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COMMENTARY

In confirming Michelle’s Wu run for mayor, Marty Walsh committed a political faux pas

He should have allowed the city councilor to speak for herself

City Councilor Michelle Wu.
City Councilor Michelle Wu.Barry Chin/GLOBE STAFF FILE

There are certain life events that should be your news to break, like getting married, having a baby . . . and running for mayor.

When it comes to that last one, Mayor Marty Walsh apparently forgot his political manners. He chose to confirm Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu’s candidacy instead of letting her officially break the news. He found out Sunday after the 35-year-old progressive Democrat practiced a time-honored tradition of giving the incumbent in your own party a heads-up.

The result led to this head-scratcher of a headline: “Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu is running for mayor, Walsh says.”

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Some of you may wonder: What’s the big deal here? Wu’s mayoral aspirations have been the worst-kept secret in town, so if the mayor did step on her announcement, all’s fair in love, war . . . and Boston politics. Bring it on.

For many women, it was an all-too-familiar feeling. Like that moment in a meeting when you’re about to share an idea, only to have some guy grab the credit. It’s a kind of mansplaining behavior that men shouldn’t get away with anymore.

“Walsh sharing Wu’s run is a bad look,” said Erin O’Brien, a University of Massachusetts Boston professor who studies gender in politics. “In this political moment, Wu already won round one: professionalism versus old school. And old school, with all that conjures forth, isn’t what most Dems are clamoring for at this moment.”

O’Brien does not have a horse in this race, though she did serve as a consultant to Walsh’s successful 2013 mayoral bid. “He messed up on this one,” she acknowledged. “He may have had no malice, but you don’t get to steal someone else’s thunder.”

From what I gather, Walsh wasn’t scheming to out Wu, but it wasn’t by accident, either. After she gave him a courtesy call Sunday morning, the mayor started to tell people in town that she’s officially in. Word got around, and Globe reporter Milton Valencia decided to ask the mayor directly.

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Walsh could have declined to comment — which is not an uncommon response to queries from reporters — but he decided to play ball and confirmed Wu’s decision. All he had to say was “Why don’t you ask her?”

On Tuesday, when asked by reporters whether he is seeking a third term, Walsh refused to answer the question. File under: double standard. It’s OK for Walsh to confirm Wu’s candidacy, but not his own.

By the way, I have no problem with Valencia, who was doing his job by being a dogged reporter. He had reached out to the councilor’s spokeswoman, who issued a statement that did not explicitly announce Wu’s candidacy but did also not deny it.

Walsh doesn’t owe Wu anything, but I can’t help but wonder whether he would have done this to a male candidate. Walsh isn’t the first officeholder ― nor will he be the last ― to try to upstage a serious challenger. It happened to City Councilor Michael Flaherty when he ran against longtime incumbent Mayor Tom Menino in 2009.

Flaherty’s mayoral bid was widely expected, but the South Boston Democrat said he gave Menino a courtesy call out of respect for him and the office. Flaherty knew there was a chance the news could get leaked, but said he was "willing to take that chance.”

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Hours later, someone tipped off the Globe, setting off a flurry of coverage before the councilor formally launched his campaign a couple of days later. But here’s the difference: Flaherty got to break the news, not Menino.

“Michelle did the right thing in reaching out as a professional courtesy to the mayor,” said Flaherty, who was ultimately unsuccessful in his mayoral bid. "It’s well within Marty’s purview to answer reporters' questions truthfully — and shore up his support. It’s a race.”

Still, this can’t be how Wu thought her bid for the city’s top office would become public. The Harvard graduate has been a policy star ― from transportation to development ― and she often plays by her own rules. Despite Walsh’s preemptive strike, she appears to be sticking to her timetable, and it’s anybody’s guess when she will make a formal announcement. But it’s hard to know whether her campaign got caught flatfooted and is regrouping, or if this is all part of a new style of Boston politicking.

As for Walsh, he should have known better than to scoop Wu on her own news. His move was straight out of the playbook of the patriarchy.

Memo to Andrea Campbell: If you’re going to run for mayor, too, maybe skip that call to Walsh.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.