Just as Michelle Wu broke the mold for Boston mayors with her election on Tuesday, her campaign manager shattered the model of the Boston political operative.
Born in Japan and raised in Atlanta, Mary Lou Akai-Ferguson is the platinum-and-pink-haired daughter of a Japanese translator and an Irish-American international journalist. Recruited to play soccer for Wellesley College, she graduated with a degree in economics just five years ago.
Wu’s campaign was the first she managed and, in a move uncharacteristic for Boston, the candidate resisted hiring a big-name political consultant to lead the show. Instead, Akai-Ferguson served as “co-conductor of the Wu train,” training volunteers from the progressive activist base Wu built over eight years and empowering them to do the work as they saw fit.
“You’re training people to organize themselves,” Akai-Ferguson said in an interview, pointing to the neighborhood teams that met weekly during the campaign. “We give them the power to make the decisions.”
Akai-Ferguson, like Wu herself, never envisioned a career in politics. She went into education, inspired by her own public schools that were “on the edge of failing,” but where she witnessed the impact of influential teachers on students’ lives.
After Wellesley, she taught high school in a Louisiana parish. She was often the first Asian adult that people had encountered. When she put up a Black Lives Matter poster, the administration covered the window of her classroom door.
“It was huge drama the week before school started,” she said.
“I had students who were legitimately drawing Nazi symbols on their paper,” she said. “I loved teaching so much and I would have stayed there. But it was so hard personally.”
Navigating those relationships taught her “where you need to meet people” with differing ideology. But she realized that slogans can be deeply threatening even if common ground can be found one on one.
“You have to have that person-to-person connection,” she said, acknowledging her own persona, “cause you’re also coming in from the city, and you’re this random punk Asian girl with a nose ring.”
After a fellowship in Washington, D.C., working at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, she took her first campaign job on the Maryland gubernatorial race of Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP. There, she met Anthony Davis Jr., who would later work beside her as Wu’s organizing director.
“I admired her from the jump,” said Davis, 27. After Jealous’s campaign, they both joined Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as regional organizing directors and Akai-Ferguson, though newer and less experienced, showed up fully prepared with all their documents neatly organized in Google folders.
“Very quickly you could see Mary Lou was just head and shoulders more organized than most of us on the team,” said Davis.
Roger Lau, who was then Warren’s campaign manager and is now the deputy executive director of the Democratic National Committee, called her “brilliant.”
“She brings great energy into any room she’s a part of. She’s an outside-the-box thinker,” he said.
Still, Akai-Ferguson recalls it with self-effacement. “The whole Warren campaign took a huge chance on me with the role I was given,” she said. “I was very not prepared to do this.”
After organizing in the Midwest for Warren, she became the Asian American and Pacific Islander outreach director for Warren’s campaign. She began working with Wu, who was a campaign surrogate helping to secure endorsements, and a mutual admiration began.
Wu said she tapped Akai-Ferguson because she “wanted to run a campaign that would reshape what’s possible for Boston in policy and in politics and at the core I always knew that building community had to come first,” Wu said. She was seeking “a love for community and bringing people together and seeing the value and the brilliance of every single person in our community.”
Wu already knew what she had known since she started running for city council in Boston in 2012: She didn’t want to bring on a high-priced political consultant to steer the ship, as most candidates do. Neither did Akai-Ferguson, who squirmed at “the idea of paying someone $5,000 a month for advice.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Wu had already mastered city elections, and had name recognition so high it rivaled that of the former mayor, Martin J. Walsh. “Before this campaign, I’d run four times citywide,” Wu said in an interview. “I know every corner of our neighborhood. I know the issues and voters know me.”
Akai-Ferguson assembled a large and diverse campaign team of 21 people and looked after them in a way that Davis found uncharacteristic of a campaign.
“On a pretty regular basis, she would just ask us, ‘what are you going to do for yourself today?’” said Davis. “That one question transforms your mind.”
And she and Wu set to work on an organizing strategy that was not hierarchical but rippling. The campaign’s distributed organizing model relied on 17 neighborhood hubs, with volunteers entrusted to run their own mini-campaigns. That didn’t happen quickly; it was built over the past year, with volunteers trained last winter via Zoom, and leadership developed over time.
Nikko Mendoza, Warren’s state director, who was also working on Wu’s campaign, called Akai-Ferguson an “organizer at heart.”
The night before the election, Mendoza saw Akai-Ferguson at campaign headquarters, making calls to voters along with the rest of the staff. Akai-Ferguson “never hesitates to do the exact same work every other member of the team is doing,” said Mendoza. “There’s no ego involved.”