As a 34-year-old working mom of two children, Maria Zolotarev sees a lot of herself in Mayor-elect Michelle Wu. In fact, she sees a lot of Wu, period: typically at the Saturday farmers market in Roslindale, each with their kids in tow.
“I feel like I have tons in common with her,” said Zolotarev, who calls herself a bit of a Wu “fangirl.” “We are both working moms, both have two kiddos, both children of immigrant parents.”
And over the years Zolotarev has watched her fellow “Rozzident” juggle parenthood and politics, navigate the Boston Public Schools, and be a voice trying to help families afford — and stay in — the city. Now she’s thrilled to see “someone who gets it” become mayor.
“She knows the struggle and is in the position to effect some kind of change,” Zolotarev said.
Michelle Wu is many things, most of them by now well known: The first woman elected mayor of Boston and the first person of color. A veteran city councilor. An unapologetic progressive. And, at 36, she will be the youngest mayor to helm one of the 25 largest cities in the United States. That’s just four years older than the typical resident of the city she will lead — the median age of Bostonians is 32 — giving many in what is easily the city’s largest generational group hope that their perspective will ring out from City Hall. She will be sworn into office on Tuesday.
Boston has had young mayors before — Kevin White was 38 when he took office in 1968 — but they grew up steeped in the city and its politics. Wu, like many of her modern-day peers, came to Boston for college and then carved out a life here. She’s also one of the 67 percent of city residents who were born outside of Massachusetts, and among the 48 percent who are first- or second-generation immigrants.
Wu built political capital by embracing policies that respond to challenges that define her millennial generation: the Great Recession, student debt, stagnant wages, and the climate crisis. She is very publicly a mom of young kids, embodying the multitasking multigenerational juggling act of her peers and prior generations. And her policy priorities — housing, climate, transportation — reflect those of many Bostonians like her.
“Michelle is two months older than me, I’m 36 myself, and we’re the same graduating year in college,” said Shane Dunn, who lives in Roxbury with his wife and two young children. One of the first times Dunn remembers hearing of Wu, he said, was when she was nursing her son in City Council chambers. It wasn’t a stunt; she had to be there and the child was hungry. And she acted on her experience, pushing for six weeks of paid leave for city employees with new children.
Having a mayor from his peer group, who understands what it’s like to be a working parent to a public school student, feels like a massive shift, Dunn said. Even while Mayor Martin J. Walsh brought in many young staffers to work in his administration, Dunn said he believes Wu’s lived experience will shape her priorities more directly. Yes, that means policy, he said, but also in her appointments and how she runs her administration. He’d love her to inspire more young people to take part in public meetings, for example.
“I really want to see the city do more to recruit and retain young people, especially those with or planning to start families,” he said. “When you have someone in their mid-30s raising their children [in office] you get a different voice in the room.”
Wu’s ascendance in politics also reflects the reality that millennials — the much-studied, sometimes mocked (avocado toast, anyone?) generation roughly from 25 to 40 — aren’t kids anymore, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tufts University’s CIRCLE Center, a nonpartisan research group that studies youth civic engagement. They’re buying homes, having children, and, in a break from generations before them, keeping a more liberal mindset as they age. Typically, she said, voters tended to trend more conservative after turning 30. But in this generation, she said, “they seem to be staying just as progressive as they were in their 20s.”
That’s in part because millennials started “adulting” later. Their careers were stymied by the Great Recession, their finances saddled with student debt and high housing costs. And it also reflects a growing diversity within the American populace, and the ease most millennials feel with that fact. Their policy priorities and expectations have been conditioned by these forces.
“It’s become more normal or normative to have a political voice,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “It’s an advantage for a candidate like Michelle Wu who really did build community and had a very young campaign team that wasn’t made of seasoned 50-year-olds.”
Yet Wu has never branded herself as a “millennial candidate” or defined herself by youth — she is, after all, a mid-career professional teetering on the edge of middle age. And what matters more than her years, said Wilnelia Rivera, a Democratic political consultant and Wu supporter, is the way she brings her lived experience — and that of her millennial cohort — into her politics.
Wu doesn’t have to rely on generalities when she speaks to the need for better public education and child care options. Rather, she tweets about her own frustration at not getting a slot for her son in the Boston Public Schools lottery two years in a row. She talks openly about the challenges of caring for her aging mother, who lives in Wu’s two-family home and struggles with mental illness. Her calls to “Free the T” resonate because she has been riding the Orange Line to work for years.
And that experience, Rivera said, lends credibility to Wu’s big, bold ideas, even as some — generally older — Bostonians brand her vision as out-of-reach or naive.
“Moderates and centrists and other liberals have always described us as too unrealistic in the way we want to approach things. They say, ‘This is not the way it works,’” Rivera said. “But every single time, we show that if we believe that another way is possible, we can get different results.”
And just as, for many, seeing someone of their own gender or race in public office has symbolic importance, seeing a person of their own age group take office can make those constituents feel more engaged in politics, said Kelly Dittmar, who directs the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. It’s a sense, she said, “that the government as an institution might actually listen to me.”
But that can have a flip side, too, Dittmar notes, and it’s one that Wu’s peers should keep in mind as she navigates the entrenched political factions in City Hall.
“There’s often higher expectations from those that we align with and identify with,” she said. So disappointments or broken promises sting a little more.
Still, Wu has built a coalition that intentionally spans generations — her transition team, for example, includes a student at Fenway High School — signaling that more than just millennials will have a voice in her administration, and a stake in her success. And she takes office as the city adopts a more shared approach to governance, thanks to new ballot measures that give city councilors more control of the budget and urge that voters again be allowed to elect School Committee members. One of Wu’s signature proposals — to break up the Boston Planning & Development Agency — could have the effect of diluting her power as mayor to control development, but strikes a chord with younger voters demanding a seat at the table.
Data haven’t been released yet showing exactly how Bostonians voted along generational lines, but Rivera hopes that Wu’s election ends any tired narratives about having unreasonable expectations. They’re a generation, she notes, that’s ready to lead.
“Millennials aren’t young ragtags that are still in college. We’re married and have mortgages and have to take care of our parents and our kids,” she said. “I hope that this is a moment where we can understand what that means and that her election really shifts what’s a priority in this city.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.