The word used most often to describe the politics of Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu is “progressive.”
Within the context of the campaign that Wu is running — and leading, according to recent polls — progressive means she’s the “climate candidate” who also champions free public transit and rent control. Her agenda has the blessing of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the progressive queen; and her campaign website addresses a “movement” that’s “more than a vision. It’s a promise to Boston residents — a commitment to take on our hardest challenges, and to center our efforts on the pursuit of racial, economic, and climate justice.”
But then there’s the vote Wu cast in January 2014 — the one that helped Bill Linehan, an old-school conservative pol from South Boston who was anything but progressive, become City Council president. With her pledge to Linehan, the newly elected Wu angered progressives who helped her become the first Asian American woman to win a seat on the council. With that pledge, she also denied the council presidency to a fellow progressive, City Councilor Matt O’Malley, and to Ayanna Pressley, who at the time was another progressive city councilor who made a last-ditch effort to beat Linehan. Is Wu’s long-ago vote for Linehan relevant today? “Of course it’s relevant,” O’Malley told me. “Every vote that every elected official has taken is fair game.” However, O’Malley, who hasn’t endorsed any mayoral candidate and currently serves as president pro tempore, said that no one “should be defined by one vote.”
But that one vote does say something about Wu: She won’t always do what progressives want, especially when she wants something for herself. In this case, support for Linehan paved the way for her to win election as council president two years later. It also showed a capacity to reach beyond her base, which is necessary to win a mayoral race. As Liam Kerr, organizer of Priorities for Progress, a political action committee that promotes a middle ground for Democrats, puts it: “At 8:01 p.m. on Tuesday, the Linehan vote is back in business.” In other words, the candidate who wants to win in November will need to act quickly to broaden their appeal.
Can progressives live with that from Wu? So far they have. “The progressives will choose what sin to forgive. They have forgiven the Linehan sin,” said Jeffrey Sanchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who lost his House seat to a progressive challenger in 2018 and is now a senior adviser at Rasky Partners.
During a meeting with the Globe editorial board, I asked Wu what the Linehan vote says about progressive values versus political expedience. “This is a conversation that I continue to have with residents across the city, and I’ve had the chance to learn so much about the role of public officials and I have grown in this role,” she replied. She also repeated the rationale she gave at the time, that Linehan’s experience would benefit the council’s mission.
While Wu’s passion for rent control and free transit as tools of social justice and equity may run deep, more than mayoral passion is needed to turn them into reality. Rent control, for example, is prohibited under state law. The MBTA has launched free pilot bus service, but state legislation would be needed to make it system-wide.
What about less lofty tools of social justice and equity, such as the ultimately failed effort to locate Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Roslindale? According to Commonwealth magazine, Wu opposed it chiefly because of its charter school status. During the editorial board meeting, she also cited the city’s failure to have a conversation about “the best and highest use of that parcel” and said it illustrates the need for better planning. “Of course we need to be tackling racism and systemic racism in every part of our city,” she added — an acknowledgment of the underlying race and class issues raised by a school that serves many Black and Hispanic students from low-income households.
On her website, Wu offers a detailed police reform plan and supports the decision by acting Mayor Kim Janey to fire Dennis White as police commissioner, following a report detailing domestic violence allegations against him. But she also accepted the endorsement of Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who at one point called for White’s reinstatement.
Politics requires some bridge-building and give-and-take. How much should progressives expect from Wu — and how much are they willing to accept?