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With Michelle Wu’s ‘announcement,’ the 2021 Boston mayoral race is on

Councilor Michelle Wu, here addressing reporters at her Election Night party in 2019, has run citywide four times, and never placed lower than second.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

People always assumed Michelle Wu would run for mayor of Boston, though it never occurred to close followers of city politics that her candidacy would be announced by Mayor Marty Walsh.

Welcome to the 2021 mayor’s race, Michelle.

Wu, the four-term councilor and former council president, is likely to pose a major challenge to Walsh’s reelection, and that will only be good for the city.

A few words about that whole announcement thing. Wu began making calls a few days ago — to other elected officials, activists, and labor leaders — indicating that she was in the race. As part of that process she called Walsh, so he could hear it from her directly. That was the right thing to do.


I don’t think Walsh “announced” her running, so much as he confirmed what was already spreading like wildfire across political circles. But the reaction was immediate: depending on where you’re standing, he’s a bully who stepped on Wu’s announcement (the view of much of local Twitter) or a bare-knuckled brawler who took the wind out of her big reveal, in a sign of the heated battle to come.

The announcement apparently sparked a fund-raising boomlet for Team Wu, so chalk one up for her.

This race — which might eventually include Councilor Andrea Campbell, as well — could be the most interesting in years.

Obviously, it will be contested in an unprecedented time. Even though the election is 14 months away, it’s now clear that we will be dealing with the pandemic and (if we’re lucky) its aftermath for that entire time. So this will be a campaign like no other.

The pandemic has offered Walsh an opportunity to show strong leadership, and for a while he made the most of that opportunity. He was clear and consistent in guiding the city through the early months of the lockdown, relegating the council to bystander status.


Mayor Marty Walsh's administration of Boston during the pandemic will be a central focus of the city's 2021 mayoral race. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

We’ve entered another phase of the pandemic since then, and the massive confusion over reopening schools has undercut that air of authority. And outrage over the decades of racial inequality resurfaced, putting Walsh and his oversight of the police department and other aspects of city services front and center.

This is not to slight the strengths Walsh brings to the campaign. He’s a popular mayor with a huge war chest and he has the apparatus of city government at his command. There are reasons no Boston mayor has lost in over 70 years. You have to go back to 1975 for even the last close reelection, when Joe Timilty came within 8,000 votes of toppling Kevin White at the height of the busing crisis.

But Wu — to my mind, easily one of the most effective councilors of the past 25 years — is a much stronger candidate than most mayors have faced.

She’s run citywide four times, and never placed lower than second. She’s a known commodity who draws support across the city.

Her work over the past few years gives a strong sense of the case she will make against Walsh. She has argued consistently that he is a small thinker with no sense of where he wants to take the city. To her mind, the Walsh Administration, on a range of issues, has consistently led from behind.

Wu has also called for the abolition of the Boston Planning and Development Agency — I strongly disagreed — and is currently bottling up new appointments to the embattled Zoning Board of Appeal.


Since first being elected as a middle-of-the-road liberal, Wu has steadily moved left. City elections traditionally aren’t very ideological, but her hope is to appeal to newly energized left-leaning voters. That didn’t work for Walsh’s last opponent, Tito Jackson, but every election is different.

The biggest issue in this election is invisible — it’s the virus. It has closed our schools, threatened many jobs, exacerbated every inequality, and helped ignite a movement for social change.

What will it mean for the future of Boston, and who is the candidate to guide that future?

We start to decide right now.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.