The dust has barely settled from Tuesday’s historic race for mayor, but it’s time to ask the question — could Michelle Wu have beaten Martin J. Walsh, the former mayor and her political rival throughout her eight years as a city councilor?
It’s all hypothetical and academic. We can never truly know the answer. But it’s well worth asking the question after Wu dominated throughout the city in Tuesday’s race and won many of Walsh’s former strongholds, including his home precinct in Lower Mills.
Indeed, Wu won 64 percent of the vote Tuesday, to 36 percent for Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who had the support of Walsh’s base. That’s incumbent-level dominance. Four years ago, Walsh claimed 66 percent of the vote over opponent Tito Jackson in his first reelection campaign. The late mayor Thomas M. Menino won 57 percent of the vote in his last race in 2009 over popular city councilor Michael Flaherty, who got 42 percent.
Wu has gotten more votes than Walsh ever did: She won 91,239 votes on Tuesday, when 72,583 voters went with Walsh in his open race in 2013. Four years later, he received 70,197.
Walsh, who left office in March to become US labor secretary for President Biden, wouldn’t comment on the question. He called Wu to congratulate her Wednesday and to offer any advice.
Michael Goldman, a supporter of Walsh who helped run his 2013 campaign, gave a quick answer: No.
“Marty Walsh is one of the most unique political candidates you’ll find, because as much as he loves governing, he loves campaigning,” said Goldman, who said Walsh was looking forward to his re-election campaign before his appointment to the Biden administration.
Wu, if you recall, was the first candidate to openly challenge Walsh — in September 2020, long before he departed. In many ways, she had been running way before then, openly challenging the sitting mayor in ways Boston mayors are not accustomed to, especially not by a city councilor. Think of the city ordinance she spearheaded to regulate the lobbying industry, after the mayor proposed his own package. She saw that her vision was passed, instead.
Her work with Councilor Lydia Edwards to pass an ordinance regulating the short-term rental industry earned her — not Walsh — the ire of the mammoth platform Airbnb, and made her the darling of grass-roots community activists.
More than two years ago, “The Atlantic” magazine penned a provocative piece questioning if Wu is, “The Next Mayor of Boston?”
“I think it would have been an interesting, challenging race,” said Carter Wilkie, a former political advisor for Menino.
Wilkie, who lives in Roslindale and supported Wu, said recent voting pattern shows a city in the midst of an ideological and political transformation, where Walsh’s traditional base of power — in whiter, more conservative neighborhoods such as South Boston and Dorchester — no longer holds the same voting clout. The more progressive neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale by contrast have emerged as power centers, and they have leaned toward candidates promising change: Think Representative Ayanna Pressley, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins. And now Wu.
Wu’s push to address climate change and open up free and accessible public transit to all, rebuffed as pie-in-the-sky by her opponents, actually resonated with a broad swath of city voters. And residents have demanded more to address an affordable housing crisis, and economic disparities.
“This was an electorate that was craving something more than just the same,” Wilkie said.
To be clear, it is historically difficult to unseat an incumbent Boston mayor, some say impossible. It hasn’t happened in more than a half century. Walsh had more than $5 million in campaign coffers before the race would have even started, a war chest that would have allowed him to control the media market. And he had the pulpit of City Hall incumbency, the ability to offer jobs and attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies at his disposal.
“You don’t even need the troops, you just need the name recognition,” Wilkie said.
Moreover, Walsh remained popular right up until his departure. Boston’s economy was thriving, and the city weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than others.
But Walsh also had amassed a legacy of incomplete projects that Wu could have used as ammunition in her campaign against him. The opioid crisis at the intersection known as Mass. and Cass still rages. Boston public schools are still struggling. And Walsh left the Boston Police Department in a scandal, amid revelations that the department covered up sexual abuse allegations against an officer, who was still able to rise through the ranks to head the patrolmen’s union. The police commissioner Walsh appointed before he left in March was fired by his successor, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, after old domestic violence allegations against him surfaced.
Those issues would have likely emerged as talking points in the race, opportunities for Wu to put Walsh on the defense.
Wilnelia Rivera, a political consultant who worked on Pressley’s groundbreaking congressional campaign in 2018, said a Walsh versus Wu race would have played out far differently than the one with Essaibi George, especially if they both had to battle in a preliminary election. Also, although he has a Dorchester base, she said, Walsh was able to broaden his campaign, particularly in Black and brown communities, in ways that Essaibi George did not.
“He wasn’t just a one time kind of guy, he wasn’t a Dorchester guy,” she said. “Marty was a citywide guy, in a way that Annissa fell short.”
Still, said Rivera, the race would have been close. Wu might have “found a way to eke it out.” That’s why, she said, she embraced Wu’s candidacy — two years ago, when Wu was maneuvering to challenge a sitting mayor.
“I did it with the calculus that we were going against Marty,” Rivera said.
Consider this last point: A Globe poll from two weeks ago showed that 71 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Wu, a remarkable ranking. It was higher than the 57 percent of respondents who had a favorable view of Walsh. She had jumped ahead of him since a similar poll in June.