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Michelle Wu and the politics of yes

She took on a city famous for saying ‘no, we can’t do that’ and convinced enough Boston voters to believe in the politics of unlimited possibility.

Boston Mayor-elect Michelle Wu represents a huge change from the elected mayors who preceded her. But the biggest change she represents is a shift in mindset.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

She did it. She sold Boston on a wildly seductive idea. Anything — and everything — is possible.

“We don’t have to choose between generational change and keeping the street lights on, between tackling big problems with bold solutions and filling our potholes,” said Mayor-elect Michelle Wu in a jubilant victory speech Tuesday night. “All of this is possible. We said these things are possible. And today, the voters of Boston said all these things are possible too.”

Wu’s ability to close that sale and become the first woman, first person of color, and first Asian American to be elected mayor of Boston is a remarkable story. This Harvard-educated, 36-year-old daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who was born in Chicago, took on the establishment and won. She also took on a city famous for saying “no, we can’t do that” — whether it’s tall buildings, gondolas, or a Boston Olympics — and convinced enough voters to believe in the politics of unlimited possibility. Or, to put it another way, in the politics of “yes.” As her opponent, Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said in her concession speech, Wu’s accomplishment is “no small feat.”

Now of course comes the challenge of execution. This is where the politics of unlimited possibility runs up against the entrenched forces that will continue to resist change. This is where the world of Twitter faces off against the powerful city-worker unions, the development crowd, and assorted business interests. The army of the status quo could not stop Wu from securing an amazing victory. But those soldiers don’t disappear; they simply regroup and see what they can stop from happening in a Wu administration. Wu has to reset expectations too. As Mario Cuomo, a voice from another political generation, said, “We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected, we’re forced to govern in prose.” Can supporters who believed in Wu’s poetry accept the prose? Will they accept progress that falls short of revolution?


Wu has promised a lot: inclusion, racial equity, housing affordability, economic justice, and a Green New Deal. Police and school reform. A new path for city development. Resolution of the human and public health crisis at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, all while tending to potholes and keeping the streetlights on. Then there’s also Wu’s talk about free public transportation. It’s the progressive politics of Senator Elizabeth Warren, blended with the “urban mechanic” approach of the late Boston mayor Tom Menino — on steroids.


To accomplish any of it will require strong coalition-building. Wu proved she could do that to win the mayoral contest. In the end, she united her progressive base with most of the Boston political establishment. Now she needs to do that to advance her agenda for Boston. For that, she will need support from the Boston City Council and from the Boston delegation on Beacon Hill. And what about Governor Charlie Baker? He famously had a so-called bromance with former mayor Marty Walsh. How will he respond to this new mayor and her needs for the capital city?

All those very practical considerations of governing lie ahead. But in this moment, it’s hard not to feel the positive energy generated by Wu’s victory and how it puts Boston on the national stage in a new and exhilarating way. Acting Mayor Kim Janey was the first to change the vibe of a city that often feels stuck in the past. Now Wu brings that new Boston vibe to the next level. On the basis of age, gender, ethnicity, and ideology, she represents a huge change from the elected mayors who preceded her.


But the biggest change she represents is a shift in mindset. Yes, Boston can be welcoming to all. Yes, Boston can have excellent schools. Yes, Boston can have a forward-thinking police commissioner, a police department committed to transparency, accountability, and public safety. Yes, Boston can build luxury condos along with affordable housing. Yes, Boston can address climate change. Yes, Boston can find a way to move the tents from Mass. and Cass and help the vulnerable people who live in them. Meanwhile, the streets will be paved, the snow will be plowed, and there are more free bus rides somewhere in the city’s future.

That’s a lot of yes for a city more used to saying no, or at best, maybe.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.