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Is Boston more progressive or more apathetic?

For all the talk about the most transformational election in the city’s history, less than a third of eligible voters bothered to turn up.

Michelle Wu’s campaign won the vote of the younger, more transient, apartment residents, Secretary of State William Galvin said.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

By any standard, Michelle Wu is the most progressive politician ever elected mayor in the city’s history. Her drubbing of fellow City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, 64 to 36 percent, is also, by any standard, a landslide and decisive mandate.

But, in an election that drew about 32 percent of 442,000 eligible voters, that mandate was provided by 91,239 votes for Wu, or about 20 percent of eligible voters.

As the four strongest candidates to emerge in the preliminary election were not only all women but people of color, this was without question a historic election. Every previous Boston mayor had been a white man.


But for all the talk of the most transformational election in the city’s history, less than a third of eligible voters turned up.

Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, a nonpartisan group that works to increase voter participation, was disappointed that the turnout wasn’t as historic as the result.

“We had the most diverse pool of candidates ever. We had issues that really matter,” she said. “We can and should do better” on turnout.

While attributing some of the malaise to the pandemic, Crawford believes too many election cycles have produced voter fatigue. She favors holding presidential, congressional, statewide, and municipal elections at the same time, or at least in some combination aimed at limiting the number of elections.

“There’s got to be another way to do this,” she said.

While Bill Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state, shares Crawford’s frustration over turnout, he also saw some evidence suggesting Wu inspired more voters to get off their duffs and get to the polls or mail in a ballot.

On Monday, Galvin had predicted a turnout of 135,000 voters, about 9,000 short of the actual turnout.

“I’m pleased to be wrong,” Galvin said, as his office awaited a relatively small number of provisional ballots to be counted beyond the 143,547 already logged by Thursday afternoon.


He said Essaibi George’s supporters in the preliminary were more traditional voters, from South Boston, West Roxbury, parts of Dorchester, “who are more likely to vote.”

The ground to be gained, he said, was “on the north side of the city, where people move a lot.”

Galvin said Wu’s campaign got out and won the younger, more transient, apartment dwellers vote.

Galvin credits Wu’s campaign with his home wards of Allston-Brighton having a higher turnout than South Boston.

“We don’t beat South Boston in municipal elections,” he said. “That’s really unusual.”

Wu also managed to attract about 20,000 more votes than Marty Walsh did in his initial election and reelection, Galvin noted.

While progressives and progressive measures fared poorly in other cities, Wu’s victory stood out.

While Wu will be the most progressive Boston mayor yet, the fact is her two immediate predecessors, Walsh and Tom Menino, were progressive by most measures.

Galvin believes the city’s progressive shift began under John Collins, whose 1959 election over Senate President John Powers was an upset no one saw coming.

“Collins would never be seen as a progressive by today’s standards,” Galvin said, but his push to modernize the city flew in the face of traditionalists.

The push to make Boston less provincial and more inclusive continued under Kevin White and Ray Flynn, who in 1983 defeated Mel King, the city’s first Black mayoral finalist and a pioneering progressive.


The historic nature of Tuesday’s election thus had more to do with gender and race than ideology, and Wu’s margin of victory was in keeping with the city’s changing demographics, in which older, more moderate voters are gradually replaced by younger, more progressive ones.

Even as she lamented the turnout, Cheryl Crawford cheered the result. She especially liked Wu’s victory speech, in which the mayor-elect noted that one of her sons asked if boys can be elected mayor of Boston. Wu told her son “they have been and they will again some day, but not tonight.”

“What she was really saying is that anybody can,” Crawford said. “I don’t want the numbers to diminish that message.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.