It was still the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — April 2020 — and months from a formal announcement when Mary Lou Akai-Ferguson came on board as the sole, under-the-radar operative of what would become Michelle Wu’s mayoral campaign.
Her first assignment, in those hazy Zoom-heavy days, was standard fare: Start connecting with important Bostonians, see what they would like to see from a Wu administration. But “the people whose opinions [Wu] valued were very different from the typical adviser,” recalled Akai-Ferguson, Wu’s campaign manager. She wasn’t directed to reach out to elected officials or top business executives; instead, it was volunteer coordinators, neighborhood leaders, elders in immigrant communities, Haitian and Cape Verdean and Vietnamese. What she heard would underpin the campaign.
“They saw her as a neighbor and a friend and someone who had a child who went to the same day care — a regular person who rode the T who they knew and would run into,” Akai-Ferguson recalled.
Crucially, too: “A pal.”
That informal start to the campaign is emblematic of the years-long community-building effort that ultimately powered Michelle Wu’s historic 28-point victory last week in the Boston mayor’s race. A mayor unlike any Boston has elected before — the first woman, first person of color, first mother, and youngest in nearly a century — Wu also won in a way the city hasn’t seen before. Eschewing paid political consultants, she bet on novel digital strategies and non-English media, and leaned hard on the coalitions she had spent years building in every neighborhood — and the fund-raising that came along with them. That delivered her a lopsided triumph, and secured her place in Boston history.
Wu was the first candidate to formally enter the contest, and for the past seven weeks, she ran a front-runner’s digitally savvy, misstep-free, whole-city general election push. Undergirding all of it was a foundation of relationships seven years or more in the making.
Since she moved to the Boston area to study at Harvard nearly two decades ago, Wu has been forging the bonds that ultimately would power her stunning victory, which saw her win all but three of the city’s 22 wards. She helped immigrants in Chinatown pursue their citizenship; she pushed, alongside the Puerto Rican Veterans Association, for a monument in Villa Victoria; she stuffed envelopes with parents at Boston Latin School, where her younger sister was once enrolled.
Then, after years of her showing up for them, those communities showed up for her on Election Day.
“It’s been incredible to have such longstanding relationships, from people and communities who welcomed me in as family,” Wu said in a recent interview with the Globe.
Some mayoral hopefuls look to their base to carry them to victory. It’s a strategy that worked for Martin J. Walsh, who won the city in 2013 in large part because of the reliably high-voter-turnout areas of South Boston and parts of Dorchester.
But Wu did well all over the city, and dominated in most of it, part of an every-neighborhood approach that is core to her vision.
“Our team decided from the beginning that we would go after every single vote, every single community,” Wu told the Globe two days after her win. “We know that more is possible when everyone’s voices are part of the conversation.”
In parochial Boston, many wondered if it would hurt Wu that she had not been born and raised here. Rival Annissa Essaibi George drew ire earlier this fall for suggesting it was relevant whether her opponent was born outside of Boston.
But in some ways, that newcomer status empowered Wu to do something Boston-born candidates couldn’t, turning “something viewed as a political weakness into a strength,” said Jonathan Cohn, chair of the Ward 4 Democratic Committee. Instead of leaning on strong ties to one neighborhood or one ethnic community, she brought a suite of policy proposals, and a personalized pitch, to every neighborhood in the city, ultimately winning most of them.
“She was able to rise above that tribal identity politics and turf warfare in a way that allowed her to build a very broad coalition across the city, and I think it’s a lesson for Democrats across the country,” said Carter Wilkie, an adviser to former mayor Thomas M. Menino who has studied voting patterns in the city over the last decade.
“What Michelle did was truly build a rainbow coalition,” he added.
Wu has had not just one political home in the city, but several: She’s lived in the North End as well as the South End, the neighborhood where she and her husband, Conor Pewarski, were renters when she first ran for office, where many still claim her as their own; it was the site of her victory party on Tuesday. She also has a special connection to Chinatown, where she built roots as a college kid and made many of her largest campaign stops. And then there’s Roslindale, where she lives now with Pewarski and their two young sons, an increasingly powerful progressive vote base that has helped advance a number of political newcomers — and women of color — over the traditional establishment.
Ultimately, she was popular in nearly every neighborhood, even winning Walsh’s home precinct in Dorchester.
After finishing first in September’s preliminary round, Wu expanded her support significantly. She picked up 10 precincts that had been won by Essaibi George, as well as every single precinct won by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, and former city economic development chief John Barros, who were eliminated from the race. The result was a landslide — and, potentially, a reshaping of Boston’s political map.
And her early dominance — polls long showed Wu leading — allowed her to pivot early to a general election strategy, outpacing the rivals more pressed to clear the first hurdle.
“She was the front-runner. And she was the front-runner at the beginning and at the end,” said Scott Ferson, who worked as a consultant on Essaibi George’s campaign. “They ran a very good campaign. They were very disciplined about it.”
That front-runner status was an advantage earned over a period of years.
It’s become a trope among Boston’s political class that Wu has been running for mayor for years, using her City Council office as a policy think tank and bully pulpit in a way that was new for the role, and using her vote against Walsh’s budget in 2020 to set up a contrast with him that would frame her mayoral candidacy.
Some close to her put an asterisk to that assessment. Yes, they say, she’s been preparing to do this work for a long time. But it would be wrong to see it as a calculated plan to capture City Hall. Rather hers was a genuine effort to serve the communities she values, from steadily higher posts, her confidantes say.
“She’s built these relationships, and it’s people she’s known for years. It doesn’t happen by accident, it’s because it’s genuinely who she is,” said Leverett Wing, a leader in Boston’s Asian community, who first met Wu around 2010 when she reached out to him, looking to do similar work in the community, in addition to the internships she’d had in institutions across the city. “She’s involved with everything, so many things, and it’s because of how she connects with everybody.”
Wu volunteered for Representative Ayanna Pressley’s first City Council run in 2009, and later had coffee with the councilor in Pressley’s City Hall office through a mentorship program for women in politics.
“I was impressed with how intentional she was about just being in community, and about coalition and bridge building,” Pressley recalled in an interview with the Globe. “And that was well before she was a candidate.”
Wu later served as a fellow in the administration of then-Mayor Thomas Menino, an experience she credits with teaching her the mechanics of City Hall. But many of the lessons that powered her success this year were learned on Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign.
Wu, who was Warren’s student at Harvard Law at the time, was preparing for the bar exam, planning a wedding, and serving as legal guardian to her younger sister. But she made herself an integral part of the campaign, identifying a need for greater outreach to communities of color and working to build that base of support herself — wedging her foot into doors that others tried to close, according to people she worked with on the campaign. By force of will, she became the campaign’s constituency director, reaching out to voters of color and affinity groups, putting together some of the very coalitions that would power her own campaign years later.
Many Democratic campaigns lean heavily on voter files, targeting people who are likely to cast ballots because they have in the past. What Wu did on Warren’s campaign — and what she’d do almost a decade later on her own — was reach out directly to specific communities, trying to tap into existing networks and organizations, meeting them where they were and asking about their needs.
Wu’s coalition-building also allowed her to raise campaign dollars — $1.98 million in total — and spend in different ways. She spent more than her opponents in communities of color, in media outlets run by various ethnic communities and communities of color, from The Brazilian Times to the Thang Long Newspaper, a Vietnamese-American publication.
A hefty chunk of her campaign dollars came from out-of-state donors, from a range of progressive groups and from Asian-American and Pacific Islander donors around the country. But she also drew more donations directly from Boston residents, and more small-level donations from more individuals.
Wu’s 2021 campaign prioritized hiring a constituency director to do that same work, ensuring that they weren’t just targeting the largely older, white residents who were likely to vote regardless.
Wilnelia Rivera, a Democratic consultant who worked for Pressley, first met Wu through the Warren campaign, while Rivera was campaigns director for the advocacy group Neighbor to Neighbor.
“She called me persistently for about seven months,” hoping to collaborate, Rivera recalled. “She called so many times that I finally just gave in.”
When they finally did an event together, in Villa Victoria, Rivera was impressed.
“The truth is I admire her body of work,” Rivera said. “It’s how she treated people around her, especially when nobody was looking.”
As part of the 2012 efforts, Wu also called José Massó, the announcer and producer of WBUR’s Con Salsa radio program. She immediately began speaking in Spanish and quickly earned his respect.
“She did a great job connecting with a number of people who are stakeholders, who have respect in the community, who have history in the community, and who are activists in the community,” Massó said. As a law student, Wu had interned with the Latino political advocacy organization Oίste, ultimately getting involved with an effort to build a monument honoring Puerto Rican veterans, work that impressed many in the community.
So when Wu announced her candidacy for City Council in 2013, Massó said, “all of us who knew her were in support.”
Many early allies stuck with Wu into 2021. Often speaking Spanish at campaign events, she prioritized advertising in non-English media, an effort to reach as many people from as many backgrounds as possible. That tapped into the diverse network that fueled her landslide victory.
Wu’s popularity has long been broad, said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group.
“Michelle Wu’s been at this a long time,” he added. “Maybe not explicitly for this reason, maybe not running for mayor for all these years, but these things that she’s done over the years have contributed to her success.”
Wu also leaned on young people, whose on-the-ground organizing and enthusiasm on social media helped generate support. Energized by her focus on the issue of climate change, dozens of teenagers who’d been engaged on the Senate reelection campaign of Edward J. Markey rallied themselves into the group “Youth for Wu,” holding Zoom events, collecting signatures, convening phone banks, and keeping in touch on a Slack channel with more than 100 members.
“You can knock on doors no matter how old you are,” said Zoe Vittori-Koch, one of the Youth for Wu organizers, who at 15 was too young to cast a ballot.
And the campaign made effective use of social media and digital advertising. Wu was an authentic presence online, sometimes manning her Twitter account herself to offer thanks to volunteers or direct gifs at reporters. The TikTok algorithm allowed the campaign to reach people who lived in Boston, not just those who had chosen to keep up with political social media accounts, said Paulina Mangubat, Wu’s digital and creative director. One video got 180,000 views.
Her success was a combination of those newer forms of politicking and the groundwork she has been laying for years, aides said.
Wing, the Asian community leader, recalled seeing Wu at a bus stop outside City Hall a decade ago, during her internship there, and offering her a ride. She told him she had volunteered that day — the first day of school — to handle calls to the school bus hot line, an unenviable task that required dealing with frustrated parents.
“It was kind of rough,” Wing recalled Wu saying, with a giddy laugh. But, he said she told him, “I wanted to hear directly from the people what the problem was, so I could help solve them.”
Wing said that was the moment “that crystallized it for me.”
He remembers thinking: “She could be an incredible candidate, because she really cared.”