Ayanna Pressley and Michelle Wu stood side by side at the swearing-in of Boston’s new mayor, both symbols of the changing face of city politics.
Pressley, who is African-American, just won her third term as an at-large councilor, topping the at-large ballot for the second time. Wu, the first Asian-American woman elected to citywide office in Boston history, finished second in the at-large race. With their one-two vote-getting punch, “the prevailing political wind was one of change with two women of color leading the way,” wrote Martin Desmarais in the Bay State Banner.
Yet any expectation they might move forward as political soul sisters was shattered later that inaugural day, when Wu didn’t support Pressley’s last-minute bid for City Council president. Instead, Wu kept her commitment to Bill Linehan, a 63-year-old district councilor from South Boston, who is known for his conservative, old-school values. In just one example, Linehan once compared gay Bostonians who sought unsuccessfully to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade to the Ku Klux Klan forcing its way through a black neighborhood.
For Wu, backing Linehan was just one vote; she will cast many more. But in the eyes of unhappy liberal supporters, that one vote swiftly recast her from bridge to the future to champion of the past. Now she has to live with the political consequences. So far, they can be summed up in one word: disappointment.
“I am proud that Ayanna Pressley stepped forward to run for City Council president. As the top vote-earner in two elections, her ability to bring Bostonians together is unrivaled,” said philantrophist and women’s advocate Barbara Lee, who gave Wu money and gravitas in the November election. “It’s disappointing Michelle Wu and her colleagues supported the status quo instead of a leader with a vision for a more inclusive future. I, along with many other people, will be watching to see how Michelle grows in her role.”
Wu insisted that she voted for the best person for the job. But for better or worse, she now owns whatever Linehan embraces in his role as council president. After his victory, he pledged to work closely with the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh and promised a new spirit of collaboration. The specifics are still unknown, and so are any rewards for Wu.
The worst part of the backlash against her is that it comes from a sense that she acted out of selfishness — that her vote for Linehan was a bid for something for herself and that the something for herself includes the desire to be the lead woman on the council. Under that theory, Wu didn’t want to empower Pressley, because it would diminish Wu’s ability to maximize her own power.
Historically, that way of thinking has kept women from helping each other. It’s especially unsettling, if such an old-fashioned mindset is guiding the 28-year-old Wu. It’s also at odds with the example set by her mentor, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has made a point of supporting women and minority candidates. Janet Yellen, not Larry Summers, is head of the Federal Reserve because of Warren’s advocacy; with support from Warren’s political machine, Daniel Rivera is the new mayor of Lawrence.
To be fair, Wu first signaled her intent to vote for Linehan when two male district councilors — Matt O’Malley of Jamaica Plain and Tito Jackson of Roxbury — said they were interested in the presidency. Like Pressley, Jackson and O’Malley are considered part of the younger, more progressive wing of the City Council.
When Wu kept her commitment to Linehan, she broke faith with that progressive constituency. With one vote, she looked as cynical as any old-time practitioner of politics as usual.
When Wu first revealed her decision to support Linehan, she said it “does not change who I am, what I’ve been talking about and what I campaigned for and why I campaigned. I put my name out there and ran for public service because I want more inclusion, diversity, and opportunity . . . I will fight for those values.”
She didn’t fight for those values when the vote came down to Pressley or Linehan. So far, she fought only for herself.