Michelle Wu convinced Boston voters she’s the right person to run the city. Now, can she persuade a wary business community?
Her race against Annissa Essaibi George was often framed as progressive versus pragmatist. Wu’s talk of free T rides and reviving rent control struck some executives as pie-in-the-sky proposals with little chance of immediate success, not serious attempts to tackle longstanding problems. Meanwhile, her promises to push substantive reforms — by rewriting the rules of real estate development in Boston, for example — threaten the bottom line for powerful people who have benefited from the status quo.
But it might not be as tough as it seems to persuade Boston’s typically cautious business community to hop on board the Wu train — and not just because she emerged victorious last Tuesday. Business leaders know how this city has changed since they started their careers. And, for the most part, they recognize it needs to evolve further.
Wu gave herself a head start by directly engaging with executives in a variety of industries during the campaign. To many who met with her, the city councilor came across as genuinely interested in their concerns, and not simply as a politician casting for votes or campaign donations.
And when it comes to priorities, there’s plenty of overlap with the soon-to-be mayor. Bolstering Boston’s public schools. Improving mass transit and affordable housing. Making the city more resilient to catastrophic storms. Narrowing the wealth gap to help Black and Latino residents. Dealing with the drug addiction and homeless encampment at Mass. and Cass. Replacing all those “For Lease” signs downtown with vibrant shops and restaurants.
Eastern Bank chief executive Bob Rivers, a prominent Wu supporter, says the antibusiness rap is unfair. He chalks it up to people who don’t really know Wu yet, or those who might be uncomfortable with the prospect of meaningful reforms.
That discomfort is perhaps most pronounced in development circles. In 2019, Wu released a detailed plan to “abolish” the Boston Planning & Development Agency, accusing it of operating on political relationships and special exceptions. Among her recommendations: giving the City Council more authority and creating a separate planning department. Her stated goal: a more consistent and predictable system for development decisions, replacing the city’s largely project-by-project approach.
But blowing up the BPDA also could put some of the city’s well-connected players at a disadvantage, changing the rules of a game many have mastered.
Then there’s the ever-vexing issue of affordable housing, and how best to tackle it. Wu’s version of rent control likely would differ from the one that went away in the 1990s. But Greg Vasil at the Greater Boston Real Estate Board says some of his members still worry about its potential to curb investment, which in turn could undermine the property taxes needed to pay for city services. Wu also wants to expand affordable housing requirements for big development projects in the city. But ask for too much, and builders could simply back away.
Construction magnate John Fish, who donated to both candidates, says he isn’t worried about Wu’s ability to strike that balance. The Suffolk Construction chief executive says he has heard the concerns from other businesspeople, but believes Wu will end up surprising them with her understanding of the important roles they should play in the city’s future.
Jen Benson, president of the left-leaning Alliance for Business Leadership, says it will be easier for Wu to reach a common ground with business leaders now than it would have been just two years ago. Natural disasters across the country underscored Boston’s precarious location as an oceanfront city, potentially only one bad storm away from catastrophe. Meanwhile, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests of the past year underscored the economic toll of longstanding racial and socioeconomic inequities. Businesses in Boston, she says, are more eager than ever to be part of the solution.
And for some waiting on the outside, the status quo is long overdue for a shakeup. Count Segun Idowu, president of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, among them. His members, for example, are eager for Wu to fulfill her pledge to make it easier for entrepreneurs of color to win city contracts. As marketing maven Colette Philips puts it: The city for too long has worked for certain people, and now it’s time for it to work for everybody.
This goes beyond the nitty-gritty of paving contracts and park renovations. For business leaders who worry about talent recruitment and retention, the symbolism of a woman of color in the mayor’s office could prove to be invaluable. While sky-high housing costs pose the greatest recruitment challenge, almost every CEO has a story about how they lost a top job candidate from out of state because of Boston’s reputation for parochialism.
Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, winces at how Boston’s national reputation is often still shaped by ads for Sam Adams and Dunkin’ and movies starring an Affleck or a Wahlberg. Maybe, he says, having a mayor who doesn’t look or sound like a stereotypical Bostonian can change some widely held perceptions.
The last time Boston elected a new mayor, the business community was wary, too. Then-state Representative Marty Walsh was a longtime labor leader, branded as a union guy. Alarm bells rang then, Rooney recalls, much more than now.
Then Walsh took office, the practical responsibilities of running a major city set in, and those concerns largely eased. The administration eventually proved to be relatively business-friendly. The city flourished. Companies raced to set up shop here — at least until COVID-19 hit.
Rooney acknowledges there will be disagreements about specific strategies and approaches. But he says Wu’s priorities line up nicely with the chamber’s — transportation, education, climate change, a more inclusive city. And Wu will need business support to tackle her goals.
In the end the new mayor and the business community want the same thing: a city that’s thriving, and welcoming to all.