Amid predictions of a big win on Election Day, Michelle Wu stood at the Chinatown Gate on Monday — a spot chosen for its personal significance — and proclaimed that the city is ready to embrace her promise of transformational change.
“We are standing on the brink of history where Boston has a chance to choose between nibbling on the edges of the status quo or taking the big, bold actions that we have needed for a long time,” Wu said. “I’m ready for every single neighborhood and community to be part of shaping our future.”
On Tuesday, Wu, 36, appeared to have secured that victory, which will certainly represent major change in Boston. She will become the city’s first female elected mayor, the first person of color — and the youngest mayor in more than 80 years. Her rival and fellow City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George conceded defeat after 10 p.m.
It’s fair to say that never has one person represented so much change in the mayor’s office, in one fell swoop.
But the new mayor will also take the helm of a city still battling the ravages of COVID, a scourge that has exacerbated already deep inequalities. She will face pressure to deliver on an ambitious array of promises, including major ones that fall beyond the mayor’s authority. She could face a left-wing City Council emboldened by new authority over the city purse. And task number one might be acting on the delicate issue of police reform, starting with choosing a new police commissioner.
Welcome to the job of your dreams, Mayor-elect Wu.
“I think it’s a time of change in the city in a lot of ways, and the election of Michelle coincides with that,” said Eastern Bank CEO Bob Rivers. “There’s the pandemic, and everyone is thinking about the future of work, and there is this sustained reflection on racial equity that I’ve never seen before.
“I think it’s good to have a transformative leader like Michelle take this role at this moment, to challenge all of us to make sure we take advantage of these challenges in the most productive way possible.”
Wu is far from an outsider as a former City Council president who has served on the council for eight years, and worked in City Hall for 10.
But the difference between her former role and her new one can barely be overstated. Councilors take positions. Mayors make decisions.
Among the first awaiting the new mayor will be sorting out the mess at the Boston Police Department, which has had three commissioners (one acting) in 2021.
Wu has said she will begin the search for a new commissioner shortly after taking office. Some believe she could dramatically demonstrate her commitment to breaking with the status quo in short order by going outside Boston for a new commissioner.
“I think this is the time for new leadership to come in with the expertise to run the department but without the baggage of someone inside,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a longtime close observer of the Police Department. Brown served on a committee two years ago that made sweeping recommendations for police reform, most of them unfulfilled.
But even charting a new direction for the BPD — while a heavy lift — may prove less challenging than some of Wu’s signature initiatives.
She ran as a champion of bringing back rent control, which would require state approval. While Governor Charlie Baker has not rejected the idea outright, he has made a point of throwing cold water on it, most recently in a radio appearance last week on GBH Public Radio.
Whatever the fate of rent control, Wu has made issues of equity central to her campaign. And throughout her career, she has sparred with the business community — specifically, developers — on how to balance development with community concerns.
And, of course, she has pledged — kind of — to try to make the T free, also high on the list of things a mayor cannot do (though the MBTA is currently running the 28 bus fare-free in a pilot program Wu has called “transformative”).
Wu has never offered a persuasive answer about how to pay for a free T, settling for declaring her support for a transit bill in Congress — co-sponsored by Representative Ayanna Pressley — whose prospects might charitably be described as uncertain.
But Wu’s talk about the T is not just about a specific policy proposal. It’s also meant as a marker, a signal of who she intends to fight for, and how far she is willing to go.
Wu’s mayoralty promises to be different not just in the obvious, symbolic ways. She wants to transform how mayors operate. And, in turn, how Boston thinks of the role of a mayor.
To call that ambitious is an understatement. And fulfilling those sweeping promises will now fall on a young new mayor who’s never run anything larger than a tea shop, and that for seven short months.
But from her emergence in 2013, Wu has been utterly consistent in her view that city government needs to be more resolute in connecting with the people it serves, and less willing to accept limitations in its scope.
One day this summer I asked Wu why she spent so much campaign time pushing things a mayor can’t do. She said simply, “We accept too easily that there’s nothing we can do.”
From the outset of her career, she has thought big about the city, and asked voters to come along. Indeed, her biggest break with her recent predecessors might be in simply how she thinks about the job.
Then again, every recent mayor has recast the job in his own image, with his own priorities. Each of them — Kevin White, Ray Flynn, Tom Menino, Marty Walsh — has written a distinctive new chapter in Boston’s story.
Now Michelle Wu is poised to take the pen.