Fourth in a series of profiles of the historic field of candidates vying to be Boston’s next mayor. For more coverage of the race, please subscribe to On the Cusp, the Globe’s weekly newsletter covering all aspects of the contest, and visit our Mayoral Race page for the latest developments.
The call came midday, from City Hall’s corner office. Then-mayor Martin J. Walsh wanted to meet immediately with the two city councilors who were proposing their own regulations for the short-term rental industry. He wanted them to back down and adopt his plan.
Councilor Lydia Edwards, still new to her position, arrived with the veteran Councilor Michelle Wu, who carried her younger son in her arms. Wu took the lead. And she pushed back, Edwards said recently, recalling the scene in the spring of 2018.
“She pushed him, she stood her ground, and I watched an incredibly powerful woman do all that while balancing her baby on her hip,” said Edwards, who recounted the event as a reason she has endorsed Wu for mayor. “We got that legislation done.”
The story, Edwards said, is an example of Wu’s willingness to take on powerful institutions. It also illustrates the attributes, she said, of a mother of two balancing work and family life, while proposing innovative policy ideas to address the housing crisis, improve public transportation, confront climate change, and support other young families.
“I am witness to Michelle’s grace under fire, in every single one of these situations,” Edwards said.
They are policy visions, Wu said in an interview, that have been shaped by her own life experiences: caring for a mentally ill mother, raising two younger sisters, and now, raising a young family of her own. They are the challenges faced by many in Boston, she said, and her experiences have led her to the notion that local government can always do more.
“It makes a difference when people are living the stakes of policy making every single day, and understand the urgency,” she said during a recent walk in Franklin Park.
For Wu, that has meant a career of expanding family leave laws in Boston, helping small restaurant owners navigate government bureaucracies to acquire a license, providing support for those suffering from mental illness and their families, and advocating for fair access to public transportation.
“She lives the life where the work is her life — Michelle is an open book,” said one of Wu’s sisters, Sherelle Wu.
“And in a lot of ways, it’s also core to who she is,” she added. “If she can do something to help another person, she will do it.”
Wu, 36, was born in Chicago and is the oldest of four siblings who were raised by immigrant parents from Taiwan. Her father, Han Wu, came to America for graduate school in chemical engineering. Her mother, Yu-min Wu, worked briefly in a Chinatown library in Chicago, and then stayed at home with the children.
When she was 5, Wu’s mother sent her to an etiquette class where she learned which forks and plates to use and when. Until then, she had used only chopsticks. It was one of the early ways her parents pushed her to cross barriers and embrace the opportunities they never had in postwar Taiwan.
As a girl, Wu translated for her mother at government offices and her siblings’ schools, while excelling in school. Wu’s parents were so proud when Wu scored perfect SAT and ACT scores in high school that they arranged to have her interviewed for a story in the local Chinese newspaper.
She was a past president of the National Junior Classical League, a valedictorian, and a US Presidential Scholar from a suburban Illinois high school by the time she arrived at Harvard College in 2003. While there, she volunteered in Boston’s Chinatown, helping immigrants seeking citizenship. She also began to emerge from a reserved, quiet shell. She joined clubs and hosted parties. But an etiquette class she took early on at Harvard, similar to the one she attended when she was young, brought back memories of her upbringing.
“Our parents were always reminding us of how lucky we were to be born here,” Sherelle Wu said, and they urged them “to work hard, keep our heads down, don’t make waves. Michelle was the oldest, there was a lot of pressure to utilize those opportunities.”
And she did, Sherelle Wu added.
”Her whole life has been doing things no one else has ever done.”
That’s why Sherelle was reluctant to call her older sister, then about 23, when their mother’s mental health deteriorated. Wu was a recent Harvard graduate who had started working at the Boston Consulting Group. She’d met the man who is now her husband, Conor Pewarski.
“She was really happy in a way she wasn’t in high school,” Sherelle said. “It was clear that, in Boston, she was blossoming, and finding what she loved.”
In Illinois, Sherelle was still a junior in high school. Their younger sister, Tori, was 10. Their brother, Elliott, four years younger than Michelle, was already in college. Their father was traveling often. And their mother was growing increasingly paranoid. Hallucinations would follow.
Wu has written at length about her mother’s mental health, including the times her mother was hospitalized, her sense of humanity taken away from her. After roughly a year working in Boston, Wu returned to the Chicago area with Pewarski, to help her family.
There, Wu briefly opened a cafe, Loose Leaf Tea Loft, a family business opened in part to help her mother develop new habits in a new environment. Wu would tell her sisters that she always appreciated a good cup of tea, because you have to sit, and wait, and let it steep.
But navigating the government bureaucracies to open the shop and keep it open, while also getting her mother to agree to treatment, proved difficult. Just more than a year after she’d moved home, Wu applied and was accepted to Harvard Law School.
She brought her mom and sisters with her when she returned to Massachusetts, and became her youngest sister’s guardian.
Lydia Torres, the assistant principal at the Eliot K-8 school at the time, recalled meeting Wu in her office. She was enrolling Tori in the expanding school’s first seventh-grade class, and was looking to play a bigger role in the school community. Not long after, Wu became part of the parents’ council, and then the parents’ representative on the site council, speaking on behalf of other parents.
“She wanted to get involved, she wanted to be there for her sister,” Torres recalled.
A year later, Wu was in the office again, asking how she could help Tori study for the upcoming test for acceptance to one of Boston’s exam schools.
“Should I get a tutor? What should I do?” Wu had asked.
“She was there for Tori, really there,” Torres recalled.
Around that same time, in the summer of 2010, Wu arrived at City Hall as a law school fellow under the “urban mechanics” program to study ways to better streamline city government services. She had a vision for the “bigger picture,” said Mitchell Weiss, chief of staff to then-mayor Thomas M. Menino, who oversaw the program.
Motivated by her frustrations over navigating the inspection process to open the tea shop in Chicago, Wu developed a road map for restaurant and small business owners, with an online tool kit for them to follow. Then she created a new approval process for the then-fledgling food truck industry.
“What struck me was her understanding of having been through this, but also a deep sense of appreciation for the everyday people in the neighborhood,” said Weiss, now a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School. “It was her grit. It’s not easy to take a process like that and try to make it simple.”
Two years later, in late 2012, Wu sat down for a family meeting with Sherelle, who was now attending Suffolk University, and Tori, who had been accepted to Boston Latin School. Michelle Wu had just finished law school, and had passed the bar exam. She had recently married Pewarski in a small gathering at Chinatown’s China Pearl. She had worked on the first Senate campaign of Elizabeth Warren, her favorite law school professor.
And now, she wanted to enter politics herself, with a run for a Boston City Council seat. She was seeking their permission.
“My life’s going to be public . . . I can make a difference. But if this makes you uncomfortable, you two are more important to me than anything else, just say the word and I won’t run,” Sherelle recalled her saying.
“She has always had a vision of how the world could be a better place, and the determination to make that happen. It would have been selfish to say, ‘You can’t help other people,’ ” Sherelle said.
Warren, who spoke at Wu’s campaign kickoff in April 2013, recently recalled meeting with her in 2017, during a commemoration for a Puerto Rican Veterans’ memorial in the South End. Wu, who had served on the board that worked to establish the memorial, sat in Warren’s car until the festivities began, because it was a cold day. She began to tick off her ideas on expanding child care.
“The ideas just tumbled out of her, ‘We can do this, we could do this, we could do this if we have more funding from the federal government.’ We talked about what it meant, and she had all of the numbers,” recalled Warren, who later made universal child care a platform of her presidential campaign.
In that moment, Warren said, Wu reminded her of the driven, quietly intense student she first met in her law school class.
“It’s the reminder that someone who believes passionately in how good policy can make a difference in people’s lives, and who’s willing to take every opportunity to advocate for it, can make a real difference,” said Warren, who endorsed Wu’s campaign in January. “That’s what Michelle was doing.”
When she first ran for the City Council seat, Wu said in an interview, people always asked her why. Why seek a job that focuses on fixing potholes and streetlights, she was asked. But she saw the work as so much more — as a platform to bring more equity to schools, address economic disparities, help people stay in their homes.
Wu’s claimed the mantle of the “climate candidate,” with her proposed Green New Deal for Boston. Her work with Representative Ayanna Pressley, a former city councilor, exposed Boston’s embarrassingly low rate of contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses.
At times, she’s gone it alone in advocating for more controversial matters, such as rent control.
Her politically progressive vision has led to criticism that she overlooks more immediate needs, like the potholes and the streetlights, and that her ideas are unrealistic. When she called for free public transportation, opponents said it was a populist proposal with no specifics for funding.
But then Lawrence adopted a similar plan, and Worcester ran a pilot program. Last month, Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced a city-funded pilot program, too. At the press conference, Wu offered a more expansive proposal. The announcement of the pilot was vindication that change can happen — if the political will is there.
She has built her campaign on being bold.
“I move with urgency — what some might call impatience — because I know how wide the gaps are for families, and I know what it means when our government doesn’t work,” she said. “Every day I wake up living with, worrying about, and shaped by the very policies that we’re talking about in City Hall.”
Last month, Wu laid out her vision to a diverse crowd of supporters at the grand opening of her campaign headquarters in Jamaica Plain. Her two sons, Blaise and Cass, played by her feet.