fb-pixel Skip to main content

How Michelle Wu charted a new path to power in Boston, and two other takeaways from the election results

Boston Mayor-elect Michelle Wu addresses supporters at her Tuesday night election party.JOSH REYNOLDS/Associated Press

Much has been written about the election of Michelle Wu as the first woman, first person of color, and first Asian American to be elected mayor of Boston. She’s also the first mayor-elect born outside of the city in a century and, at 36, one of its youngest ever.

Indeed, all of this is true.

But apart from all those firsts after decades (centuries, really) of the old way, Wu’s victory will also have a lasting impact on what it means to win an election in Boston, setting precedent for how to do it going forward. Here’s a look at how and why. Pollsters and political kingmakers, take note.


1. The power base of the city has changed

Since 1983, when Ray Flynn defeated Mel King, the path to winning the city’s top elected job was pretty clear: You win among the neighborhoods around the perimeter. The largely white neighborhoods with high voter turnouts in West Roxbury, Hyde Park, eastern sections of Dorchester, South Boston, East Boston, and Charlestown were where mayoral elections were decided.

In this election, Wu claimed victory the opposite way: winning through the city’s core neighbors from Roxbury and Mattapan, to the western side of Dorchester, and the solid, deeply progressive base in Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.

Wu’s opponent, Annissa Essaibi George, meanwhile tried to rally using the old playbook. It didn’t work.

If this race looked and felt different from other Boston elections in years past, it’s because a different electorate delivered this victory. Going forward, expect more of that.

2. All politics is not local

In the past two decades, American politics has transformed and is now driven almost entirely by national issues. Americans are sharply divided into political camps, torn between parties that serve more as tribal identities than policy constructs. And then there’s the role of the decline of local news and the rise of national cable news, which can’t be ignored.


But even as the tides shifted on a national scale, Boston remained in its own orbit. The old-time political machines delivered victories. To win, you had to know your city, and know how it was done.

Then came Wu. No one doubts that Wu knew her city and highlighted local issues, like housing affordability and the spiraling situation at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. But she also centered her campaign around more national issues like the Green New Deal, rent control, and a push to dismantle the nation’s structural racism — issues typically dealt with on a state or national level.

Turns out Boston isn’t so different than the rest of the country. The new rules finally arrived in one of the nation’s oldest cities.

3. Wu won like a Boston mayor seeking reelection

What politicos will be discussing for some time is just how Wu was able to win so convincingly, despite it being her first time running as mayor. Winning with what appeared early Wednesday to be 64 percent of the vote meant that she was looking at similar margins of victory as incumbent mayors enjoyed in elections past.

Four years ago, Marty Walsh defeated Tito Jackson with 65 percent of the vote. Tom Menino’s share of the vote for his reelections was 71 percent when he ran unopposed in 1997, 76 percent in 2001, 67 percent in 2005, and 57 percent in 2009.


With this sort of decisive victory, Wu can credibly say she has something of a mandate to lead the city. And given that she takes office in just two weeks, it’s probably a good thing for Boston that the race wasn’t in recount territory, delaying the outcome just as the victor should be preparing to take the oath of office.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.