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‘Redefining what leadership looks like’: What Michelle Wu’s win means for representation

Michelle Wu addresses her supporters in victory speech
Michelle Wu took the stage Tuesday night before her supporters as the mayor-elect of Boston, and the first woman and first Asian American elected to the office. (Photo by Jim Davis/Globe Staff, NECN)

Michelle Wu’s historic election as the next mayor of Boston not only writes a new chapter for the city’s history, but also turns a page for the country’s Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Though they represent the nation’s fastest-growing portion of the electorate, they remain significantly underrepresented in political office. Wu now enters a slim echelon of Asian American politicians who have won executive political office amid scant representation at the highest levels of government.

“To have somebody who is the face of the city,” said Sam Hyun, chairperson of the Massachusetts Asian-American Commission, “it’s absolutely historic.”

Wu recognized the symbolic significance of her campaign when addressing reporters Tuesday morning.


“Growing up, I never ever thought that I would or could or should be involved in politics,” Wu said. “I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in spaces of power.”

“We are redefining what leadership looks like,” she added, “and pushing for every single person to be part of that conversation.”

A protegé of Senator Elizabeth Warren, her professor at Harvard Law School, Wu built her political persona not on ethnic identity but on progressive vision and broad-based coalition-building. For the past four election cycles, she has dominated City Council races with strong citywide wins, and she has connected with Black and Latino voters since her first campaign, said Roger Lau, deputy executive director of the Democratic National Committee, who noted she’s even fluent in Spanish.

“I think that the Chinese community and Asian community are incredibly proud to see her doing all the things that she’s doing,” Lau said. “But she has made a really conscious effort to be an elected representative for all those underserved, underrepresented, who haven’t had a seat at the table.”

Still, her win holds special resonance for Asian Americans seeking to build representation and flex their political muscle, many said.


“Finally, we have an Asian woman representing us,” said Rosemary Lam, a woman in her 70s who emigrated from Hong Kong and grew up in Chinatown during the 1960s. “It’s a really positive emotion, especially for our younger generation. They see the changes.”

Only five Asian-American women have ever served as mayor in any of the country’s 100 largest cities, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University — all in California. Three are currently in office, along with three Asian-American men.

The federal picture is only slightly better. Vice President Kamala Harris made history last year as the first South Asian person elected to the office (as well as the first woman and first Black person). The US Senate includes two Asian-American women — Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii — and there are seven AAPI House members.

In the Massachusetts Legislature, Asian-American women have been gaining ground, with two elections last year boosting their numbers to five.

Wu’s win in Boston is all the more notable given the city’s tortured history of race relations and political record of only ever electing white men.

“It just boggles my mind, for a city as diverse as Boston, it’s taken this long for someone other than a white man to get into that office,” said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation.

Asian Americans — a diverse group spanning different ethnic backgrounds — represent just a sliver of Boston’s overall voting bloc, about 6 percent of the voting population. But advocates have been laying this groundwork for decades, and believe that Wu’s win has the potential to inspire more young Asian Americans already considering political engagement.


“There were a lot of people who became politically inspired when Barack Obama won, but organizing in the Black community didn’t start with that,” said Lisette Le, executive director of VietAID.

“We still have a way to go, but people are beginning to understand that within the Asian community, there are also different voices,” said Suzanne Lee, president emeritus of the Chinese Progressive Association, and a past unsuccessful candidate for city council representing Chinatown. At last, the community is drawing more attention as a potentially potent political power, she said.

“There are more campaigns seeking us out,” she said.

More Asian Americans participate in the political process when they see candidates that have similar ethnic and racial backgrounds, said Raymond Partolan, national field director for APIA Vote, an Asian-American and Pacific Islander voter organizing group.

“That’s a catalyst for voter turnout,” he said. “We also see more people who are simply willing to volunteer on campaigns — even nonpartisan civic engagement participation happening in other areas: Volunteering, donating.”

Such support was evident in Wu’s fund-raising, as significantly more out-of-state donors directly contributed to her campaign compared to that of rival Annissa Essaibi George — especially Asian-American donors from around the country. Donors in states such as California and Hawaii were disproportionately Asian American, according to a review of campaign finance data.


Some of those donors said they pitched in because of the representation Wu would bring as a rare Asian-American mayor of a significant city, particularly on the East Coast. Others simply said she was the best candidate.

”She deeply cares about the local community,” Yanen Li, a California donor who gave $1,000 to Wu, told the Globe. “I believe that she has the ability to transform the city into a better place based on her rich community-serving history.”

As a city councilor, Wu cultivated political talent among young Asian Americans, Hyun said.

Several years ago, when he was a young aide for then-Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Hyun said, he was among those invited downtown by Wu for early-morning meetings with Asian-American political leaders, talking about “how do we build the pipeline, how do we build power,” he recalled.

“I refer to her as my political noona,” he added, using a Korean word for older sister. “I would run through a brick wall for her, even if she didn’t ask.”

“Michelle is going to inspire so many members of our community, especially our generation, that they can do this,” said Hyun.

Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, said that despite Boston’s set-in-its ways reputation in politics, Wu’s election fits the city’s other national profile as a hub of intellectual firepower and ingenuity.

“I see it as a changing, evolving city that has always been very cosmopolitan,” Mielke said. “You have so many people from different backgrounds coming to Boston.”


Outsider-ism became a theme during the campaign. Wu was born in Chicago and Essaibi George cast her lifelong roots in Dorchester as a selling point, suggesting voters found it relevant. But Lau noted that Bostonians have often embraced political transplants, electing Oklahoma-born Warren to the Senate and Chicago natives Deval Patrick as governor and Ayanna Pressley to City Council and Congress.

Along with Pressley’s election to Congress in 2018, “Michelle is pretty much the exclamation point on the fact that Boston is a changed city,” said Lau.

“Having the city elect its first woman and first person of color is game-changing in so many different ways,” said Lau. “It speaks to what Boston is now and what it wants to be.”

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to the group where Sam Hyun serves as chairperson. It is the Massachusetts Asian-American Commission.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Follow her @StephanieEbbert. Elizabeth Koh can be reached at Follow her @elizabethrkoh.