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Wu’s victory is a beacon for Boston amid Democratic disappointments elsewhere

Tuesday was a grim day for Democrats in other parts of the country. Here and elsewhere, Michelle Wu’s mayoral victory provided some light.

Mayor-elect Michelle Wu.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It won’t be easy, but let’s enjoy this for a minute.

Boston just turned the page on centuries of sameness to elect its first woman, and its first Asian American, as mayor. Michelle Wu arrived at this moment on the strength of votes from across the city, not just from the powerhouse neighborhoods that have long been its center of political gravity (though she did OK in those places, too).

A large majority of those who voted chose a woman who speaks three languages and is unapologetically brainy, a daughter of immigrants who did not grow up in the city. They refused to heed the criticism that Wu’s vision reached beyond a mayor’s traditional powers. They said yes to ambitious local solutions for the global and national crises lapping at our doors.


That sets Boston apart from much of the country, particularly this week, when progressives and other Democrats saw crushing defeats that augur ill for the midterms and beyond.

Depending on your perspective, Wu’s victory feels like a bright new beacon — or a flashlight in a cave.

Not since Kevin White first took the city’s top job in 1968 has this much mayoral ambition met such a tumultuous moment. Wu’s campaign assembled an impressive, diverse, and multigenerational coalition of political and community leaders. There’s reason to hope her city hall will attract the kind of civic superstars that White did, thinkers and doers who had real power and went on to shape Boston and beyond for decades.

Will she preside over a like transformation? We’ll find out sooner than any mayor-elect would like. While new mayors usually have months to assemble teams, Wu takes office in a couple of weeks, so she’ll be building this plane as she flies it.

And she’s on the hook right now for some huge problems that her predecessors were bedeviled by — or ducked. There is an ongoing pandemic to contend with. There is the crisis at the Police Department, which needs a new commissioner, and for which the mayor-elect has promised real reform. There is also the disaster of addiction and homelessness at Mass. and Cass, where Acting Mayor Kim Janey and others have cleared away tents and dispatched some unfortunate souls to court proceedings that are the exact opposite of the compassion everybody promised. Already, less than 24 hours after polls closed, appalled advocates for those people are calling on Wu to put a stop to the debacle.


Also on the immediate horizon: winter, and with it the first big test of Wu’s claim that she can make change “at scale and at street level.” The bet here is that she will get the streets plowed just fine: The pie-in-the-sky visionary is also a nuts-and-bolts wonk.

That will surprise some of her critics. As will her pragmatism. Wu’s willingness to compromise will probably also disappoint some of her most fervent fans at times, but it has been a consistent a feature of her career. Her route to the corner office passed through beloved incrementalist Mayor Tom Menino’s network, and longtime Chinatown kingmaker Frank Chin, both of whom she thanked in her acceptance speech. She also got there with the help of some of the old-school political sharpies who gather at Santarpio’s in East Boston, where she made a stop earlier in the day.


She has now surpassed almost all of them to become arguably the second-most important politician in the state, after the governor. Given Tuesday’s disappointments in Virginia, New Jersey, Buffalo, and beyond, she is now also one of its most famous, her victory affording bitterly disappointed Democrats across the country some measure of solace.

That’s a lot of expectations. On top of it all, there is the existential immediacy of her signature issue. As if we needed it, this week’s UN Climate Change Conference has reminded us of the crisis in which we now find ourselves. Tuesday’s Republican victories in Virginia and elsewhere remind us that we cannot rely on a responsible federal government to stick around long enough to help us out of it, so it falls to conscientious local politicians to provide stability and solutions.

For mayors like Wu, however, the stakes are even higher. What she has promised on climate amounts to nothing less than life-saving leadership.

Congratulations, mayor-elect. No pressure!

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.