The next mayor of Boston will inherit a city that, by and large, has been prospering. The population is growing, high-tech businesses are thriving, new construction has been sprouting up across the city like dandelions, and the city’s neighborhoods are — for the most part — safe and vibrant.
That’s no accident: It’s a testament to the foresight of several generations of elected officials and civic leaders who turned a city that was on the brink of economic collapse and ethnic conflict in the postwar years into the diverse and dynamic powerhouse that it is today.
The question for voters is which of the two candidates in the final election Nov. 2 is best positioned to pick up the baton from her predecessors: to preserve what has been working in the Boston they built, prepare for challenges on the horizon, and address the city’s lingering weaknesses.
In this election, that choice is very clear: The Globe endorses at-large City Councilor Michelle Wu of Roslindale, the first-place finisher in the preliminary election who has both an expansive vision for the city’s next chapters and a proven record of ethical leadership.
Wu, who was first elected to the council as a young Harvard graduate in 2013, has used her position to push for meaningful regulations, including of Airbnb rentals and City Hall lobbying. Perhaps less well known, she was also a voice for constituents navigating City Hall bureaucracy, who was attuned to the way smoother permitting can help diverse businesses thrive.
In this election, she has sketched out an agenda for a greener, more equitable city. She’s committed to tackle one of Boston’s stubborn, entrenched problems — a police department that lacks the trust of too many residents. She’s a persistent advocate for mass transit, and rightly sees it as a way to both clean up the environment and ease the crippling traffic congestion that has been an unfortunate byproduct of the city’s growth. She envisions setting up a system to help families navigate the bewildering complexity of the Boston Public Schools.
Her opponent, at-large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George of Dorchester, has also been a hardworking councilor. She has provided leadership on family homelessness and organizing needle clean-up drives. Over her years on the council, she has clearly demonstrated a deeper passion for public education than Wu.
In the campaign, Essaibi George has made some trenchant critiques of Wu, and in particular the feasibility of some of Wu’s more grandiose promises — including a free MBTA and a return of rent control. The best leaders learn from their critics, and if she’s elected, hopefully Wu will take to heart some of the legitimate concerns that Essaibi George has raised in this campaign.
After all, rent control is illegal, and the mayor of Boston would not have the power to restore it even if that were a good idea (it’s not). For Wu to promise something she can’t actually deliver without help from the Legislature is the sort of thing that can engender cynicism in the political process. Her tendency to overpromise is one of the reasons that in the preliminary round of the election, the Globe editorial board endorsed a different candidate, one who struck a better balance between vision and feasibility. Wu also should not take for granted the hard, decades-long efforts of previous leaders to make Boston a viable place for businesses to grow and thrive, something that undergirds its current prosperity.
Still, while Essaibi George is right in some of her criticisms of Wu, she has not built a convincing case for herself. By wink and by nod, she’s made it clear to interest groups in the city, including the police, that they needn’t fear too much change if she’s elected. Meanwhile, some aspects of her record on the council are troubling. The fact that as an elected official she opposed a South Boston development project next to a property owned by her husband, a prominent real estate developer, does not portend well for how she would handle potential conflicts of interest if she’s elected mayor.
Whichever candidate wins will represent a milestone in the city’s history: She’ll be the first woman, and first person who identifies as a person of color, elected mayor in the city’s 400-year history. That, in itself, is a sign of how much progress the city has made. Still, the winner won’t have much time to savor her victory: The mayor will take the oath of office in November instead of the typical January inauguration. And she’ll immediately face major challenges.
Most urgent is the human tragedy at the intersection of Mass. Ave and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which continues to deteriorate. It’s inhumane and unacceptable for people suffering from addiction, homelessness, and mental health challenges to live on the streets in such a wealthy city. The new mayor must pick up on the work that Acting Mayor Kim Janey is doing to finally address the encampment. Long term, the next mayor ought to lead a regional conversation about providing more and better addiction treatment services; short term, she needs to get tents off the streets, address violent crime in the area, and make sure nobody freezes to death this winter.
She should also make sure the public schools don’t end up in state receivership. Although that drastic action might become necessary at some point, strong city leadership could address chronic absenteeism, late buses, and the other shortcomings identified in a state audit last year. Hopefully, the next mayor will make a quick decision on whether to keep current superintendent Brenda Cassellius, and then offer whoever leads the district steady political support for needed reforms.
Finally, the next mayor will also have to negotiate a new contract with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. Since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, citizens have become far more aware of how seemingly arcane details in union contracts can protect abusive officers and hinder accountability. In the way these contracts regulate overtime, they can also drive up costs to taxpayers. Past mayors have often dodged questions about municipal labor contract negotiations, saying they don’t want to negotiate in public. But that excuse is not going to fly anymore: The times demand that the next mayor introduce more accountability into police contracts, and that negotiations be transparent to the public.
That’s exactly what Wu has pledged to do.
That’s a significant pledge — and, unlike some of Wu’s other plans, it’s well within the mayor’s power to deliver. Indeed, in that promise is a glimpse of what has always been most appealing about Michelle Wu. She’s rigorous and detail-oriented and has been admirably transparent. And in a city where the connected so often look out for one another behind closed doors, whether in union negotiations or real estate development plans, she’s never seemed interested in playing the insider game.
Earlier in the campaign, Wu attracted attention for defending the architecture of Boston City Hall, the ’60s-vintage pile of concrete that many city residents consider an eyesore. As hard as it may be to imagine now, there was a big idea behind the design; it aspired to convey openness and accessibility, and “trust in the idea of government,” as one of its architects put it. It was a disruptive break with the politics of the past — symbolically, but also in reality, since it was chosen through an open architectural competition instead of via the old boy network. Its construction, just as the city was emerging from its midcentury nadir, was meant to send a message that Boston was back and that it was on a new, bolder trajectory.
If Wu wins in November and moves into the mayor’s office at City Hall, she might never convince the city to love that building. But she can be trusted to uphold the best of what it was meant to symbolize, and to continue the progress it was meant to herald.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.