Michelle Wu, the 36-year-old daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and a Boston Public Schools mother who pitched a once parochial city on an unabashedly progressive agenda, captured the Boston mayoralty by a wide margin on Tuesday, shattering barriers to mark a new era in one of the nation’s most durable bastions of white male political power.
Wu declared victory Tuesday night as unofficial returns showed she had handily defeated rival City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who ran a more moderate and traditional campaign. Wu united supporters in progressive enclaves and communities of color to earn a decisive share of the vote.
Her victory is a triumph of a new Boston over the establishment, a powerful endorsement of the often irreverent style she has brought to a staid city government. Courting a city attached to its traditions, she presented an unapologetic, novel agenda that has already needled many longtime leaders: free public transportation, an entirely new approach to downtown development, rent control, and a municipal-level Green New Deal.
Wu is not only the first woman and first person of color elected mayor, but at 36, also the youngest in nearly a century. She will be the city’s first mayor in over a century who was not born and raised in Boston. With two young sons, she will also be the first mother elected to lead City Hall.
She nodded to that history Tuesday night in a buoyant speech at Cyclorama in the South End, taking the stage to cheers of “Wu! Wu!”
Flanked by supporters wielding purple signs, she looked to the future, pledging to lead “a Boston for everyone.”
“We don’t have to choose between generational change and keeping the streetlights on, between tackling big problems with bold solutions and filling our potholes . . . . All of this is possible,” she said. “We said these things are possible. And today, the voters of Boston said all these things are possible, too.”
In a nod to the diversity of the city, she then repeated that message — everything is possible — in Spanish, French, and Mandarin.
Her victory is a testament to the shifting face of the city and its new appetite for transformative political change. Where more conservative, whiter parts of the city, such as South Boston, Dorchester, and West Roxbury once played kingmaker, a more diverse coalition of progressive voters in neighborhoods such as Jamaica Plain and Roslindale has begun to flex its political power, and the change shows no sign of slowing. In her elections over the years, Wu has picked up support in traditional establishment communities, including Hyde Park and East Boston, and her dominance in the Sept. 14 preliminary mayoral election showed she is popular across the city.
On Tuesday, Wu looked to have expanded the already broad base of support she enjoyed in September, picking up many of the majority-Black precincts where she and Essaibi George had been battling for support, according to unofficial precinct results published by the research organization MassINC. And the Dorchester Reporter posted a picture on social media showing that Wu even appeared to win the home precinct of former mayor Martin J. Walsh in Dorchester. That was a blow for Essaibi George, who had run a campaign in the vein of Walsh’s and even won the endorsement of his mother, Mary, whom she escorted to the polls Tuesday.
Wu’s win caps a stunning decade of change in Boston’s government, where just 12 years ago Ayanna Pressley became the first woman of color elected to the City Council. Now, Wu is poised to serve alongside the most diverse council ever, one that is dominated by women, immigrants, and other people of color. Her victory could usher in a new era of representation in a city still rehabilitating its reputation for intolerance.
Her mayoralty is a milestone years in the making. Like Pressley before her, Wu used the pulpit of her City Council seat to outline a bolder, more expansive vision for her work, looking beyond the traditional role of councilor as a steward for local public works projects. For Wu, that meant openly and forcefully challenging the “status quo” policies of Walsh, whom she accused of failing to keep up with the demands of a city that was changing, in its demographics and its politics. Boston is more diverse than it has ever been and, according to recent polls, more liberal.
While councilors have historically deferred to mayoral administrations at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and other public events, Wu — as the first woman of color elected council president — led a body that for the first time charted its own course and spearheaded its own laws: new restrictions for the lobbying industry, and to regulate the short-term rental industry.
At her event across town at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Back Bay, a solemn but upbeat Essaibi George thanked her family and pink-clad supporters before congratulating Wu on her victory.
“I want her to show the city how mothers get it done,” Essaibi George said. Then, riffing on the strong Dorchester accent that turns her “r”s into “ah”s, she joked, “and I’m going to teach her to say it the right way.”
Essaibi George pledged that she would “never stop fighting for this city that I love.” And she called on supporters to join her in that mission, “painting the city pink” — a reference to her campaign’s signature color — by serving their neighbors.
A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Wu lives in Roslindale with her husband, banker Conor Pewarski, and their two young sons, Blaise and Cass. She was born in Chicago and raised in its suburbs, the eldest of four children to immigrant parents from Taiwan.
After a yearlong stint at a Boston consulting firm, she focused her attention on politics, completing a fellowship in City Hall under former mayor Thomas M. Menino, and then working on Elizabeth Warren’s first Senate campaign in 2012, before her own run for a City Council seat later that year. Wu points to Warren, her former professor who endorsed her and campaigned on her behalf, as a mentor; Warren has described Wu as “family.”
Wu points to her own life challenges — her upbringing in a non-English-speaking family, her mother’s struggles with mental health, the bureaucratic hurdles she faced as a small business owner — as the inspiration for her candidacy, saying she has lived the stakes of the policy she pushes.
Now, she has just two weeks before she takes over as mayor, a tight timeline that follows Walsh’s appointment to the Biden administration. It’s precious little time to staff up a new administration and lay the groundwork for the ambitious suite of policy proposals she has proposed.
Critics, including Essaibi George, have argued that idealistic vision won’t work within the strictures of municipal government.
Wu spins it a different way, calling for sweeping change but starting it by inches. Her “free the T” campaign slogan, she says, would start with axing fares on three bus routes, then expand to the rest of the system. Her proposals for free and accessible public transit seemed outlandish — until Lawrence tested a pilot program to free its bus system. Worcester is exploring a similar route, and Boston is now testing free fares on the Route 28 bus.
Critics and rivals have scoffed at her Green New Deal for Boston. As city councilor, though, Wu has already spearheaded regulations to protect wetlands from over-development, and pushed Walsh’s administration to take part in a community choice energy program, to help fulfill its commitment to renewable energy.
With Wu’s convincing win, voters delivered a mandate for change, political observers said.
“The politics of Boston has shifted to the left. That’s a big deal. That’s the big deal in this election,” said Byron Rushing, a former state representative from Boston who backed Wu. Her victory means that “the centrists are either not interested in voting or they are gone. We no longer have a majority-centrist city.”
It’s no longer the Boston of former mayors Martin J. Walsh or Thomas M. Menino, but will be “a whole new city under Mayor Wu,” said Michael McCormack, a longtime Boston politics observer and a former city councilor.
“It’s not the old Boston, the old political way of doing things,” McCormack said. “What you’re getting is a new mayor with a new agenda, a new way of doing things, a new attitude.”
McCormack, who was not involved in Wu’s campaign but supported her candidacy, said she will have to reign in her big-picture visions — at least in the short-term — to focus on the immediate challenges of setting a new course for the city’s troubled school system, and appointing a new police commissioner. The opioid epidemic at the intersection known as “Mass. and Cass” will be a first priority, he said.
It remains to be seen how Wu’s ambitious vision will unfurl within the slow-moving mechanics of city government, where bureaucracy reigns and inertia can shackle.
Her win “symbolically is seismic,” said Andrew Leong, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies Asian Americans and anti-Asian violence. “But I think people coming out of that initial victory are going to be disappointed by the lack of real substantive change because it’s beyond her control.”
For Wu on Tuesday, though, the tone was pure optimism.
Robust transition efforts would begin immediately, Wu pledged Tuesday night. But first, she intended to celebrate her historic victory.
“One of my sons asked me the other night if boys could be elected mayor of Boston,” she told the crowd. “They have been, and they will again some day. But not tonight.”
Meghan E. Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report.