Nothing captivates the people who love Boston politics like an open mayor’s race, a once-in-a-
generation spectacle that promises to bring seismic change to the city.
And yet the field so far inspires yawns from many of the city’s most influential players, who fear it promises to be too male, too white, and too tied to tired issues and old ways of doing business.
Know who people are excited about? They’re excited about Michelle Wu, who just launched her bid for an at-large City Council seat.
There’s an excellent chance that you haven’t heard of her yet. She’s a charismatic 28-year-old lawyer and probably the first person who can attribute her nascent political career to the influence of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Wu worked in her former professor’s campaign last year, helping cement Warren’s ties to communities of color, before deciding to run for office herself.
“This is still a shock to my parents,” she said Tuesday as she announced her City Council bid.
Wu grew up in suburban Chicago, one of four children of immigrants from Taiwan. As she explains it, her father learned English from textbooks while her mother learned it from watching Oprah.
Wu arrived to attend Harvard and quickly fell in love with Boston. As a college student, she took the T on weekends to teach citizenship classes in Chinatown.
“It was a very personal, very powerful experience,” Wu said. “These were people who had been doctors and nurses and engineers, and now they were cooks and janitors, just so their children and grandchildren could have opportunities in America. I loved helping them become citizens.”
By the time she graduated, she considered herself a Bostonian. She lived in the North End and walked to a job in the Financial District, working for a consulting firm. She thought she would never leave.
But then family problems intervened. Her mother fell ill, and became unable to care for Wu’s two younger sisters.
So Wu moved home to Chicago and opened a neighborhood tea shop. It featured teas named for literary characters, poetry readings, and open-mike poetry nights.
Opening a business was life-changing in a way she never anticipated: It was the first time she had to contend with a city bureaucracy, and it was a nightmare.
After two years, as the depth of her mother’s illness became clear, she sold the tea shop, became legal guardian of her sisters, and moved them, along with her mother, to Boston. Wu started attending Harvard Law School and did an internship in City Hall, where one of her projects was helping to establish the popular food trucks around Boston.
“I saw firsthand that you could have a real impact in City Hall,” she said. “It would be a real honor to be a part of that.”
Wu is seeking one of four at-large council seats.
If elected, she would join a council that has just one female member, Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley. Councilor John Connolly has already entered the mayor’s race and others may follow, creating more openings on the council for newcomers such as Wu.
Wu shrugs off the challenge of assuming responsibility for her sisters, now 21 and 16, when she was barely out of college.
“What I've seen telling my story is that families across Boston are going through the same things,” Wu said. “Everyone has had to make sacrifices for family, and everyone has had to put aside what they were on track for to think about the people around them. I know many people who would have done the same thing.”
Wu says both the city’s rich past and the promise of its future have inspired her campaign.
“I think we have an incredible combination of history and diversity here,” she said. “By celebrating the city and each other and all of our different neighborhoods, I think that’s how we really move Boston forward.”