we make in the next three to five years will determine the lives and livelihoods of the next three to five generations. It is very personal, and we need to draw people in by focusing on how every single person is deeply impacted.
My older son, Blaise, is 6 now; he’s about to turn 7 in December. He was born in my first year serving on the city council.
December of that year was one of the first years where we started to see headlines about how it was the hottest year on record. Then, when he turned 1, it was the same headline. And now, all of his six years alive on the planet have been our six hottest years. So the urgency for me is of instinctual daily intensity, thinking about my kids and the world all of our kids will grow up in.
We’re already seeing more intense weather changes in Boston, a coastal city where a third of our downtown land area is built on human-made landfill, which is low-lying and extremely susceptible to flooding. It can seem big and daunting at times, but again, we do the big things by getting the small things right.
City government is where a Green New Deal means doubling the number of street trees, so we are absorbing storm water, cleaning our air, and bringing beauty to our communities. It means converting our school bus fleet of about 300 diesel buses and another 400 fuel buses over to electric, which will not only get harmful pollution out of the lungs of our kids and out of our neighborhoods, but also tap into mobile charging stations that large electric buses can become in times of power outages.
For every big issue, we have a way to take immediate action at the city level. When we talk about our economic recovery and closing the racial wealth gap, we are focused immediately on how we’re spending nearly $700 million every year of city contracting dollars through our procurement system, making sure those dollars are going to Black and brown businesses, to local Boston entrepreneurs, to keep dollars circulating within our neighborhoods.
There’s always a way to make an impact, day by day, at the city level.